From the “bro” mentality of sex, weights, and protein shakes (you know what I’m talking about . . . ) to the rise in popularity of high-protein/low-carb diets, it seems that getting adequate protein is all the rage these days.
Indeed, protein is an important macronutrient for numerous reasons. Namely, dietary protein supplies us with essential amino acids (those which cannot be synthesized by the body) and non-essential amino acids (those which can be synthesized by the body). Amino acids are utilized by the body in numerous ways, from structural (i.e. making up muscles, bones, ligaments, hair, fingernails, etc), to regulating cell function and maintaining fluid balance, to providing energy, and so much more!
Traditionally, we may think of protein as key in sport performance and building muscle, but consuming adequate dietary protein is also incredibly beneficial for weight loss. Protein is filling, and because it requires more work and energy to digest, keeps the body satiated for longer.
There’s really no debate about the power of protein!
The notion that we must incorporate high levels of animal products into our diets to ensure we consume enough protein, however, is one that is completely misconstrued.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not a vegetarian or vegan, and I do believe that humans benefit from consuming animal protein (not only because of the protein but also because of the variety of other nutrients offered). Animal protein (i.e. dairy, eggs, meat, fish) is complete protein (meaning it includes all 9 of the essential amino acids), as well as high quality protein (meaning it has good digestibility and is plentiful in amino acids, including excess so that the body can then manufacture non-essential amino acids).
On the contrary, most plant-based proteins (with the exception of quinoa and soy), are incomplete (meaning they do not contain all 9 essential amino acids). However, by consuming a variety of plant-based proteins (either paired up in the same meal or separately throughout the day) it is possible to consume all 9 essential amino acids crucial for proper body function.
The case for plant based protein
One problem with focusing heavily on animal protein, in my opinion, is that plant products are oftentimes displaced. According to an article published in the ACSM’s journal Current Sports Medicine Reports in 2010, “processed foods and animal products account for 90% of calories consumed in the typical American diet.” Ninety percent!! That means a measly 10% of calories consumed come from whole, unprocessed plant foods.
Yet, a plant based diet has been shown to have incredible health benefits. Plants are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, and vegetarians have a lower incidence of many chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, kidney stones, and certain cancers, in comparison to omnivores. As stated by Dr. Fuhrman in the 2010 ACSM article, “the primary dietary factor that likely confers these benefits is the increased consumption of whole plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans)” as opposed to the decreased consumption of animal products.
Furthermore, the majority of animal products available for consumption in the U.S. come from animals raised in factory farms, otherwise known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and their smaller counterparts animal feeding operations (AFOs). These animals are crammed together in confined spaces, often going their whole lives without access to outdoors, fresh air, and sunlight. They are fed unnatural diets of grains (often GMO and sometimes including manure and recycled animal parts) and loaded with antibiotics to prevent disease, with the sole purpose of fattening them up and sending them to slaughter as quickly as possible. Because factory farmed animals are not raised in a natural way (i.e. access to diets normally required by the species an ability to move and exhibit normal species behavior), the meat and other products (milk, cheese, butter, eggs, etc) of these animals is not nearly as nutritious as nature intended.
In addition to issues with animal cruelty and the sub-optimal nutrition of animal products coming from CAFOs, factory farming is hugely detrimental to the environment. According to a study published by the World Watch Institute, “global livestock production [is] responsible for 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.” And with many CAFOs putting out as much sewage as small cities (yet without highly regulated treatment plants or other safe means of disposal) animal waste seeps into ground water and runs off into lakes and rivers, contaminating our water sources. (To learn more about CAFOs, click here.)
Low quality CAFO meat is not good for us, the planet, or the animals. Instead, we need to concentrate our intake of animal protein on high quality, organic/grass-fed/pasture-raised/humanely raised/local sources. And trust me, this gets expensive. It is not uncommon for me to pay between $8-10/lb for organic locally raised chicken breast, yet an ad for my local grocer advertised “fresh boneless skinless USDA grade A” (aka factory farmed) chicken breast for $1.99/lb today. The price difference (i.e. the artificially deflated price of factory farmed animal products) can be attributed to mass production, cutting corners in animal welfare, and government subsidies.
It is unrealistic for most of us to continue eating the amounts of animal protein in the typical Western diet while also ensuring our own health and the health of the planet. Instead of compromising the quality of animal products and proteins we consume, we ought to consume less animal protein and get the remainder of our protein from plants.
While there a countless options for plant protein, I have included some of my favorites in the poster below 🙂
The bottom line is, we need to start reprogramming our protein habits. Instead of reaching for a stick of turkey jerky for a high-protein snack, why not reach for nuts and seeds? Instead of relying on meat as a protein source for every meal of every day, why not get creative with meatless monday? Rather than building our meals around animal proteins, why not start with a base of plant protein and use meat or cheese as a flavor enhancer? The options are endless! Our wallets, our health, our animal friends, and our planet are all ready for us to embrace the power of plant protein!
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