Humans, North Americans in particular, have an unhealthy addiction to protein. Animal protein, to be more specific. The paleo and ketogenic diets, which focus heavily on animal protein, have exploded in the last few years and have cult-like followings. At the same time, the popularity of plant-based eating and veganism has also skyrocketed. A long list of celebrities and professional athletes have transitioned to a vegan, plant based diet, and the Golden Globes just served its first ever fully plant-based meal. Health Canada also seems to be onto something as the newest version of the Canadian Food guide (2019) no longer mentions dairy, and you need a magnifying glass to see the meat.
For the most part these two types of diet, paleo/keto and plant based/vegan, are completely opposite. So which diet does the bulk of the evidence support?
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Learn more here.
I am a huge health book nerd. At any given time I have 2-3 different health related books on the go, and there is pile in cue on my bookshelf and on hold at the library. It is one of these books, Don’t Eat This Book by Morgan Spurlock (creator of the documentary Super Size Me), that prompted me to stop eating meat in 2009. The book provided an inside view of the conditions where animals are raised and the implications of this on our health. At the time, I was a poor graduate student and decided to become a vegetarian and only consider eating meat again once I could afford organic, free range and grass fed meat. However, I now know that this meat, while perhaps marginally “cleaner,” is still unhealthy, and have instead adopted a primarily organic, plant-based diet.
How do I know this? Health books (and credible research) of course, with one of my favourites being Proteinaholic - How Our Obsession With Meat Is Killing Us And What We Can Do About It, by Dr. Garth Davis.
After experiencing his own health issues, Dr. Garth Davis, director of weight management at Mission Hospital in Asheville NC, and former self-proclaimed proteinaholic, took it upon himself to use his expertise in experimental design (reading, evaluating, and understanding research studies) to scrutinize all of the research available on nutrition to determine what was best for his failing health, and lucky for the rest of us, neatly compiled it into a book. Proteinaholic is a combination of Dr. Davis' personal story of proteinaholism and journey to better health, his mission to uncover the truth buried in thousands of nutrition research studies, and strong anecdotal evidence from working with thousands of bariatric patients to lose weight and improve their health.
I get that not everyone wants to spend their limited spare time reading about obesity, diabetes or heart disease, as I do. I read this book so you don't have to, and have loosely summarized some of the main points. Namely, 8 significant health reasons to reevaluate and decrease your consumption of animal protein, including not only meat, but also fish (which is arguably meat), dairy and eggs. However, by the end of this post my hope is that you will be intrigued enough to want to read the book, and check out some of my other favourites.
8 EVIDENCE-BASED REASONS TO EAT LESS MEAT FOR THE BENFIT OF YOUR HEALTH
Most people are under the assumption that sugar (and/or carbs) cause type two diabetes, when animal protein is the real culprit. Populations with the lowest prevalence of diabetes all have one thing in common: they consume very little meat.
Animal protein/fat consumption (it is hard to have one without the other) is strongly correlated with high blood pressure. Alternatively, Individuals who follow a primarily plant-based diet are more likely to have lower blood pressure. This is why changing your eating habits is one of the most effective ways to naturally lower blood pressure. Taking medications without also making dietary changes is a bandaid solution that does not address the real issue.
3. Heart Disease
Heart disease is not something that occurs out of nowhere. It is a slow onset from as far back as childhood, based almost exclusively on diet. Despite what more recent studies flaunted in the media have claimed, the quality research on health and nutrition stands firm on the strong link between saturated fat (found almost exclusively in animal protein) and heart disease.
A majority of studies find that vegans and vegetarians (who typically consume a diet higher in carbs) weigh less than individuals who consume meat, and are less likely to be obese. One of the most effective diets for weight loss is the Mediterranean diet (or way of eating, rather), which focuses on fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and a small amount of animal protein. Largely, it comes down to volume. Fruit, vegetables and whole grains are less dense than animal protein, meaning you need fewer calories to feel full. They also contain fibre (animal protein does not), which is not actually absorbed as calories, but extremely important for good health. Most research concludes that the more animal protein you consume, the more likely you are to be obese.
The link between animal protein and cancer could be a blog post in itself. Scientists have discovered numerous ways that the consumption of animal protein is connected to cancer. A handful of these are listed below. This does not mean that you will get cancer if you eat animal protein, however, according to research, you are more likely to than individuals who do not, or consume it in moderation.
Secondary to smoking, being overweight/obese is the greatest preventable risk factor for developing cancer. As discussed, the more animal protein you consume, the more likely you are to be overweight/obese.
The charing on meat (when grilled) causes the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which have been linked to cancer.
Heme iron (found exclusively in animal protein and some supplements) has been linked to higher rates of some cancers.
High levels of IGF-1 (Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1), found in animal protein (regardless of if the animal has been given growth hormones), has been linked to higher rates of certain cancers. Consuming animal protein can raise human levels of IGF-1 beyond what is considered healthy and optimal.
Animal protein is high in choline (eggs especially), which in addition to being linked to heart disease, has been found to increase cancer progression and reoccurrence.
Animal protein contains methionine, which studies have found to facilitate the division (and subsequent growth) of cancer cells.
Diets high in animal protein have been found to alter gut bacteria. Specifically, it causes a reduction in the good bacteria that help protect against cancer and other health issues.
Men who eat primarily plant-based have higher testosterone levels than those who consume more animal protein. Testosterone, which naturally decreases as we age, is important for red blood cell production, libido, bone density and building muscle.
Children are going through puberty earlier and earlier, and our consumption of animal protein has been growing significantly. It is therefore no surprise that meat consumption (not soy!) has been linked to premature puberty.
8. Nutrient Deficiencies
Not surprisingly, higher animal protein consumption is correlated with increased nutrient deficiencies. In addition to having no fibre or antioxidants, animal protein lacks a long list of vitamins and minerals abundant in plant based foods.
As well. . .
Individuals who consume a primarily plant based diet also have lower incidences of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulosis, gallbladder removal, kidney stones, gout, cataracts and dementia, among other things.
BUT DON'T WE NEED PROTEIN?
Don't get me wrong. Amino acids (what protein is composed of) are essential to our health. However, not at the absurd levels most people consume, whether intentional or not. For the vast majority of the population, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is in fact the optimal level (not minimal level) of protein for health and longevity, and can be obtained from a long list of plant based foods with much higher nutritional value than animal protein.
The RDA (or Daily Recommended Intake - DRI, in Canada) of protein for the average adult in Canada and the United States is your lean body mass (not total weight) in kilograms x 0.8, which averages out to approximately 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women. This is not a minimum amount, but rather an optimal amount. Most people's requirements are actually probably less, not more. According to Dr. Davis, “too much protein is at least as harmful as too little...it’s almost impossible to get too little.” Have you ever met anyone with a protein deficiency? Didn't think so.
Some (not all) research suggests that athletes may need slightly more protein, however not as much as most believe. The key to building and repairing muscles is when you consume protein (after your workout in combination with dreaded carbohydrates), not necessarily how much.
FRUIT AND VEGETABLES TO THE RESCUE
In addition to making an effort to cut down on your consumption of meat, eggs and dairy, increasing your consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables can help counteract some of the health implications associated with animal protein. Fruit and vegetables are high in fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, and have been scientifically proven to be protective to our health. Most North Americans do not consume enough of them, which in conjunction with high animal protein consumption, is a recipe for a health disaster.
"We should all be eating fruits and vegetables as though our lives depend upon it - because they do." - Dr. Michael Greger
Not willing to go full out vegan? That's okay. Veganism, for whatever reason, is often viewed as an extremist hippie cult of animal activists, versus simply eating a healthy plant based diet. Regardless, change is hard, especially when it is something you have been doing your entire life and is the center of most social gatherings and holidays. If you are serious about your health and truly want to make a change (goals need meaning to be effective), look at ways you can replace some of the animal protein in your diet with plant based sources, and set small accumulative goals to ease the transition (check out my free goal setting guide here). To get you started, here are 9 of my favourite recipe sites for healthy and delicious meals featuring plants.
The scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear. If it is mortality you seek, a diet high in animal protein (especially processed and red meat, regardless of how organic or free range it is) and low in fruits and vegetables is your golden ticket. Alternatively, the key to longevity is a diet low in animal protein and high in fruits and vegetables. The decision is up to you.