Separating fact from fiction.
Protein is an essential macronutrient, but not all food sources of protein are created equal, and you may not need as much as you think...
Are grass-fed and “nitrite-free” meats healthier? Are plant-based "meat alternatives" the way to go?
First, the myths.
Myth: Red meat is good for health
Long-term observational studies of heart disease, cancers, or death and controlled trials of risk factors like blood cholesterol, glucose, and inflammation suggest that modest intake of unprocessed red meat is relatively neutral for health. But no major studies suggest that eating it provides benefits.
So, while an occasional serving of steak, lamb, or pork may not worsen your health, it also won’t improve it. And, too much heme iron, which gives red meat its color, may explain why red meat increases risk of Type 2 diabetes. Eating red meat often, and eating processed meat even occasionally, is also strongly linked to colorectal cancer.
Myth: You should prioritize lean meats
Current evidence suggests that people shouldn’t eat unprocessed red meat more than once or twice a week. For decades, dietary guidance has focused on lean meats because of their lower fat and cholesterol content. But these factors don’t have strong associations with heart attacks, cancers, or other major health outcomes!
Other factors appear more important. Processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, salami, and cold cuts, contain high levels of preservatives. Sodium, for example, raises blood pressure and stroke risk, while the body converts nitrites to cancer-causing nitrosamines. Lean or not, these products aren’t healthy.
Myth: Plant-based meat alternatives are healthier
“Plant-based” has quickly, but somewhat misleadingly, become a shorthand for “healthy.” First, not all animal-based foods are bad. Poultry, eggs, some dairy, and seafood are linked to several health benefits!
Conversely, plant-based "meat alternatives" are high in salt, sugar, and a whole host of ingredients that even I have difficulty pronouncing! Products like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are clearly better for the environment than conventionally raised beef, but their health effects remain uncertain.
Myth: Grass-fed beef is better for your health
Conventional livestock eat a combination of forage (grass, other greens, legumes) plus hay with added corn, soy, barley, or grain. “Grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” livestock eat primarily, but not exclusively, forage. “Grass-finished” livestock should, in theory, only eat forage. But no agency regulates industry’s use of these terms. And “free range” describes where an animal lives, not what it eats.
“Grass-fed” may sound better, but no studies have compared health effects of eating grass-fed versus conventional beef. Nutrient analyses show very modest differences between grass-fed and conventionally raised livestock. You might eat grass-fed beef for personal, environmental, or philosophical reasons. But don’t expect health benefits.
So, what are the facts?
Fact: Processed meats are bad for health
Processed meats contain problematic preservatives. Even those labeled “no nitrates or nitrites added” contain nitrite-rich fermented celery powder. A current petition by the Center for Science in the Public Interest asks the FDA to ban the misleading labeling.
Besides the sodium, nitrites, and heme, processed meats can contain other carcinogens, produced by charring, smoking, or high temperature frying or grilling. These compounds may not only harm the person who eats these products; they can also cross the placenta and harm a fetus.
Fact: A meatless diet is not, by itself, a healthy diet
Most diet-related diseases are caused by too few health-promoting foods like fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, vegetables, whole grains, plant oils, seafood, and yogurt. Additional health problems come from too much soda and ultra-processed foods high in salt, refined starch, or added sugar. Compared to these major factors, avoiding or occasionally eating unprocessed red meat, by itself, has modest health implications.
Fact: If you have heart issues, it might be time to give up red meat for good
Researchers compared the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) among participants who ate varying amounts of animal-sourced foods, including red meat, processed meat, fish, chicken, and eggs.
The study indicated that eating more red and processed meat was linked to a higher risk of atherosclerotic CVD. On average, that equated to a 22% higher risk per approximately 1.1 serving per day. Some of the red meats studied included beef, pork, bison, and venison.
About one-tenth of this elevated risk was attributed to the increase in the metabolite trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), found in the blood. TMAO contains high amounts of the chemical L-carnitine and is produced by gut bacteria to digest red meat. The same goes for the other related metabolites found.
Researchers also noticed that high blood sugar and inflammation may also contribute to the higher cardiovascular risk linked to red meat consumption.
So How Much Protein Do I Need?
The National Academy of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day, or just over 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight.
For a 140-pound person, that means about 50 grams of protein each day
For a 200-pound person, that means about 70 grams of protein each day.
What are “complete” proteins, and how much do I need?
Some proteins found in food are “complete,” meaning they contain all twenty-plus types of amino acids needed to make new protein in the body. Others are incomplete, lacking one or more of the nine essential amino acids, which our bodies can’t make from scratch or from other amino acids.
Animal-based foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy foods) tend to be good sources of complete protein, while plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds) often lack one or more essential amino acid. Those who abstain from eating animal-based foods can eat a variety of protein-containing plant foods each day in order to get all the amino acids needed to make new protein, and also choose to incorporate complete plant proteins like tofu, quinoa, and chia seeds.
Here are some examples of protein-rich foods:
What about protein powders?
Powdered protein can come from a variety of sources, including eggs, milk (e.g., casein, whey), and plants (e.g., soybeans, peas, hemp). Some protein powders contain protein from multiple sources; for instance, a vegan option might include protein derived from peas, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and alfalfa. Like other dietary supplements, protein powders are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for safety. They can often contain non-protein ingredients, including vitamins and minerals, thickeners, added sugars, non-caloric sweeteners, and artificial flavoring. If you choose to consume protein powder, it is important to read the nutrition and ingredient labels beforehand, as products may contain unexpected ingredients and large amounts of added sugars and calories.
Here’s the evidence-based takeaway: eating healthy protein sources like beans, nuts, fish, or poultry in place of red meat and processed meat can lower the risk of several diseases and premature death.
Building off this general guidance, here are some additional details and tips for shaping your diet with the best protein choices:
Get your protein from plants when possible. Eating legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds, whole grains, and other plant-based sources of protein is a win for your health and the health of the planet. If most of your protein comes from plants, make sure that you mix up your sources so no “essential” components of protein are missing. The good news is that the plant kingdom offers plenty of options to mix and match.
Legumes: lentils, beans (adzuki, black, fava, chickpeas/garbanzo, kidney, lima, mung, pinto etc.), peas (green, snow, snap, split, etc.), edamame/soybeans (and products made from soy: tofu, tempeh, etc.), peanuts.
Nuts and Seeds: almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, hemp seeds, squash and pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds.
Whole Grains: kamut, teff, wheat, quinoa, rice, wild rice, millet, oats, buckwheat,
Other: while many vegetables and fruits contain some level of protein, it’s generally in smaller amounts than the other plant-based foods. Some examples with higher protein quantities include corn, broccoli, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and artichokes.
Generally, poultry (chicken, turkey, duck) and a variety of seafood (fish, crustaceans, mollusks) are your best bet. Eggs can be a good choice, too.
If you enjoy dairy foods, it’s best to do so in moderation (think closer to 1-2 servings a day; and incorporating yogurt is probably a better choice than getting all your servings from milk or cheese).
Red meat—which includes unprocessed beef, pork, lamb, veal, mutton, and goat meat—should be consumed on a more limited basis. If you enjoy red meat, consider eating it in small amounts or only on special occasions.
Processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages, and cold cuts should be avoided. Although these products are often made from red meats, processed meats also include items like turkey bacon, chicken sausage, and deli-sliced chicken and ham. (Processed meat refers to any meat that has been “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other preserving method".