When you think of meat, you probably think of protein. But protein exists in virtually every food. Even vegetables contain it in small amounts. As meat became demonized over the last half-century, many Americans began seeking out alternatives, in some cases quitting meat altogether. An estimated 5 percent of Americans now identify as vegetarian.
But that’s a difficult path to maintain for long. While plant alternatives to meat are increasing in popularity, there is no getting around the fact that meat is the single best source of protein (and also many vitamins and minerals). You may have heard that legumes have a lot of protein, for example. And they do—for plants. But they lack a number of critical amino acids. Eggs are another source of protein, containing 6 grams each. But the average adult needs between 60 and 90 grams of protein each day, and even more, if you’re active. You need about 30 grams, three times a day, to maintain and build muscle.
If you rely on eggs, then you’d have to eat a whole lot of omelets. Fulfilling your protein requirements with non-meat foods requires enormous planning and effort, more than most people can manage. You also need to make sure to get all the essential amino acids—the ones that we need but our bodies can’t make—from the protein you eat. Only quinoa, buckwheat, and soy are plant sources that contain all nine of them, but they can be found in complete form in all animal foods. To give you an idea of how plant protein ranks next to animal protein, here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two
As you can see, you’d have to eat a whole lot of black beans, oats, or tofu to deliver the protein in just a small serving of meat. That doesn’t mean meat should be your only source of protein. You can get a portion of your daily protein from plants. But for most people, especially as we age and need more protein to maintain our muscle mass, animal protein is important.
What the experts got right
For all of human history, with the exception of a period beginning midway through the second half of the twentieth century, meat was considered by experts and ordinary people alike to be a vital part of the human diet. Indeed, there has never been a voluntarily vegan indigenous society anywhere on the planet. 8 In fact, the word “vegan” wasn’t coined until 1944.
Yes, some studies show that eating meat harms our health, but the devil is in the details, and in this case, that means the design and type of study. As you’re about to see, the scaremongering crumbles under the weight of scientific scrutiny. Did the nutrition authorities get anything right? They did.
There is some relevance to warnings about eating too much red meat—conventionally raised beef comes from animals that are fed improper diets, which in turn can harm us. Even the way we cook meat can damage our health. For the most part, however, meat has gotten a bum rap. The science doesn’t support meat as the disease-creating thing we thought it was for decades.
What they got wrong
Anyone who has lived in America over the past 50 years has heard the dire warnings about red meat. It causes cancer. It causes heart disease. It’s practically deadly. How did we end up with all this hysteria and misinformation? Two words: saturated fat. The discovery a half-century ago that saturated fat raises cholesterol levels led to the widespread demonization of meat. We cut back on meat, we chose “lean” meat, and we trimmed and skimmed all the fat off our meat. Back then, scientists were convinced that high cholesterol was the number one culprit behind the nation’s epidemic of heart disease, which contributed to more than a million deaths per year. Their theory was simple—too simple.
This line of thinking was endorsed and promoted by the American Heart Association, which told Americans to put down their plates of bacon, eggs, and sausage and back away from the breakfast table. In fact, all foods that contained saturated fat became “bad” almost overnight— even fatty plant foods such as coconuts, nuts, and avocados.