The center of the standard American plate is consistently some type of meat, fish, or eggs. When confronted with the potential health benefits of a plant-based diet, many are understandably reluctant to sacrifice what they know to be the primary source of protein available – meat. For decades, there has been a perpetuated belief that meat is the only complete protein source, and without it we cannot achieve total health. In fact, the opposite is true.
When it comes to complete protein, or protein containing all of the nine essential amino acids that we are unable to create ourselves, plants do contain everything that we need. While meat and eggs contain all nine essential amino acids, so do:
- hemp seeds
- chia seeds
While most grains and legumes may not be complete proteins by themselves, when combined they become complete because one has what the other is lacking. For example, combine beans and rice, lentils and quinoa, even a peanut butter sandwich made with Ezekiel bread, and you’ve just consumed all of the essential amino acids. It is not necessary to get complete protein from only one source, such as edamame or an egg. What matters is that we get all of the essential amino acids each day, and that is easy to do by eating a variety of healthy plant foods.
Meat and Cardiovascular Health
Most people don’t know they have heart disease, until a sudden heart attack takes their lives. However, for anyone who is getting regular blood work done each year, there are warning signs to note. Namely, a total cholesterol level above 190 is a clear sign that there is some degree of heart disease present. This is because cholesterol levels are directly related to the amount of atherosclerotic plaque built up inside the arteries. This process begins in childhood, with fatty streaks already beginning in the blood by age 10.
A diet high in animal proteins, is also a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which is responsible for the buildup of plaques inside the arteries. A heart attack is the result of a ruptured plaque, which causes a clot to form and restricts blood flow to the heart. Stroke happens in the same way, only in the brain.
A diet that is, by contrast, high in fiber and low in animal proteins, leads to a cholesterol level that significantly reduces the likelihood of the presence of heart disease. In fact, a cholesterol level below 150, which is entirely possible with a 100% plant-based diet, is considered to make us heart attack-proof. It is never too late to eliminate the animals from the diet and turn heart disease around.
Meat and Diabetes
A little known disease risk from consuming meat, is Type 2 Diabetes. It is widely believed that Type 2 Diabetes is a sugar disease. How many times do we hear a well-meaning parent or grandparent warning their sugar-loving children that they “shouldn’t eat all of that sugar or you’ll end up with diabetes”? The truth is, high blood sugar is the symptom of the disease…but it isn’t the cause.
What causes Type 2 Diabetes, is a high-fat diet. The normal function of our cells is to use insulin to open up the cell and pull glucose in from the blood stream. This is how our cells receive their primary fuel – glucose. In the case of Type 2 Diabetes, a diet high in fat has caused the insulin receptors in the cells to become clogged, therefore preventing the insulin from attaching to the cell and opening it up to receive the glucose. The result is that the glucose remains in the blood stream, which is why blood sugar levels remain high.
As with heart disease, eliminating the overload of saturated fat from the diet by restricting the highest sources – meat, dairy, eggs, processed foods and oils – it is possible to reverse Type 2 Diabetes. This is particularly possible in those who are relatively early in their disease. For those who have had the disease for many years, it can be much more difficult to reverse the disease because the pancreas has suffered so much damage that it struggles to release insulin properly. In these cases, even though disease reversal may not be possible, a plant-based diet significantly relieves the symptoms and makes the disease much easier to manage.
Meat and Cancer
If the risk of meat consumption with heart disease and diabetes are frightening, then risk of cancer is downright terrifying. The role that animal consumption plays in the risk of both developing and feeding multiple forms of cancer is shocking. While it is well-known that red meat in particular is dangerous to heart health, namely because of the high levels of TMAO produced within our bodies after consumption, it turns out that eggs and poultry are often the highest risk in many cancers (after dairy), including breast, prostate, pancreatic, and blood cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas.
First, let’s examine how meat consumption can lead to cancer development in the first place. Meat, by itself, contains nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. When nitrosamines are combined with nitrates or nitrates, as in the production of processed meats, those compounds also become carcinogenic, making processed meats a “double-whammy” of carcinogens.
Carcinogens cause damage to our DNA. The body attempts to either repair the damaged DNA, or kill the affected cells through a process called apoptosis, which is the “self-destruct” mechanism built into our cells to protect us. However, not all damaged cells are able to be repaired or destroyed, and they begin to mutate. This mutation is what eventually leads to the formation of cancer cells.
Now that cancer cells are present, they need fuel to survive. Whereas a normal, healthy cell is fueled by glucose, cancer cells prefer a different fuel source – namely saturated fat and LDL cholesterol. And what is the highest ( and in the case of LDL, only) source of these in our diets? Animal products. The same foods we are eating that can cause the cell damage to begin with, also feed them once they become cancerous.
In addition to a fuel source for cancer cells, animal products also contain IGF-1, or Insulin Growth Factor 1. This is a hormone that we create in our own bodies from the moment we are born. IGF-1 levels are extraordinarily high during our childhood years, then taper off as we reach adulthood and are no longer growing. This is important, because we don’t want a growth hormone to not only accelerate the aging process, but also accelerate cancer cell growth.
By consuming animal products, we also consume IGF-1, thereby keeping levels of IGF-1 in our bodies artificially high…and stimulating cancer cell growth. From carcinogenic properties, to the most desired fuel source of cancer cells, to a hormone stimulating the growth of cancer cells, the consumption of animal products is a triple-threat to cancer.
Meat and Iron
There are two types of iron available in our diets – heme iron, and non-heme iron. Heme iron, or blood iron, comes from consuming animals. Non-heme iron comes from plants. While heme iron is more easily absorbed, because it is already coming from the same source (blood) it ends up in within our bodies, heme iron is the least safe. It causes inflammation within the body, and our bodies are also unable to regulate it. As much heme iron as we consume, that is how much our bodies will absorb…even if it reaches toxic levels.
While non-heme iron is more difficult to absorb, it is the safest of the two. Coming from plants, it does not cause an inflammatory response in the body. Our bodies are also able to regulate it, so if you consume too much it will be eliminated from the body through waste and will not reach toxic levels in our blood. In order to assist the absorption of non-heme iron, be sure to pair plant foods high in iron (such as dark leafy greens, legumes and seeds) with good sources of Vitamin C, like citrus fruits.
Sources for this information are vast and span the 13 years that I have studied nutrition. For an excellent source of this and all other nutrition-related topics, please check out nutritionfacts.org, where Dr. Michael Greger and his team have poured over thousands of studies and compiled videos for you on every imaginable topic. Hopefully this article has provided you with new and valuable information. If there is anything you have questions about that was not covered here, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will get you an answer.