Fats, carbs and proteins are the 3 macronutrients. Protein is unique in that, although it can be used for energy, its main purpose is to build tissue, repair tissue, build and maintain muscle, produce antibodies, make hormones, enzymes and an array of other structures. Our bodies are made of about 80% protein if you take away all the water. You can get protein from plants or animals and even from eating bugs, but the most useful source is animal protein.
All human protein is made of 20 amino acids. These are the ‘building blocks’ of protein. Our bodies can make 11 of them but the other 9 must be in our diet. If you don’t have at least these 11, you simply cannot make protein. However, all animal protein is complete, or has at least these 11 essential amino acids. Very few plants are complete, meaning that they are deficient in at least one of the 11 essential aminos.
Why animal protein is better
To be clear, some studies suggest that red meat increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and early death.1,2,3 Eating processed meat also may promote heart disease.4 However, it is important to understand that these studies are often flawed in the sense they are not studying people that eat lots of meat and vegetables. Actually, not all studies even agree.5 In other words, we cannot conclude that animal protein is unhealthy in and of itself. We can only conclude that a poor diet that includes animal protein is unhealthy.
The best animal protein options
When choosing meat, leaner is usually better. Also, it is a good idea to avoid meats that have been smoked, cured, salted or have added preservatives. Fresh is best! Diets that are high in red and processed meats have been linked to colorectal cancer, but again, there is inconsistency in the findings.6 The real reason for outcomes like this probably has less to do with the animal protein itself and more to do with overall diet and the presence of other chemicals such as preservatives. Some of the best options for are as follows:
- Chicken or turkey breasts (white meat is best but I think the dark tastes much better)
- Any fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, herring and tuna.
- Pork tenderloin
- Sirloin or round cuts of beef (the leaner the better)
- Eggs (just the whites if you want to include less fat)
- Yogurt, cottage cheese, milk (be careful of the sugar content in these)
Don’t forget a balanced diet is best
As I suggested earlier, while you want plenty of animal protein in your diet, it doesn’t do you much good if you are ignoring the other foods. Thus, you should be including plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains in your diet in addition to meat. Many of these foods contain incomplete proteins, but unlike animal proteins, they contain antioxidants, fiber, healthy fats and other nutrients your body needs.
How to best cook your animal protein for optimal nutrition
When you cook meat, it alters the chemical bonds, making it easier to digest. More importantly, it also kills of bacteria that might otherwise make you very sick. But how you cook your animal protein is important. The best ways include baking, boiling, broiling, poaching or steaming. Other methods can be less desirable. For example, frying or breading means more (non-protein) calories. High temperatures can destroy the “good” fats in fish and charring meat can produce harmful compounds.7 Many folks also add butter, cheese, sour cream, salt or other ingredients to their meat, altering the nutritional value.
How much protein should I get?
A serving of animal protein is about 25 grams, the size of a deck of cards. But the amount you need depends on, well…you. Everyone has different needs, but a good rule of thumb is to get at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your weight (or desired weight if you are trying to lose some). This does not mean just animal protein, but all sources. For example, if you weigh 150lbs., you should eat at least 120 grams of protein daily. The more active you are, the higher this should be. It could be as high as 2 grams per pound for an elite athlete or bodybuilder.
Animal protein is your best source of protein. Just consider that an ounce of lean beef has 7g of protein while an ounce of peas has 2g, and its incomplete. And remember to include the other important food groups, particularly fruits and veggies. Studies may suggest that diets high in animal protein are a health risk, but a study of people that eat high amounts of animal protein and other food groups would most certainly come to a different conclusion.