By Gabe Sanders, Ph.D., NSCA-CSCS
Perhaps you are aware of the debate between people supporting strict plant-based diets also known and vegan diets or strict meat-based diets also known as carnivore diets. Whether you are on one side of the debate or the other, everyone should know that there may be benefits to both types of food sources, and the optimal diet is likely a balance between the two extremes.
What’s the beef?
Many people are attempting to make the following case: beef is a protein-rich source that comes from a cow who consumes a 100% plant-based diet (grass), therefore there is no need to eat beef, just eat plants as a cow does. The argument these people make is this; “look how big and muscular a cow becomes by only eating plants.” So if cows can become large simply by consuming plants, why not humans?
To the naked eye, this might make sense, but the reality is that cows have different digestive systems, metabolism, genetic makeup, and activity levels than humans, hence, that type of comparison is not valid. Other people point to the fact red meat contains large quantities of saturated fats and that fats are not healthy for human consumption on a regular basis. To their point, overeating dark red meat is likely not the best for your health; however, any type of protein-rich, animal meat does contain beneficial essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals which may be hard to consume in plant-only diets.
The healthiest diet is a combination of plants and lean meats
Set aside the challenge of eating only plants or only meats, it is likely, the healthiest diet may be a combination of both plants and lean, healthy meats.
Without question, it is very healthy to consume most of your daily calories from vegetables. I do not think any reasonable scientist or doctor would disagree. Your diet should be composed of mostly vegetables and bright, vibrant fruits. I, myself need to eat more plants on a daily basis; it is likely that most of the population does as well.
As a group, we eat too many foods that are highly processed and then we eat vegetables once or twice a day for dinner or lunch. Eating one serving of fruits and vegetables is likely not good enough for long-term health.
Plenty of research has concluded that eating meat in moderation while consuming plant-rich diets are very beneficial and advantageous for the body. In fact, lean red meat in conjunction with a healthy diet has been found to decrease bad cholesterol levels called low-density lipoproteins (LDL), while simultaneously elevating good cholesterol called high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Research also suggests that extreme dieting regardless of plant or meat-based in nature is not advantageous for your body. Extreme diets frequently lead to malnutrition, which has a deleterious effect on the body.
Thus, eat a balanced diet that works for you! Avoid overconsuming calories, eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, and yes, eat red meat, fish, chicken, and other sources of meats to optimize your health!
*Before starting/ changing a diet program, consult with a healthcare provider and/or registered dietitian
Hunninghake, Donald B., et al. “Incorporation of lean red meat into a National Cholesterol Education Program Step I diet: a long-term, randomized clinical trial in free-living persons with hypercholesterolemia.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 19.3 (2000): 351-360.
McEvoy, Claire T., Norman Temple, and Jayne V. Woodside. “Vegetarian diets, low-meat diets and health: a review.” Public health nutrition 15.12 (2012): 2287-2294.
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