I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole, “Less Meat, Better Meat” position lately. I get where it comes from, but I worry that it might be creating the wrong message. To me, I feel that this implies that we’re eating too much meat, and that meat is “bad.” As a nutritionist living on an organic farm, raising pasture-based animals, I worry that people under-eat protein, overly-vilify meat, and eat way too much sugar, vegetable oils and grains.
We’re Not Eating Enough Protein
I decided to look into this issue deeper, and what started as a short post has grown into several sections. In my first post, I explored how much meat we’re supposed to be eating. I discovered that the RDA for protein is the minimum amount to prevent disease. The alternative, “Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range” (AMDR) has a very wide recommendation range of 10% – 35% of calories from protein. In fact, it says here that the low end of the AMDR is set at the RDA. Many sources are telling us that we only need about 45g – 55g of protein for men and women, which is much lower than the AMDR, and is based on 0.8g/kg of “reference” people who do not represent average Americans. I also found that overconsumption of protein poses no danger, and can actually lead to reduced overall caloric intake (see this post for more information.)
Then, I looked into how much protein and meat we’re actually eating. Not that much. On average, we’re only taking in about 15%-16% of our calories from protein, which is also at the low end of the ADMR. As far as meat intake goes, it looks like we’re only eating between 5 and 6 ounces of meat a day, not the nearly one pound a day that many cite. This is hardly what I would consider “too much.”
Now let’s look at which sources of protein are optimal, from a nutrition perspective…
The Protein Digestibility Score
When looking for the most optimal forms of protein, the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) has been adopted as the preferred method for measuring how proteins best meet human nutrition needs. Table 1 shows beef, eggs, milk and soy proteins as the highest in nutritional value. However the PDCAAS score does not account for “antinutritional factors” like trypsin inhibitors, lectins and tannins which can reduce protein hydrolysis and amino acid absorption from plant-based proteins like soy. Digestibility of plant proteins are also affected by age and the state of the gut. It is widely agreed then, that meat is the most bioavailable source of protein (eggs, milk, meat, fish and poultry.) Meat-based proteins also have no limiting amino acids, where soy is missing methionine and is not considered a “complete” protein.
Context Matters: Twisted and Wrong Data
Not only is meat the most bioavailable source of protein and B12 and iron, but by serving size, calorie for calorie, and by volume, it’s also incredibly efficient at delivering nutrition in an easily digestible form. Since most of us are not looking to increase our overall caloric intake, getting more protein from meat vs. plant based proteins might be smart. For example, you would need to eat nearly 3 1/2 cups of broccoli in order to get the same amount of protein in just 2 ounces of beef.
Comparing Plant-Based Protein to Animal Protein
If you google “plant based protein images,” there are lots of charts showing how easy it is to get your protein from things like beans, broccoli and tofu. Below is an example…
First of all, I’d like to point out that the 46g and 56g of protein needed for women and men is incorrect. In this post, I illustrate that these values are based on a “reference” woman of 125 pounds and a man of 154 pounds getting 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight. The “reference” people DO NOT represent the average weights (which are about 166lbs and 195lbs, respectively) and the 0.8g/kg is based on the minimum amount of protein required to avoid disease – not the amount required for optimal health.
In my practice, I recommend eliminating sugars and processed foods, and will usually start women on at least 100g of protein per day and see how it goes from there. More for men. That being said, let’s look at the above plant-based protein sources and see what the protein is per serving with plant-based vs. animal-based proteins:
In the above chart, I took all of the foods listed in the vegan “ideal” protein chart, and compared them to animal-based proteins. If you look at the typical suggested servings of these foods, you can see that the chicken, beef, pork, and fish are significantly more protein-dense per serving than any of these relatively high protein sources for those on a plant-based diet.
Now, let’s look at how much you’d have to eat of these plant-based sources in order to get the same amount of protein from meat. I calculated out how many calories you’d need of each of these items in order to get 30g of protein.
As you can see, meat and seafood are much more efficient ways to get your protein compared to plant-based sources. And, since most of us are not looking to increase our caloric consumption, yet should be getting more protein, then nutritionally speaking, animal sources (specifically from flesh) are the most desirable sources.
In order to get the same protein in a piece of fish or chicken, you would need to consume 706 calories of peanut butter! You’d need 3.5 cups of spaghetti (nearly 800 calories) to get 30 grams of protein, and you’d have to eat 10 potatoes (1635 calories). Yikes!
Of all of the plant based choices represented on the chart, I’d consider lentils to be the most desirable – as they’re the least processed, non-soy option. You’d have to eat 1.5 cups of lentils, which is 337 calories, in order to get the same amount of protein that you can get from 3.5oz of fish, at about 1/3 the calories. Add this up over the day and you’ll see that getting all of your protein from non-meat sources is incredibly expensive, calorically speaking. If you’re happy with your health, weight and metabolism on a plant-based diet, then fantastic. If you’re not, then please consider pulling in some animal protein to help cut down on calories and help you feel satiated.
What Vegetables Are Missing
It can’t be overlooked that animal protein has several additional benefits other than just being an efficient source of protein. Red meat is the best source of heme iron, which is the number one nutrient deficiency in the world. Compared to white meat, it is also richer in B12 and zinc. That said, chicken is more nutrient-dense than plant-based protein.
But Meat is Bad for the Environment!
Because I already dove into the full effects of red meat (carbon, methane and water) in this post, plus calculated the amount of feed needed to produce beef here, I’ll just sum it up by saying that red meat is a much better protein choice than plant-based proteins. This is because it actually doesn’t take the amount of water or feed that people mistakenly report (because of poor methodology), and it doesn’t cause the environmental destruction that many people assume. 100% pasture-raised animals like grass-fed beef, lamb and goat are optimal, as the pastureland they graze doesn’t compete with humans for vegetable production. Less desirable are animals that consume grain as their only input, like Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) pigs and chickens. You also might be surprised to learn that “typical” cattle are not eating grain their entire lives. When I calculated the amount of grain a typical cow eats per pound of flesh, the number was much closer to the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR) of chicken. Think about how many more people one cow can feed vs. one chicken!
Eat Less Grains and Less Animals that Eat Grains
Mono-cropped grains used to feed CAFO animals and used to produce soy-based meat substitutes, bread, bagels and spaghetti destroy biodiversity by eliminating habitat in order to clear fields for production. The spraying of chemicals for fertilizer and herbicides has a tremendous carbon footprint, not to mention all of the energy and water required to process these items from their whole forms into the foods most commonly eaten. I’m pretty certain that if a full life cycle assessment (the complete inputs of water, energy, etc.) of a product like a veggie burger was compared to the same amount of protein that can be produced by a grass-fed cow, it would certainly reveal that the grass-fed cow is the better choice from an energy and environmental standpoint.
But it’s Not Right to Eat Animals…
Morally speaking, I know it seems “cleaner” to eat a plant-based diet, but as I describe in this post, it’s actually impossible to be a vegan, because there is no such thing as a bloodless diet. All life requires death. I also dive into this topic more in this post, where I explain the principle of least harm, and illustrate that many animals actually die in order to produce a product like tofu.
In addition to the animals that are dying during the tilling and harvesting of your crops, there are also many animals harmed in the production of many vegetarian products. Palm oil is a great example. I’m not sure that palm oil should really be considered “ok” on a vegan diet when you consider the impact this industry has on orangutans. What about the humans that are harvesting your vegetables? I see very little attention given by those in the plant-based world to human social justice issues. What about the 400,000 children that are migrant farm workers?
Biologically speaking, humans are omnivores, and our digestive systems are made to eat a mixture of foods from plant and animal sources. Since blood is spilled even for a plant based diet, doesn’t it make sense to eat the animals? Additionally, thinking that a “natural death” is somehow equal to “painless death” is absolutely naive. Have you ever seen what a coyote or hyena can do? All things don’t die peacefully in their sleep. Humans actually have the unique ability to consider being “humane” when ending a life. This is something hyenas do not do.
This past summer, I asked Joel Salatin what he says to the many plant-based folks that give him a hard time. His reply, “All life comes from death. If you don’t believe, go lay down naked in a flower patch for three days.”
Is Chicken a “Cleaner” Meat?
Our production of chicken has risen nearly 400% over the last 50 years, while beef production has remained the same. Are we really saving the world by eating more chicken? Are we much healthier? Is chicken a “cleaner” meat than red meat? CAFO chicken and pork are not only produced entirely on grain, but spend their whole lives indoors, under fluorescent lights, and are barely able to move around. Even feed-lot beef has it better, because contrary to what people assume, these cattle spend the majority of their lives on grass. Even when they are transported to a feed lot, they can move freely and are not indoors. Compared to CAFO chicken and pork, feed-lot beef is a much better choice from an animal welfare standpoint.
What do you think is a “cleaner” meat?
A Chicken In Every Pot
Chicken production is up 400% over the last 50 years, while beef production is up 0%. The way we raise CAFO chickens is disgusting. They are so overly domesticated – bred for large breasts, that by about 5 weeks, they are hardly able to walk and will die of organ failure if you don’t process them first. Antibiotic use is rampant in the chicken industry, because of their toxic living conditions. “Cage free” CAFO chickens are not really a better solution. Chickens are highly stressed in CAFO situations and will cannibalize each other, which is why their beaks are trimmed and they are separated from one another. The use of cheap grain, cheap oil, and widespread antibiotic has allowed chicken to be the least expensive meat in the U.S. at $1.50 per pound (the average price of chicken as of Sept 2016).
The term, “A chicken In every pot” was first stated by Henry IV of France: “I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” This is because chicken was such a luxury. During the 1928 Hoover campaign for presidency, the term was brought back, “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” as a promise of prosperity to voters.
Chicken vs. Beef
Today, chicken also represents a “clean” meat. Cookbooks espousing “clean” eating, often will avoid red meat but include fish and chicken. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is free of “bad” fat, sold in “manageable” portions, and doesn’t have “blood” – the red liquid in beef packages that is not really blood but rather myoglobin released by muscle tissue after processing. We like chicken because it’s white meat, and when it’s off the bone, it doesn’t remind us of its animal origins. It’s sort of like the animal equivalent of tofu. Also, think of how many chickens are needed to provide meat for a person, compared to the number of cows. One cow produces an average of 490 pounds of edible beef, and the grain it takes to produce a pound of edible beef is actually equal to chicken. If you were to purchase one cow (490lbs) for your freezer and eat it over the course of a year, that would give you 1.3 pounds of meat per day. When you’re looking to cause “least harm,” one cow is a much more efficient life to lose than the number of chickens it would take to equal 490lbs.
I think we also don’t like the idea of eating cows because they more closely remind us of our pets than chickens do, with their big eyes and cute faces. Chickens (and fish, which are also considered “clean” animal protein) are just not as cute as cows, goats and sheep.
Context Matters: A Guide to Optimal Protein Sources
Truly pasture-raised chicken is quite difficult to source compared to the growing market for grass-fed beef, and if you are interested in causing the “least harm,” one cow provides much more meat than one chicken. Plus, grass-fed red meat is much better for the environment than chicken. This is why I advocate eating much less chicken and much more grass-fed red meat. However, if you’re close to a producer of pasture-raised chickens, then by all means, buy some. The same goes for fish: if you live near a source of fantastic fish, then that should make up a much larger part of your diet than someone who lives in Kansas.
I thought it might be helpful to come up with a general rating system for those who are looking for healthy meat that also are concerned about their environmental “footprint.” This is not a firm science – for example, some grass-fed beef is produced by ranchers who practice Holistic Management (the gold standard), while other grass-fed cattle are on the same, overgrazed patch of grass every day of their lives. The nutritional quality of the protein should also be considered. So, when looking at the below chart, please keep in mind things like production methods, geographic location, dietary preferences and availability.
I should also note that this chart is taking into account the cultural preferences of America. I have some friends in the Andes who love cuy, which is incredibly sustainable (requiring little space and food) and is considered a delicacy there, but I don’t see that catching on here.
You might notice that I put “typical” beef above “organic” poultry. This is because the term “organic” doesn’t really mean much these days, and I feel that even “typical” beef that has been finished on grain is superior to chicken because at least these cows spend their lives outdoors, have eaten mostly grass, and are not confined inside, under florescent lights (I explain more here). The current organic standards for poultry only require that the birds have “access to” the outdoors. This could mean a couple of small doors that the birds may not even see. I also placed legumes above tofu because they fix nitrogen (improving the soil), and are more easily digested than soy. For those on a vegetarian diet, I recommend concentrating on legumes for protein instead of soy or highly-processed fake meat products.
Meat is Expensive
I’m cutting you off at the pass, because I know what you’re going to say next. Yes, good meat is expensive. But it’s actually not as expensive as you might think. If you compare nutrient-dense meat like organic, grass-fed beef to a common junk food item like a snickers bar, you might be surprised to learn that the organic, grass-fed beef is $0.17 cheaper by weight than a snickers bar. (Check out more charts here on why you do actually have the money and time to eat well – including how we’re spending less on groceries yet have a higher standard of living than ever before – AND we’re buying less meat and more processed food!)
What Does 10% – 35% of Protein Look Like?
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the ADMR for protein is 10% to 35% of calories. I have experimented a lot with my diet, and have found that a higher protein, lower carb diet seems to work best for my body. Here is a typical day:
In order to get about 25% of my calories from protein (105 grams), I needed 3 eggs, 6oz salmon, 2oz cheese and a 4oz steak. That’s a lot more animal protein than what is currently recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines, and much more than most Americans are eating. To get that much protein from plant-based sources, the total caloric intake would go way up. If you eat more calories than I do, then I recommend that you also increase your protein.
I also wanted to point out that I do advocate eating vegetables. In fact, I eat a lot more vegetables now than ever before. Just because someone cuts out most grains, sugars and increase protein does not mean that we are ignoring fresh vegetables. When folks come to me and say they don’t eat meat because they don’t believe in factory farming, I see it as the same as someone saying they don’t eat vegetables because they don’t believe in GMOs. There are alternatives, folks!
So in closing, I dislike the phrase “Less Meat, Better Meat,” because I feel that it implies that meat is “bad,” or that we’re eating too much of it. I think the idea, “meat is a condiment,” shames meat, and ignores the fact that meat is the most satiating macronutrient, is incredibly nutrient-dense, and when properly raised, can actually benefit the environment. The only way we are going to have better meat is to create a demand for it.
If we look at the science, humans need more protein – and as I’ve argued here in this post, meat is a superior protein to plant-based, both from a nutritional and environmental perspective. At the same time, we need to dramatically reduce our intake of sugars, vegetable oils, and grains. By sticking to “natural” foods, which our bodies have been designed to thrive on, like pasture-based meats, sustainable seafood, healthy fats, organic vegetables and fruit, I believe we can all live a much healthier life, and save the planet as well. I think there needs to be a new dialogue, “Less Food, Better Food,” (less grain, less vegetable oils and less sugar) and“More Protein, Better Protein.”
Looking to source better meat?
Honest Bison offers grass-fed bison meat – and my link gets you a free pound of ground bison with your order, use code sustainabledish
Connect with a local pasture-based meat farmer by going to eatwild.com
I’m have a bias of course, but check out Clark Organic Farm if you’re in the Boston area for amazing pasture-raised pork (40lb boxed shares available now).
For more on the topic, check out:
Need help incorporating more meat into your diet? Learn how to work with me.
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
Defending Beef by Nicolette Niman
Cows Save the Planet by Judith Schwartz
The Soil will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson
Carbon Soil Restoration: Can Biology Do the Job? by Jack Kittredge (a white paper from NOFA)