Updated: Jan 27
A growing number of people are now choosing to reduce their meat consumption. There are many reasons for this, including ethical and environmental reasons.
While typically people associate less meat with going vegan or vegetarian, you don’t have to go completely vegan or plant based. ‘Flexitarianism’ is growing in popularity. This is where people reduce consumption of certain animal products such as meat but don’t cut anything out completely either. Instead, they make a conscious effort to reduce their overall consumption.
Many people depend on meat as their sole protein source. When moving to a diet lower in animal products, they wonder about their protein intake. Where should they source their protein from? Are plant based proteins the same as animal proteins? Do you need to eat meat? Are there non-meat sources of protein? Lots of questions which we want to address!
Is the protein in plants the same as protein as from meat?
The short answer to this is – Yes and No! Both proteins (protein from plant and meats) is made up of amino acids. Animal foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy are what are known as complete proteins, as they are complete with all the essential amino acids (EAAs) our body cannot make, and therefore must get from our diet. Plant based sources such as beans, peas, lentils and nuts are known as incomplete proteins because they don’t supply all the essential amino acids and are therefore incomplete.
Isn’t quinoa a complete protein?
Quinoa is an exception as it contains all the EAAs. However, quinoa is a grain and while it does contain protein, the serving size required to get a serving of protein is very large! All the research points toward 20-25g of protein being an optimal serving to stimulate muscle protein synthesis So in the case of quinoa, you’d need to eat a lot of quinoa (The equivalent of about 650 kcals).
I heard broccoli has more protein than beef..
I think we’re all aware of the posts telling us we should eat broccoli as a protein source, because it contains more protein per 100 calories than beef. Broccoli has 9g of protein per 100g while beef has 7g per 100g. So while broccoli does have more protein per 100 calories, anyone who’s familiar with calorie tracking knows how low in calories broccoli is. So in order to get 20g of protein from broccoli, you’d need to eat 770g of broccoli, which is a huge amount that not even broccoli’s biggest fan could eat! Your digestive system certainly wouldn’t be thanking you for it either! On the other hand, you’d need to consume 160g of steak to get 20g of protein. While greens like broccoli are amazing to consume for fibre, vitamins and minerals, depending on them as a main protein source isn’t the best idea.
So where should I get my protein from if I’m cutting back on meat?
If you’re looking to reduce your meat consumption, it may be a good idea to include protein sources such as fish, eggs and dairy. As discussed earlier, these are great sources of protein that contain all the EAAs. Not only are they complete proteins they also contain lots of other nutrients typically found in meat such as vitamin B12, iron and zinc.
In terms of non-animal protein sources, soya protein such as tofu and quorn protein which are of a higher protein quantity and quality than other plant based proteins. Including them in your diet is a great way to consume complete proteins.
It’s also possible to increase the protein quality of plant based proteins through combining different sources of plant based proteins. This is called protein complementation or protein combining and involves combining two or more plant based proteins, one which is low in a particular EAA and another which is high in that lacking amino acid. This will help you get all the EAAs needed by our bodies. For example, beans are low in an amino acid methionine so eating them with wholegrains such as brown bread can help make up for this, making the meal more complete. Nuts and seeds are low in lysine, so eating them with legumes such as peas, chickpeas, lentils is beneficial.
The combining does not necessarily have to happen in the same meal but a combination of protein sources should be included at each meal to optimise muscle protein synthesis. Don’t worry, you don’t need to go off and learn the EAA composition of plant based protein sources! Simply including a wide variety of sources such as beans, peas, lentils, fermented tofu and nuts in your diet should be enough. This also applies to plant based protein powders. Opting for a blend of different vegan protein sources, such as hemp, rice and pea protein, will provide a broader spectrum of EAAs.
So I can still meet my protein target even if I’m reducing meat?
The current recommended daily intake of protein is 0.8g/kg of bodyweight – However, research has shown that this may be insufficient for individuals who are doing resistance training, or older adults. Instead, the lower target may be approximately 1.2g/kg bodyweight, which would equate to 72g protein for a 60kg female. There are lots of sources of high quality protein that aren’t meat such as fish, eggs and dairy to meet this target. You can also boost your intake (and easily meet your fibre target – Woo Hoo!) by including a broad range of plant based options such as peas, beans, lentils, nuts and grains.