It's safe to say that we've hit peak plant-based everything (if not nearing it), and protein remains one of the hottest topics. Here's a quick refresher: Proteins, which are macronutrients composed of chains of amino acids, are the primary components of muscle and other bodily tissues, and they're also used in the production of hormones, enzymes, and hemoglobin.
There are 20 amino acids needed for human growth and metabolism, nine of which cannot be synthesized by our body and therefore need to be obtained through diet. The absence of any of these nine "essential" amino acids can compromise tissue growth and repair.
So, while few will argue the importance of protein as a necessary macronutrient, there's still tons of controversy surrounding the best sources of protein. Don't get us wrong: Plant foods are a powerful base for a healthy diet, but the misconceptions about animal foods as a subpar source of protein are worth breaking down.
Here are three of the biggest myths surrounding animal protein:
1. Myth: Animal protein is more difficult to digest than plant-based protein.
"As omnivores, our bodies were meant to digest animal fats and proteins, and we naturally produce acids and bile to break down protein quite easily," says Diana Rodgers, R.D. "Protein provides the building blocks of our bodies, and animal sources are the most complete protein sources because they contain all of the amino acids we need for optimal health."
Animal protein sources like meat, fish, and dairy have proven effective in promoting lean muscle mass and athletic performance, likely both due to their abundance of amino acids (like the muscle-building lysine, for example) and digestibility compared to plant sources. And many of the vitamins and minerals we need, including iron and B12, are found and best absorbed from animal sources.
For comparison's sake, plant sources generally lack one or more of the essential amino acids, so in order to achieve a complete protein source through plant proteins, you'll need to consume a variety. Also, it may be worth noting that lectins and tannins in some plant sources of proteins like soy and legumes may increase the loss in endogenous proteins after passing through the small intestine, causing reduced amino acid absorption.
2. Myth: Animal protein causes disease.
While many believe that high-protein diets can contribute to cardiovascular and liver disease, there is no sound scientific evidence for either of these claims. In fact, an inverse relationship between protein consumption (including animal sources) and heart disease has been shown in women. High-protein diets are also correlated with lower blood pressure, likely due to reduced body weight. Also, rather than negatively affecting liver function, protein is important for liver tissue repair as well as for the conversion and removal of fats from the liver.
And as far as longevity goes, a recent large study found no significant difference in all-cause mortality rates between vegetarians and regular meat eaters.
Instead of assuming that all plants are ‘good’ and all animals are ‘bad,’ it’s time to look toward better meat.
3. Myth: Animal protein options are bad for the environment.
In truth, humans evolved eating animal protein and in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the natural world. If we learn to raise and eat animals close to the way nature intended, we may be able to use the production of animal protein, via regenerative ranching, to help reverse climate change.
"I agree that our industrial agricultural system is broken," says Rodgers. "Most of our agricultural lands actually can't be cropped and are too dry, rocky, or sloped for grain production—but grazing animals like cattle, bison, and sheep thrive on pastureland, and their grazing and pooping are actually needed for a healthy ecosystem. Instead of assuming that all plants are 'good' and all animals are 'bad,' it's time to look toward better meat. Protein from animals raised in a natural way helps to increase biodiversity, which is something vast acres of corn and soy can't do."
Omnivorism comes with responsibility, and it's important to choose animal foods intentionally. If you don't feel called to eat animal protein often (or ever), listen to your body. If you do want to include animal protein as a part of your healthy diet, source from ranchers who raise their animals on pasture at a minimum.
Better yet, look for animals that have been raised regeneratively—which is becoming more possible with programs like Land to Market, where the Savory Institute is using outcome-based metrics to designate ranchers who are making a positive impact on the land.
Here are two options for obtaining consciously sourced and prepared animal protein:
Grass-fed beef is a complete protein source full of iron and B vitamins. Ruminants like cattle are important contributors to regenerative ranching because their grazing can actually promote the health of grasslands, which subsequently increases water retention (which helps prevent runoff) and carbon sequestration.
Bone broth from grass-fed and pastured animals is made by simmering the bones of animals for up to 48 hours, which results in a protein-rich liquid that's full of lysine and collagen (both are great for your skin!). Best of all, by making food out of bones (that are often thrown away), you are getting a nutrient-rich protein source without sacrificing another animal life.
When added to a diet rich in plant foods, well-sourced animal protein can be very supportive to health and well-being. Just like those committed to a vegan diet, ethical omnivores prioritize human and environmental health. Together, we can drive change toward a more conscientious and viable planet.