When I told my trainer at the gym I’d quit eating meat after watching a film on the agricultural food industry, I didn’t expect his response to being so forceful.
“You’re going to lose all your muscle. You’ll gain weight!”
“People are omnivores! Our bodies are designed to eat meat.”
“There’s no protein in vegetables. You have to eat meat to get protein.”
I knew I’d have to make adjustments to ensure I continued to eat a balanced diet. The film I’d watched included testament from vegan athlete Rich Roll who’s living proof it’s possible to eat a plant-based diet and thrive. Rich switched to a vegan diet after turning forty and realizing he had difficulty climbing stairs.
Today, Rich is fifty-one, is classed as one of the world’s top 25 Fittest Men, eats a strict vegan diet and regularly competes in Ultra Man events that include a six-mile swim, 261-mile cycle and 52-mile run over three days.
Impressive. But seriously, how many of us are capable of that kind of discipline? Not me. Plus, I’m not against meat; I’m against the industrial production of meat, fish and dairy products. Big difference. I’ve eaten meat and fish all my life. Plus, I go to the gym five days a week and have been loosely following a Paleo Diet for the last few years.
Going vegetarian, never mind vegan, would be a complete 360 for me though I was used to eating lots of almonds, walnuts, and cashews, as well as seeds such as chia and sesame, all sources of protein. Did I need to eat meat, too? Was there a happy balance?
Why is Protein Important?
The recommended daily dose of protein is 0.8g per 1kg of body weight, which amounts to about 56g per day for the average man, and 46g for a woman. According to the Protein Calculator, an active woman of my build needs around 150g of protein per day to maintain health and muscle mass. It’s important to consume protein a half hour after an intense workout, so the muscle has the energy to rebuild itself.
There’s a reason why protein is known as “the building blocks to life” because it breaks down in the body into amino acids to make muscles, tendons, organs, and skin as well as enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. There are a total of 22 amino acids. The ones the body can’t make itself are called essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine and histidine.
Protein is not just about quantity, quality is important too. Each protein source has its own amino acid profile, which is why it’s crucial to vary food consumption even in a meat-based diet. For example, eating nothing but chicken would not be a healthy choice. Many people believe meat is the only source of complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids, but that’s not true.
Plant Sources of Protein and Other Nutrients
There are plant-based foods that are complete sources of protein, top choices being hemp, chia, and sesame seeds. Hemp seeds contain 37g of protein per 100g and all nine essential amino acids. By cold-milling the seeds much of the fat is removed from hemp, creating a lean source of protein, known to boost the metabolism and promote a healthy body mass. Three tablespoons of hemp protein contain around 15 grams of protein.
Chia, sesame, pumpkin and squash seeds are also complete sources of protein, though their protein content is not as high as hemp. Soy, kidney beans, quinoa, and buckwheat; other good sources of protein. But leading the pack with 57g of protein per 100g is spirulina an alga that grows contains 18 amino acids, 8 of which are essential amino acids, and is rich in vitamins A, C, and B6. Spirulina has a harsh taste so most people take it in supplement form.
Other concerns with a vegetarian or vegan diet relate to the absence of omega-3, vitamins B12 and D. But omega-3 is found in hemp and chia seeds, walnut and soybean oil. It’s possible to take a vitamin B12 supplement but natural sources include hemp, quinoa, non-dairy milk, and fortified cereals. There are lots of vitamin D supplements available. Hemp Seed Protein can be added to juices, sauces, and soups as an easy way to boost protein intake, or hemp seed oil can be used for salad dressing and dips.
Studies have shown that one amino acid, in particular, leucine, makes up one-third of muscle protein and helps to stimulate repair after exercise. It also helps prevent the deterioration of muscle with age. The recommended daily intake of leucine is 39mg per 1kg of body weight. A person weighing 70kg should consume about 2730mg of leucine per day. Foods that are high in leucine include Parmesan cheese, sirloin beef, and pork, chicken breast, salmon, lobster, shrimp but it’s also found in seeds, nuts, soybeans, and peanut butter.
Why Eat Meat?
In 2012, Joe Rogan, host of the popular podcast, was considering becoming a vegetarian for the same reasons as me: the barbarity of the agricultural industry. After checking his options he decided to become a hunter and today, the only meat he eats is the wild game he’s killed himself, giving him a new respect for wildlife and conservationists. He invites all sorts of experts on his podcast to discuss this question.
In one podcast, health professional Chris Kresser explains the reasons he resumed eating meat after being a vegan for ten years. Kresser believes people should eat whatever is right for them and agrees it’s possible to thrive on a plant-based diet as long as you know what you’re doing and have the right genetics.
He warns that without an adequate understanding of nutrients and supplements, eating a vegetarian diet can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Plus, genetic differences mean that some people can’t absorb nutrients from a plant-based diet. Kresser cites research, which found that 68 percent of vegetarians are deficient in B12 versus 5 percent of omnivores.
Rich Roll’s counterpart in the meat world is Shawn Baker, a 50-year-old orthopedic surgeon and world-record holding athlete who has achieved jaw-dropping results on a meat-based diet. Shawn claims many amazing results on his 95 percent meat diet, known as a zero-carb diet, including reduced joint pain and improved athletic performance.
Why I’m Eating Meat
After five meat and fish-free weeks, I caved and ate salmon following a series of bench presses and push-ups that left my arms trembling. Though I’ve lost weight and am now eating a bigger variety of vegetables along with hemp protein, my biggest concern is that I’ve been eating meat and fish all my life and I’m not sure I can live without it. Truth be told, I don’t want to. When I told my trainer, he was relieved.
What I eat is a personal choice. It’s up to everyone has to find the diet that chimes with their ideological beliefs and physical needs. What works for me is not necessarily going to work for you due to the individuality of our genetics, lifestyles, and of course, diet. The reality is there are a ton of protein sources and as long as you’re eating a varied diet it’s possible to get the right mix of amino acids.
But making this change has forced me to consider a bunch of important questions both big and small: Am I eating enough protein? What about leucine? Am I getting the right balance of omegas? Enough B12? Is having a meal plan helpful? If I’m going to eat meat, how can eat it ethically? Should I eat more or less fish? What happens when the oceans run out of fish? Why have I been so blind to the suffering of animals? What can I do to change that?
In the coming months, we’ll be delving into the meat debate to further explore the benefits and pitfalls of meat versus plant-based diet, and we’d love to hear your experiences on this pivotal dietary issue. Keep reading the blog for answers to some of the questions I pose in this article and send us your questions or any comments in the comments section below.