Let’s get one thing out of the way first. In nature, our main source of complete proteins were meat and fish. But before we dig into the nutritional aspects of eating meat, we want to acknowledge that consuming meat has moral implications. We believe humans have always eaten meat, as do many other animals, and eating meat has little to do with morality.
However, humans aren’t just hunting animals anymore, we are raising them. And raising animals has a lot to do with morality. And anyone who knows even a little about modern farming knows that animal wellbeing and sustainability are not at the top of the industry’s priority list. Even so, we feel that these issues should be strictly separated to come to any kind of useful advice. In this Deep Dive, we will concentrate on the nutritional aspects of animal protein. See our Deep Dive on sustainable agriculture for our thoughts on that subject.
The importance of protein
Protein is everywhere. Muscles, bone, skin, hair, virtually every part of your body is built from proteins. There are more than 10,000 different proteins in your body. But not all proteins are the same. Proteins are made up of amino acids, small building blocks that string together to make huge molecular structures. If we get the right mix of amino acids, we can manufacture the proteins we need ourselves. However, we can’t make all the necessary amino acids ourselves, so we need to get some of those from our diet. Those are called essential amino acids.
Plants as a source of protein
There’s been a lot of press about getting your protein from plant sources as a way to live healthier. Although there is nothing against getting your proteins from plant sources, these reports tend to overblow the risks of eating animal proteins. The studies on which these reports are based compare people eating plant proteins (usually vegetarians) to a control group of people on a Standard Western Diet. Because vegetarians are generally more health conscious than the average person, there are likely other, far bigger factors contributing to the observed health benefits (such as eating less refined foods, exercising more, smoking and drinking less, etc).
The fact is that it is more efficient to get high quality proteins from animals. A 4oz. sirloin steak contains about 1oz. of protein and 211 kcal. By comparison, 4oz. of kidney beans only contain 0,3oz. of protein and 127 kcal. To get the same amount of protein from the beans you would need to eat about twice as many calories. On top of this, most plant proteins are deficient of one or more essential amino acids. The easiest way to get all essential amino acids is by eating animal products. And meat provides a whole range of additional vitamins and minerals including iron and vitamin B12 (which can only be gotten from animal products).
We’re not saying you should give up on vegetables or eat mountains of meat. The point is that a balanced diet contains both plenty of vegetables as well as the occasional portion of meat or fish. If you’re a vegetarian, you can get essential amino acids from eggs and cheese (conveniently, these will also provide you with vitamin B12). Make sure you also eat plenty of mushrooms and a daily portion of nuts, as these provide many essential amino acids too.
The red meat scare
You may have heard of a recent WHO study suggesting red meat increases cancer risk, especially processed red meats. This “especially” suggests there is something else going on that somehow correlates to red meat consumption. Remember, a correlation says nothing about cause and effect. Perhaps the processing of the meats is done with harmful chemicals or those processed hot dogs and hamburgers are always accompanied by white bread rolls and french fries and no vegetables.
That said, it is certainly true that most store bought red meat is not raised on a natural diet but on processed feed slurries made mainly from corn and soy. This has made the meat less nutritious. Even so, you should not be scared of eating unprocessed red meat. Buy grass fed organic meat if you want to maximize both the nutritional value and the taste of your meat. It is healthier, and it will also please the animals. And alternate with fish, poultry and legumes to vary your protein intake.
It’s also perfectly healthy to leave animal protein off the menu for a couple of days a week. After all, when we had to hunt for meat, not every hunt would be successful either. Whenever you do eat red meat, make sure it’s not processed or cured with chemicals, don’t char it, and accompany it with healthy vegetables.