Protein is an essential macronutrient that our body uses to maintain tissues in our bones, muscles and skin, to name a few of its uses. Most people get protein from a variety of animal sources, like meat, but this is far from the only reliable source.
The following text is based on information by health agencies and research institutes, but it does not constitute any form of nutrition advice, and it is meant for general purposes only. Do not rely on it as a substitute for actual guidance or diagnosis by your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian to address any questions or concerns about protein in your diet.
There is no denying that red meat is an excellent source of protein, and includes many essential nutrients that your body requires to function properly. According to the UK National Health System, these meats are also high in iron, zinc, and B vitamins, including vitamin B12.
However, aside from vitamin B12, it would be wrong to assume that these important nutrients are exclusively found in meat and fish. It is true that red meat is packed with proteins, but so are pulses, soybean or mushrooms. Granted, meat provides you with complete protein while most plants don’t — more on that later — but there are some easy workarounds to that.
As nutritious as it is, red meat has also been making headlines for its effects on health, and the role it plays in the development of certain conditions, even cancers. No “safe thresholds” have been established, although consensus is that we should all eat red meat in moderation, while avoiding processed meats. For reference, the NHS cites the Department of Health and Safety recommendation: no more than 70g a day, if you currently eat more than 90g. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends a maximum of 350-500g of cooked weight per week. Aside from that, limiting consumption is also advised if you need to watch your cholesterol levels, as saturated fats in many types of red meat can raise the amount of this substance in your blood, thus making you more prone to heart disease.
Complete protein and incomplete protein
You may have heard that protein present in meats cannot be compared to that of plants, because the latter is “incomplete”. What does this mean? As the British Heart Foundation explains, our body uses protein as the “building blocks” of life, because they are broken down into amino acids that help grow and repair tissue, soy they are necessary to our bones, muscles and skin. Nine of these amino acids are known as “essential amino acids”, meaning that our body is unable to produce them. This is why we need protein in our diet. However, not every source is “complete”, as sometimes some of these nine amino acids are missing.
What sources contain “complete protein”, then? Animal sources do, but these include alternatives to red meat (poultry for instance) and meat altogether (eggs, fish and shellfish). As for plants, only two species include all of the amino acids: soy protein and quinoa. There is also Quorn, a meat substitute artificially created using a mycoprotein from a fungus. Pulses, instead, are considered to contain “incomplete protein”. Is this a big deal? Not really. Even if you were to drop food of animal origins, like vegans do, you could simply make sure to eat different types of plant proteins to get all of these amino acids. This doesn’t even mean that you have to combine them in the same plate —although some people use this easy trick—: as long as you include them regularly in your diet, you should be covered.
If you think about it, it makes sense, as this adheres to the central tenet in every healthy diet: eating many different types of foods — and food groups —, aiming for a balanced consumption that is proportionate. In a nutshell: you don’t have to quit meat altogether, although health agencies like the NHS suggest going for leaner options or poultry rather than fatty red meat. Considering the current evidence, we do know that limiting our red meat intake is advisable. Just know that protein is found in a variety of foods beyond meat, and even plant-protein can be a valid alternative.