This is the third installment in my nutrition series. I will be discussing whether meat is nutritionally necessary, not whether or not it is ethical. That is a completely different debate for which I am unable to provide a clear answer.
There really is a lot of information about how the human body processes food and what enzymes are used to break down what we put in our mouth. God made the body so well that there are actually specific enzymes for each specific food group: carbohydrases break down carbohydrates like grains and sugars, lipases break down fats, and proteases break down proteins and amino acids.
Simply looking at this information, it would seem that the human digestive system was created to eat carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Easy, right? Well, not really. Proteins do come in many different forms, like meats, legumes, nuts, dairy, etc. So meat is just one possible source of a necessary portion of our diet.
Let’s take a closer look. Some typical vegetarian sources of proteins include beans, tofu, yogurt, and nuts. Typically beans have about 8 grams of protein per 1/2 cup, tofu has about 20 grams per 1/2 cup, yogurt has 8-12 grams of protein per 1 cup, and nuts have anywhere from 2.5 – 9 grams of protein per 1/4 cup. Meats, on the other hand, can be more protein rich per serving. Beef has roughly 7 grams of protein per ounce of meat, chicken has 8-9 grams of protein per ounce of meat, and fish ranges from 6-8 grams of protein per ounce. I am making the assumption that when one eats meat, they typically eat between 4 and 8 oz, which means per serving meat can have several times the amount of protein of your typical vegetarian protein sources.
Is this better, though? You always hear people say “Protein is good for you. Eat more protein.” While protein is good for you, it is only good if you eat a proper amount for your body size. Too much protein and your body cannot use it and either converts it to bodily fat or excretes it. So the question is: how much protein does a person need each day?
Adult females need about 46 grams of protein per day, and adult males need about 56 grams of protein per day, according to the CDC. Children, of course need less protein because they are smaller in size.
I’ll use myself as an example. How can I consume 46 grams of protein per day without meat?
First, let’s say I have a cup of yogurt and some granola and fruit for breakfast. I use Greek yogurt, which has more protein, so that’s 12 grams, plus I’ll estimate about 2 grams for my granola because it has almonds and sunflower seeds in it (but not 1/4 cup of each!).
Then for lunch I’ll have a big old salad with lettuce, all sorts of veggies, 1/2 cup beans, 1 oz. of cheese, and a slice of bread and butter on the side. I dress my salad with olive oil and vinegar. That gives me 9 grams of protein for the beans and 8 grams of protein for my cheese.
Then for dinner let’s say I make omelets, which I love doing! I use two eggs in my omelet, plus lots of veggies and maybe a slice of toast. This gives me about 12 grams of protein.
My grand total for the day is 43 grams of protein. That does not include any meat. (I didn’t include any snacks, but anything like nuts, peanut butter, etc would add to your protein amount.) So it is not terribly difficult to eat enough protein on a meatless diet.
But, there is one little nagging piece of the puzzle left: vitamin B-12. It is a water soluble vitamin needed only in small amounts in the human diet, and without it, permanent damage can be done to the brain and nervous system. B-12 is a vitamin we obtain ultimately from bacteria, and before the sanitation craze of the current generation, you could get B-12 vitamin from vegetables that weren’t scrubbed to death. Nowadays your best (and really only natural sources) of vitamin B-12 are found in animal meats, especially liver.
Vegetarians can of course eat fortified foods like breakfast cereals to obtain this vitamin, and their brain will function just fine. But the fact does remain that B-12 is the one nagging vitamin that cannot be wholly obtained from non-animal sources. It is because of B-12 (and my strange fear of fortified foods) that I choose to continue to eat meat. I buy organic when I can, and local is even better. But I feel it is right for my family and nutritious for us to consume meat.
(P.S.: Plus, I like a good steak every once in a while.)