Beyond Impossible to Compare with Protein-Packed Beef

By Larry Stalcup, Contributing Editor

As was demonstrated by COVID-19’s impact on consumers, supermarket meat cases were often harvested to the limit, competing with toilet paper as the “commodity” demanded repeatedly during the weeks of unrest that were continuing into the summer. This article examines the value of beef vs. plant-based and cell-based “meat mimics.”

Teresa Davis, Ph.D., knows her food sciences. She’s with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service nutrition team at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, part of the world’s largest medical center. And she emphasizes – “there is no evidence that a reduction in red meat will help your diet.”

Davis spoke at the International Livestock Congress in March, which was part of the massive Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR). Its sessions were completed before HLSR was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic that eventually shut down the nation.

Speaking to dozens of U.S. and international college agricultural students and several hundred more from the beef industry, Davis countered any claims that plant-based diets can fully replace beef and other meats in a balanced diet.

“Proteins are building blocks of all tissues of the body,” she said. “Essential amino acids are not produced by human bodies, but you have to have those essential amino acids. Animal proteins provide essential amino acids. They provide a good balance of amino acids for good health – but plant-based proteins are deficient in those amino acids.”

Animal proteins help the young and old. Humans need about 90 grams of protein per day. But proteins serve the body better if they’re spread out from breakfast to dinner. “We need better protein distribution of about 30 grams three times a day,” Davis said. “That’s important, especially for older and younger populations.

“We need to promote more muscle mass as we get older. More protein is needed. Older people need to increase protein intake to compensate for a typical decrease in food intake.”

Those who fight being overweight can benefit from a high-protein diet, Davis added, noting that meat promotes lean body mass and helps bodies lose fat mass caused by too many sugars and carbohydrates.

“There’s more of a feeling of fullness after a high protein meal,” she said.

Animal proteins help prevent stunted growth in children. “Malnutrition is a major global problem,” Davis said, pointing out that about 150 million children face shortness in height due to stunted growth.

“About 45 percent of child deaths are due to poor nutrition. Animal-based food promotes better growth and height.”

She explained that milk-like products made from soy, almonds or other plants can’t compete with cow’s milk for building growing bodies.

“Cow milk improves whole body balance,” she said.

Davis noted a diet downside for some, and meat gets blamed for it. “Many who eat high protein meals have poor lifestyles,” she warned. “They eat fewer vegetables, smoke [or have other bad habits]. Red meat can be quite healthy but should be part of a pattern of eating fruits, vegetables and whole greens.

“Diets such as the Mediterranean diet are better with lean meat, which can improve cardiovascular disease risks.”

Too many carbs

Donald Layman, Ph.D., University of Illinois professor emeritus of nutrition and currently associate editor of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, addressed the bad rap protein gets as opposed to carbohydrates.

“We get over 70 percent of our calories from plant-based foods and only 30 percent from animal based foods,” he said. “If we look at those plant-based foods, 51 percent of those calories come from added sugars, fats and hydrogenated oils.

“Another 30 percent comes from refined grain. So of that plant-based diet, more than 80 percent come from poor nutritional quality foods. Just saying it’s plant based doesn’t make it healthy.”

While only 30 percent of calories come from animal-based foods, humans get 70 percent of their protein from them. “We get all of our vitamin D, all of our calcium, most of our B-12, most of our B-6, zinc, selenium, etc.,” Layman said. “How many can we take out of that and stay healthy?”

By shifting to less meat and depleting protein out of the diet, “we can increase our calorie consumption by almost 600 calories a day,” he said. “If you dilute the protein with too much carbohydrate, you have to eat too many calories to get to your protein requirement.”

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) offers a range of food intake. “Most people don’t recognize we have an RDA for carbohydrates. It is 130 grams per day,” Layman said. “In a good diet, you have five servings of vegetables, two to three servings of fruit and three servings of whole grains.”

However, he said French fries are the leading vegetable eaten by Americans, No. 2 is ketchup and No. 3 is lettuce – “or two-thirds of the vegetables we’re eating have no nutritional value.

“We don’t need a better plant-based diet, we need a diet with better plants.”

He added that while the RDA is 130 grams of carbohydrates, “Americans are eating over 300 grams per day, and no one complains about it,” Layman said. “But when we eat just a little above the RDA for protein, people claim it’s unhealthy.”

As with Davis, Layman praised the value of cattle in providing essential nutrition. “Ruminant animals are essential in our environment to provide the amino acids we need,” he said.