Chelsea Moore, MS, CN, CHC
January is National Meat Month!
Whether you’re a die-hard carnivore or a vegetarian, here are three things everyone should know about meat.
Meat is a high-quality protein
Two things determine protein quality: the amino acids it contains and how much of it our bodies digest.
Protein foods contain about twenty different amino acids. But, only nine are essential. Our bodies can’t make essential amino acids (or can’t make them in large enough amounts). That’s why we must get essential amino acids from our diet.
The essential amino acids are:
Meat is considered a high-quality protein because it contains healthy levels of all nine essential amino acids. This is true for most animal foods.
Plant foods are often low in one or more of the essential amino acids. That’s why plant-based protein powders formulated with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a good choice. Branched-chain amino acids (isoleucine, leucine, and valine) are essential and make these formulas complete.
Tip: Supplement labels don’t include BCAAs in the total protein amount. Shoppers should consider this when comparing protein powders.
Animal foods also tend to contain higher amounts of total protein. For example:
A 3.5-ounce serving of chicken provides 31 grams of protein.
A 3.5-ounce serving of beef sirloin provides 29 grams of protein.
A 3-ounce serving of extra firm tofu provides 9 grams of protein.
One hard-boiled egg provides 6 grams of protein.
A one-ounce serving of almonds provides 6 grams of protein.
One cup of broccoli provides 3 grams of protein.
Meat protein also beats plant protein in terms of digestion. Remember, digestibility is the second factor that determines protein quality. Our bodies digest more than 90 percent of meat protein. However, we only digest about 70 to 90 percent of plant protein. Two exceptions are the proteins found in soy and legumes. Both of these plant foods digest at more than 90 percent.
Meat may not be the healthiest option
Although meat is a high-quality protein, it can also lead to health problems.
The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association recommend less red meat in the diet.
The World Health Organization links red and processed meat to cancer.
Cooking any meat at high temperatures produces harmful compounds known as advanced glycation end products.
Fish contaminated with mercury can damage the nervous system.
As a result, more doctors and scientists are recommending plant-based diets than ever before.
This doesn’t mean protein isn’t important. It certainly is. Protein not only helps us build muscle, it keeps our bodies alive and healthy. But, the average adult only needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (about 0.4 grams per pound). Most Americans eat far more than this.
Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians can still get all nine essential amino acids by eating a variety of foods. Even the idea that every meal must form a complete protein is outdated. That is – the idea that every meal must contain all nine essential amino acids.
The truth is: vegetarians don’t need to agonize over every meal. The key is to make sure all nine essential amino acids appear in the diet at some point during the day.
Tips for buying the best meat (or meat alternative)
Animals raised for organic meat live in environments that support their natural behaviors, eat a 100% organic diet, and never get antibiotics or hormones.
Organic produce is grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Mushrooms, a popular meat alternative, rank 36th on the list of most contaminated fruits and vegetables.
Organic packaged foods like beef jerky and plant-based burgers must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives aren’t allowed.
Look for the grass-fed and pasture-raised logos.
Grass-fed meat comes from animals that never eat grain. These animals have “continuous access to pasture during the growing season.”
Pasture-raised eggs come from hens that live mostly outdoors. In addition, farms must provide at least 108 square feet of land per bird. Because “pasture-raised” isn’t regulated by the USDA, also look for the “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” or “American Humane Certified” seal.
Free-range eggs are the next best choice. These eggs come from hens that have “continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.” This is a step up from cage-free. Cage-free eggs come from hens that only roam indoors.
Select wild, low-mercury fish.
Healthy choices include cod, Alaskan King salmon, and canned light tuna.
Limit varieties such as Puget Sound Chinook salmon, halibut, and albacore tuna.
Avoid larger fish like mackerel, swordfish, and Bluefin tuna.
Choose meat (and meat alternatives) that are minimally processed.
Processed meats include foods like hot dogs, sausages, ham, and beef jerky.
Avoid meat alternatives with long ingredients lists – especially if the ingredients are ones you don’t recognize.
The bottom line
Meat often provides a better mix (and amount) of essential amino acids than other foods. However, eating meat is not without risk. Always choose the best quality meat you can afford. For our vegetarian readers: don’t worry about creating a “perfect protein” at every meal. What you eat over the course of the entire day is most important. If you buy meat alternatives, always choose the least processed options.
Chelsea Moore, MS, CN, CHC is a Certified Nutritionist and Health Coach. She graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and completed her Master of Science in Applied Nutrition at Northeastern University.
Chelsea is passionate about lifestyle education and women's health issues. She is a member of the International Association for Health Coaches and the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Whitney E, Rolfes SR. Understanding Nutrition. 13th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2013.
Food Data Central – United States Department of Agriculture. Published 2019.
The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. American Heart Association. Updated August 15, 2017.
Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. World Health Organization. October 26, 2015.
Chen G, Smith JS. Determination of advanced glycation endproducts in cooked meat products. Food Chem. February 2015; 168:190-5. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2014.06.081.
Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Updated March 30, 2020.
McEvoy M. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. United States Department of Agriculture. Published March 13, 2019.
EWG’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Environmental Working Group. Published 2020.
Organic Labeling Standards. The United States Department of Agriculture. Published. (n.d.)
What is “grass fed” meat? The United States Department of Agriculture. Published July 17, 2019.
Layers Free Range and Pasture Full Standards. American Humane. Updated October 2019.
“Free Range” and “Pasture Raised” officially defined by HFAC for Certified Humane label. Certified Humane. Published January 16, 2014.
Questions and Answers – USDA Shell Egg Grading Service. The United States Department of Agriculture. Published October 1, 2015.
Healthy Fish Guide. Washington State Department of Health. (n.d.)