This article has been reviewed by Jeannie Versagli, RD, LDN. Jeannie is a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a national professional organization, and is licensed in nutrition with the State of Delaware.
by Sasha Reddy
“Where’s the beef?” isn’t just a beloved fast-food slogan. It’s become a dominating principle for how we eat and think about food in the US. Nutrition and health writer Sophie Egan says that the average American consumes 100 grams of protein a day – about double the recommended amount of 56 grams for men, 48 for women. Most of this overconsumption comes from beef, pork, chicken, and other animal products. “People think you need to have large portions of [meat],” says Jeannie Versagli, one of HAC’s Registered Dietitians. The truth is, when it comes to protein, you probably don’t need as much as you’re eating, and you can get it from more places than you’d guess. Let’s discuss!
Firstly, why do you need protein? Protein is made up of amino acids: tiny molecules that fill various roles within our bodies, most notably building and repairing muscle and tissue. Of the 20 or so types of amino acids out there, there are nine that people need to consume in their diets to maintain proper bodily function. Sources of protein that contain all nine “essential amino acids” are called complete proteins.
“Too much protein of any kind, Jeannie notes, can cause dehydration in the short term and weight gain and kidney damage over time.”
But, as Jeannie describes, “not all proteins are created equal.” All types of animal meat, animal milk, and eggs qualify as complete proteins as defined above. In contrast, no plant-based protein sources contain all nine essential amino acids, though quinoa, buckwheat, soy, and a few others possess almost all of them. This critical difference between plant- and animal-based foods may be why the word “protein” has become a common substitute for the word “meat.” And this jargon is highly misleading.
Recall that current US Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming about half the amount of protein Americans actually eat each day. Too much protein of any kind, Jeannie notes, can cause dehydration in the short term and weight gain and kidney damage over time. Furthermore, overeating meat has its own list of repercussions. You probably already know of the heightened risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke associated with overconsumption of red meat – this should be reason enough to want to replace some of your fattier meats with plants. But the list of cons goes much further.
Downsides of meat overconsumption
- Increased risk of osteoporosis – Meat is slightly acidic and can cause a leaching of calcium from the bones.
- Excess fat consumption – red meat, in particular, tends to contain more saturated fat than plant-based foods per serving. Eating too much can cause inflammation, high cholesterol, and other concerns.
- Constipation – Meat requires a lot of water to be broken down and offers no fiber in return, making bathroom trips less than pleasant.
- Large carbon footprint – The Economist reports that beef emits 31 times more CO₂ per calorie than tofu.
Not sure how much meat is too much? Use your hands! Jeannie says that a 3 oz portion is around or slightly bigger than your palm.
Conversely, there are countless benefits to eating more plants. For starters, plant-based diets contain loads of fiber – something that 95 percent of Americans aren’t getting enough of. Furthermore, individuals who consume many plant-based foods can more easily maintain a healthy weight and manage their cholesterol levels. That’s just scratching the surface.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to drop meat from your diet altogether. “[Some] people think that a vegan diet is, by all means, the best diet out there,” Jeannie says. But “best” is remarkably relative. Vegetarians have their share of challenges, too, namely iron, vitamin B, and omega-3 deficiencies. The takeaway is this: if you’re eating more than a serving of meat a day, or more than 1-2 servings of red meat per week, you’d probably benefit from swapping out some of those animal sources with plant-based proteins.
In an effort to reduce the risk of an iron deficiency, look to consume foods high in vitamin C with your vegetarian protein dishes. These increase the bioavailability of non-heme iron (just a fancy way of saying iron that’s not from an animal source).
So, what’s the best way to get all the nutrients you need while primarily eating plant-based proteins? “The secret to getting your essential amino acids is combination food,” Jeannie adds. In other words, when you eat different types of plant-based foods together, it becomes much easier to fill in the protein gaps. Whole grains and nuts pair well; so do whole grains and beans, as well as beans and nuts. Eating these in tandem will help ensure that you consume all of the amino acids your body needs
Moreover, squeezing a wide variety of plants into your diet is easier than you might think. For example, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and almonds are all excellent protein sources that can easily be added to salads, smoothies, and bowls of cereal without distracting from your meal. A tablespoon here and there goes a long way.
Protein comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, so consuming the right amounts from suitable sources will always be a balancing act. From meat to greens and far, far beyond, everything we consume has its pros and cons; the best we can do is strive to be more conscientious consumers and seek out new research as it becomes available.