Do Humans Need to Eat Meat to Be Healthy?
Fresh content for optimists.
Do Humans Need to Eat Meat to Be Healthy?
by Devineé, Move to Root
A contentious question and ongoing debate that will have meat eaters and plant-exclusive omnivores ready to defend the flesh or foliage on their dinner plates: do humans need to eat meat to be healthy?
But we don’t wish to debate over whether humans are or are not meant to eat meat. There are plenty of articles that assess archaeological records, intestinal length, evolutionary brain growth, and structural differences in teeth size and shape to determine if humans were designed to consume meat. Instead, we’ll allow current nutritional science to speak for itself on the topic of whether meat is a necessary component of the human diet for overall health.
How do I get the nutrients I need without eating meat?
Contrary to what was once popular belief, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that humans can obtain all of the essential nutrients required to sustain life and health by adhering to a well-balanced, appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diet.1 But, where exactly are those nutrients found? In order to answer the question “Do humans need meat to be healthy?,” let’s take a look at the specific nutrients of “concern” and animal-free food sources in which they exist.
Of all of the nutrients we are going to discuss, vitamin B12 is arguably the most worthy of attention. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that vegans can obtain enough B12 by consuming tempeh, spirulina, chlorella algae, and nori alone. But plant foods on their own do not contain sufficient amounts of the active form of B12 that our bodies can utilize.2,3 The active form is predominantly found in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy in small amounts. While B12 is tricky for vegans to get enough of, with the right diet, which will need to include fortified foods (e.g., breakfast cereals, non-dairy alternatives, and nutritional yeast) and a B12 supplement, it is, in fact, possible for vegans to obtain enough B12 each day.
Omega‑3 Fatty Acids
Although algae isn’t a reliable source of vitamin B12, microalgae is one of the best sources of the long-chain omega‑3 fatty acids Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)—two important components for our brains and cell membranes.1,2 In fact, ingesting microalgae is how fish, themselves, obtain DHA and EPA. When you consume plant-based omega‑3 sources such as microalgae, you’re simply cutting out the middleman (erm, middle fish?). Additional animal-free sources of omega-3s include walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. However, they contain the short-chain omega‑3 fatty acid Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) that, if not consumed in adequate amounts, may not efficiently convert to EPA and DHA in the human body. Therefore, it is crucial for anyone, especially those on a no meat diet, to focus on directly consuming enough DHA and EPA.
Dairy products aren’t the only foods packed full of bone-strengthening calcium. Dark leafy greens such as kale, collard greens, turnip greens, and broccoli all boast a fair share of calcium when consumed in sufficient quantities. But if your taste buds aren’t keen on these leafy greens, soybeans are a naturally-occurring calcium source, and foods such as cereals, alternative milks, juices, and tofu are often fortified with the mineral.4 Many of these food products will highlight fortification on the front of the package, but the best way to confirm it is by checking for calcium on the nutrient label.
Calcium’s sidekick, vitamin D, plays a pivotal role in promoting the absorption of calcium in the small intestine to aid in bone mineralization. Although vitamin D status is largely reliant on adequate sun exposure, there are a few foods that naturally contain this sunshine-motivated nutrient. The foods that contain the highest amounts of vitamin D are animal products, such as trout, salmon, and beef liver.5 However, vegetarians and vegans can meet their daily needs by consuming certain mushrooms and fortified non-dairy milks, juices, and cereals.
It is often assumed that vegetarians and vegans do not consume enough iron. This is not necessarily true. You may be surprised to learn that some plant-based eaters actually consume more iron than meat-eaters.1 Foods like beans, peas, lentils, dark leafy greens, whole grains, and fortified cereals are great sources. However, it’s important to keep in mind that plant sources contain non-heme iron, which is a form of iron that should be accompanied by foods rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits and berries, for optimal absorption.
Zinc is another (less talked about) nutrient that should always be on your plate. Plant sources of zinc include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Granted, zinc is not as readily absorbed from plant foods as animal foods; but the bioavailability of this nutrient, along with iron and calcium, can be improved through the practice of soaking and sprouting legumes and whole grains.2
It wouldn’t be a true discussion about reduced meat intake and its impact on health if we did not include the macronutrient protein. We figured we’d save the most popular for last (and give it the spotlight it deserves in its own section below—so keep reading!). But, to clear the air on the protein debate, vegetarians (including vegans) often meet or exceed recommended protein intakes by consuming at least three daily servings of peas, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and fungi!1
What is the difference between plant protein, animal protein, and fungi protein?
You may have thought there were only two sources of protein: animal and plant. Surprise! Certain varieties of fungi are also excellent protein sources. But, how do each of these proteins stack up against one another? Let’s find out:
Animal proteins differ from many plant proteins in that they contain optimal levels of all nine essential amino acids, making them “complete proteins.” In conjunction with the 11 non-essential amino acids, essential amino acids make up proteins which serve as structural building blocks, hormones, antibodies, and enzymes within the human body.6 However, it’s not enough for a protein source to have the optimal amounts of amino acids; it also has to be properly digested and absorbed by the human body to be used effectively. The digestibility of amino acids is signified by the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), with the highest score being 1.0.7 Animal protein sources, such as beef, eggs, and milk, just so happen to have PDCAAS at or near 1.0.8
There is a widespread belief that plant foods are “missing” amino acids. This claim is false. You will be happy to hear that plant foods actually contain all nine essential amino acids.9 However, the amino acid proportions in a single non-meat protein source are often less optimal than that of an animal protein source. Therefore, it’s important to consume a variety of plant foods throughout the day to ensure you are receiving optimal levels of all of the essential amino acids. Nonetheless, there are several noteworthy plant foods that are complete protein sources on their own, such as soy, quinoa, hemp seeds, chia seeds, spirulina, and amaranth. Of the complete plant protein sources, soy protein also has a PDCAAS at or near 1.0.7 So if you thought animal protein was the only high-quality protein, guess again!
What sets fungi protein apart from plant protein? Well, we are glad you asked. First things first, fungi are not plants! They are so incredibly unique in structure and function that they were given their own kingdom classification. In fact, molecularly, fungi are closer in relation to animals than plants (we recommend keeping this in your back pocket should the need for a fun fact arise).10 Another characteristic that makes them similar to animals is that specific fungi proteins, like Fy ProteinTM, contain sufficient levels of all nine essential amino acids. This makes many fungi-based proteins a complete protein source. Not to mention, Fy Protein has an impressive PDCAAS of 0.92, making it as easily digestible as beef!
What are the benefits of choosing plants over meat?
Not only can humans obtain all the necessary protein and nutrients from a no meat diet, but there are a plethora of health benefits associated with offsetting meat intake with plant-based foods. One well-documented benefit of eating less meat in favor of more plants is a lowered risk of developing cardiovascular disease.11 Not only do plant-based diets lower the risk of heart disease, but they may also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.12 In addition, your waistline may benefit from a higher plant intake. A meta-analysis of 12 randomized control trials found that individuals who followed a vegetarian diet were significantly more likely to lose weight than those who followed a non-vegetarian diet.13 But the benefits don’t stop there. Swapping out animal meat for more plants and fungi naturally increases a person’s fiber intake. Research indicates that a diet rich in fiber is associated with health benefits such as weight management, improved blood sugar control, reduced cholesterol, enhanced gut health, and more.14,15
How can I eat less meat or stop eating meat altogether?
With the knowledge of a properly planned no meat diet and the benefits to go along with it, you may be asking yourself how you can reduce or completely stop eating meat. Luckily, a diet free from animal products doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can begin to eat less meat by incorporating these five practical tips:
Start by eliminating meat consumption once or twice a week. You can even consider a flexitarian diet, which is a plant-centered way of eating that allows for the occasional consumption of animal products.
Swap animal ingredients for their vegan alternatives (e.g., try Nature’s Fynd Meatless Breakfast Patties instead of pork sausage for breakfast).
Experiment with making your favorite cultural foods with plant protein alternatives instead of animal products. You may find it easier to adhere to a plant-based lifestyle if you add your culture into the mix.
Try not to focus on what you are eliminating and instead focus on what you are adding: an abundance of plant foods that not only benefit your health, but also the environment!
Visit your local farmer’s market or sign up with a community supported agriculture (CSA), so that you can try new seasonal produce at their peak of ripeness and flavor. Trust us. You will be surprised at how inspiring farm fresh produce can be!
The Bottom Line
Nutritional science has spoken, and it is clear that humans do not need to eat meat to be healthy. Nevertheless, the meat vs. plant debate will most likely continue until the end of time. But, there is one thing everyone can agree on: humans adapt to their environments. And our global environment is asking us to look at our present circumstances of increased rates of chronic disease, animal exploitation, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions—all of which can be improved with a shift towards reduced meat intake. Ultimately, we all have a choice. So, what will it be? Meat or no meat?
Can’t decide which reduced-meat diet is right for you? Check out our blog that dives into the pros and cons of vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian diets.
1. https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/THEACADEMY/859dd171-3982–43db-8535–56c4fdc42b51/UploadedImages/VN/Documents/Position-of-the-Academy-of-Nutrition-and-Dietetics-Vegetarian-Diets.pdf / Accessed January 2023
2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27886704/ Accessed December 2022
3. https://www.nmcd-journal.com/article/S0939-4753(17)30260–0/full Accessed December 2022
4. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/ Accessed December 2022
5. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/#h3 Accessed December 2022
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555990/ Accessed December 2022
7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.go… Accessed December 2022
8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7760812/ Accessed December 2022
9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6893534/ Accessed December 2022
10. https://asm.org/Articles/2021/January/Three-Reasons-Fungi-Are-Not-Plants Accessed December 2022
11. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865 Accessed December 2022
12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31329220/ Accessed December 2022
13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26138004/ Accessed January 2023
14. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14400-improving-your-health-with-fiber/ Accessed January 2023
15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16918875/ Accessed January 2023