Red Meat Alternatives: Plant-Based Diets Offer Many Protein Sources

A controversial new study claiming that regular consumption of red meat may not pose much of a health risk has drawn sharp criticisms from doctors and dietitians nationwide. They say the methodology used to evaluate the existing research misrepresents the vast data that shows red meat’s links to adverse health outcomes, such as heart disease, cancer, or type 2 diabetes.

The much-debated new report, a review of previous studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was labeled a “major disservice to public health” by the non-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

“These misrepresentations are directly at odds with abundant scientific evidence demonstrating the potential ill health effects of red and processed meat and the benefits of reducing consumption of red and processed meat,” says Physicians Committee President Neal Barnard, M.D.  

The American Heart Association (AHA) said the conclusions of the new study are “questionable.” 

The new red meat debate has put protein alternatives back under the spotlight. U.S. nutritional guidelines are mostly in agreement with those of doctors’ organizations, the AHA and dietitians in recommending plant-based diets with protein alternatives to red meat. A plant-based diet is not just about fruits and vegetables. It also includes whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and some animal-based foods, all of which provide more than enough protein sources.

Many consumers think that vegetarian diets, even if they include lean fish and poultry options, may come up short on protein. However, some non-meat alternatives are good sources of protein, including lentils, quinoa (a gluten-free grain), a variety of seeds, nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, and Brazil nuts) and beans.

The U.S. government’s dietary guidelines, also known as My Plate, focus on plant-based options, says Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Community Heath at Baptist Health South Florida.

‘My Plate’ is Mostly Plant-based
“Half of the government’s ‘My Plate’ is fruits and vegetables, while the other half is grains and protein,” says Ms. Talamas. “I want to emphasize that 75 percent of the plate has always been plant-based. That may be something you haven’t realized. The recommendations have never had a lot of animal proteins.”

Both the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and Mediterranean diets — highly rated by dietitians — focus on fruits and vegetables, but make allowances for lean proteins from fish and poultry. Both plans strongly restrict red meat, overly processed meats and sugary drinks.

“Can you be plant-based and include some animal protein? Yes you can,” says Ms. Talamas. “But in the United States, protein is not a nutrient of concern. Many of us are eating too much protein anyway. You can stick to having a limited amount of animal protein and still have a plant-strong or plant-based diet.”

Whole Grains and Protein
Whole grains are also excellent sources of protein. Grain foods high in protein include cornmeal, kamut (wheat berries), teff, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, wild rice, millet, couscous, oatmeal and buckwheat. Whole grains include grains like wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye – but mostly when these foods are eaten in their “whole” form. Whole grains have valuable antioxidants that may not even be found in fruits and vegetables. They are also good sources of B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron and fiber.

In contrast to whole grains, refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ. This is done to give grains a finer texture and improve their shelf life, but it also removes dietary fiber, iron and many B vitamins, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“By grains being whole, you’re able to get your protein and also more fiber, which offers its own health benefits,” says Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Baptist Health South Florida.

“Carbohydrates are your source of fuel,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “What you put in your body is what you get out. So you want a whole source of grain to give you that highest level of fuel.”

Why is a plant-based diet so healthy? Fruits and vegetables contain thousands of nutrients, chemicals and healthy oils that hinder key steps in the development of disease and inflammation. The high fiber and nutrient content in plant foods like vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and fruit have shown to help control blood-sugar swings after meals, improving how our bodies metabolize the nutrients.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, well-balanced plant-based diets help reduce risks of many chronic diseases. Such diets can also treat, improve or help reverse obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some digestive problems.

Baptist Health has created this page as a resource to help you find your healthy plate. What we eat, when we eat, and how we eat relate to our overall health.

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