Is it better to be a vegetarian for optimal health? Are high protein diets being heavily promoted these days the best for you long-term? Is it best to consume a variety of proteins for your health and not rely on one source of protein – animal or vegetable?
These have become hot, ongoing topics of nutritional debate these days, which type of protein is best for our health – animal or plant-based? Researchers have compared both of these forms of protein to determine which is better for digestibility and nutritional value. As one would expect, not all protein is equal.
It turns out; there are advantages and disadvantages to both forms of proteins. We’ll take a look at these factors.
While there may be advantages to animal protein over vegetable protein in some respects and vice versa, there is one shared factor that applies to both which you should pay careful attention to – quality.
Quality is an essential factor to take into account when consuming either form of protein.
With animal food, the majority of available protein is derived from animals raised in CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) lots. It is much lower in quality than proteins sourced from free-range livestock or cage-free poultry.
Animals commercially raised for profit are supplied with inferior quality feed designed to produce weight for profit without regard to quality. Consequently, they are higher in saturated fat, which we know leads to degenerative diseases like heart disease and cancer.
Additionally, the poor diets and constrained spaces these animals get raised in produces less robust and healthy animals. No worries. Include antibiotics in their feed, so they resist infection and push them out to market anyway.
Nevermind that some are still sick when slaughtered. The commercial profit comes from the animal’s weight, not it’s quality.
The final result is a low quality of protein laced with antibiotics and excessive saturated fat. Additionally, the confined animals are frequently anemic from never getting the activity they needed to generate healthy, iron-rich proteins.
The following footage provides a look inside CAFO operations but please do not view it if you are sensitive to animal cruelty and harm. Just know that CAFO bred animals are very low in quality.
Are you going vegetarian or looking to substitute vegetable proteins for animal proteins? There are a number of reasons people do so:
Regardless of your reasons, you had better pay attention to your vegetable selection quality.
Commercially grown produce is grown on soils enriched with chemical fertilization or NPK fertilizers. Over time this practice reduces the number of minerals and other nutrients in the vegetables harvested.
It also kills soil microbes and worms, which help convert inorganic minerals into organic minerals to make them available for root absorption.
Fewer soil microbes and worms lower the available minerals and other phytonutrients that are available in natural, organic crops grown in the healthier, microbe and worm-rich soil.
Additionally, this nutrient and microbe poor soil produces weak plants that become a prime target for predator insects. This predator insect problem is compounded because commercially raised vegetables are grown in large fields with all the same plants in them. Isolating crops like this tend to attract specific predator insects that enjoy feeding on that particular plant type.
The answer to how commercial growers resolve these self-generated problems is pesticides. They spray Monsanto’s glyphosate-containing cancer-causing Roundup and other pesticides, placing you at risk for cancer and other potential degenerative conditions as the consumer.
This triple whammy:
produces poor quality, nutrient-deficient vegetables for the consumer that, in turn, leads to nutritional deficiencies and disease which we witness in abundance in our population today.
Choose the best quality protein based on availability and budget. Select organic produce over commercially grown. If you can confirm its origin and quality with the grower, that would be best, but not usually possible. Growing your own can be a viable alternative you should consider as well.
Select animal proteins from free-range and cage-free sources, certified organic is best. There are other designations to consider, covered in another post, which can ensure a high-quality selection.
Whether it be animal or vegetable proteins quality is an important criterion to add to your selection process. Each source of protein, as noted above, have health risks that are not worth the savings from cheaper, commercial selections.
It may mean sacrifices in some other areas of your budget to afford better quality proteins. However, if you are sick or develop a debilitating, degenerative disease, those savings will have purchased something money could never buy – your health.
With the rule of quality in mind, let’s take a look at a comparison of animal versus vegetable protein.
One way to gauge the value of a protein source is to:
A preferred method to measure this value is called the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS). The PDCAAS takes into account not only the types of amino acids in the protein but also how well they get digested and absorbed by the digestive tract.
A more recent (2013) measurement is the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS). Some researchers consider this score more accurate since it only measures the number of amino acids digested in the small intestine. However, it has fewer research results; hence we will use the PDCAAS as a barometer.
There are nine amino acids which human beings are not able to effectively synthesize. These essential amino acids are labeled necessary because they come from the food we eat.
The PDCAAS measures the percentage of essential amino acids absorbed after the digestion of a protein. A PDCAAS value of 1 is the highest, and O is the lowest.
Except for soy-based protein foods, animal proteins have the highest PDCAAS scores. The higher rating means that if you consume equal amounts of beef and lentils, more of the essential amino acids are absorbed by the body from the meat than the legume.
A chart of PDCAAS scores of common foods, highest to lowest in order, shows the differences:
One would think that it would be better to eat animal proteins rather than vegetable proteins. Still, there is a downside to an exclusively animal-based protein diet – saturated fats.
Studies have shown that an excess of saturated fats places you at risk for heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases. However, they also contribute to the development of dementia and other cognitive disorders.
According to brain and diet researcher Lisa Mosconi, PhD., associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College/NY Presbyterian Hospital, writes:
A study of over eight hundred elderly participants showed that those who consistently ate the most saturated fat had up to four times the risk of developing cognitive deterioration as they age as compared to those who ate the lowest amount.
Specifically, people who consumed more than 25 grams of saturated fat per day were much more likely to develop dementia in the years to come than those who ate half that amount (13 grams per day).
Brain Food, author Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D
It is not hard to get those 25 grams of saturated fat either. Six slices of bacon will do the trick.
However, another study of 6,000 elderly showed that 13 grams of fat (or more) daily were almost twice as likely to develop cognitive impairment than those who consumed 7 grams or less a day. Now, you are down to one and a half slices of bacon daily.
So, watching both the quality and quantity of animal fats will reward you with better overall health over your lifetime.
One caution – children with developing brains need more saturated fats. A developing brain (which means anywhere between birth to adolescence) needs more saturated fat than an adult brain. In Italy, pediatricians recommend that children eat at least two servings of high-quality meat a week, along with fish.
One understanding to keep in mind when it comes to animal protein is that all animal proteins reflect converted vegetable proteins. For an animal to build their muscle, they need to eat vegetable sources of protein first.
However, just as with the human body, the nutrients that do not end up in the muscle as protein, are used for other critical biological needs. We need minerals to catalyze digestive processes and run the brain and nervous system. Efficient digestion cannot run without specific minerals.
Vitamins are also essential to fuel biological processes as well.
Specific vitamins like Vitamin C can also help to promote the response of our immune system to invasive bacteria and viruses. Other vitamins, such as D, are crucial for bone development and more. All vitamins contribute in some way to our growth, repair, and everyday living. Without them, our health will suffer, and diseases will follow.
Additionally, plant fiber is critical to the functioning of our digestive tracts. Animal protein offers no fiber content to help provide our intestinal tract with the bulk necessary for regular bowel movements. That is where the value of plant fiber comes in.
We need that bulk, along with appropriate water intake, to keep our intestinal tracts moving.
Thus, the advantages of vegetable proteins are:
In short, both forms of protein are better as long as you balance your intake of both and select the highest quality you can.
Animal protein offers easy availability but hardly any bulk in the form of fiber and lacks essential phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Vegetable protein is more difficult to extract but provides the essential phytonutrients and fiber which animal protein lacks.
Keep in mind that the good balance of vegetable protein will provide you with the essential amino acids which do not have to be consumed at every meal or combined (e.g., in rice and beans) as the often-repeated Frances Moore Lappe, Diet For a Small Planet myth claimed. It is just that animal protein contains the essential amino acids within themselves in one source.
See the short video below for the facts that bust the incomplete protein myth:
The most critical considerations, as noted above, are to make sure you are:
If you eat an abundance of animal protein on a high protein diet but neglect your vegetables, expect digestive and other health problems to surface later on down the road.
If you are a vegetarian, make sure you are getting a good selection of mineral content sources and a balance of amino acid foods. Quality is critical, but so is variety.
Vegetarians should consider high-quality supplementation as well with the emphasis on whole food sourced supplements such as blue-green algae, wild mushroom supplementation, and herbal sources like turmeric derived from the entire plant, rather than extracted.
Selecting whole plant sources is more easily absorbed because they include naturally available, complementary phytonutrients, which extracts remove. Reject synthetic vitamins and minerals because of their poor quality and dangerous fillers, which typically bring heavy metals along with them.
The key is to emphasize both quality and variety when selecting protein sources to generate the optimal health you deserve.
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