Are Animal Sources of Protein Bad For You? Common Myths & Misconceptions
There are a few common dietary myths that have lived on well after being proven wrong. Some obvious examples that come to mind are:
- Eat a diet low in fat to lose fat
- MSG is harmful
- Too much protein will cause bone loss or kidney damage
However, as a company that sells an animal-based protein product (cheese), one that I continue to get asked is: “aren’t animal sources of protein bad for you”?
Let’s dig into where these concerns might be coming from, and if they hold any water.
1) World Health Organization Links Processed Meats to Cancer
This statement, based on a rigorous meta-study, claims that processed meats are carcinogenic.
More specifically, eating 50g of processed meats (e.g. a large hot dog, 6 strips of bacon) daily can increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
This is such a high risk increase, the WHO has placed processed meats in the same cancer-risk category as smoking.
While it’s undoubtedly not good news for processed meat eaters, it’s important to understand what this risk really means. This article puts it nicely:
“...18% seems like a big number. Many people will interpret 'increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%' to mean a rise from zero to 18%. But that increase isn't absolute risk – it's the relative risk.
To put the figure in perspective: the risk of developing lung cancer is 23.6 times higher among male smokers than non-smokers, so smoking increases the relative risk by 2360%. So if you started with a hypothetical 5% risk of developing bowel cancer, consuming 50g of bacon every day would only raise your risk to almost 6%.”
Conclusion: while the cancer risk posed by processed meats may not be as high as the media has told us, the risk is still there, and real. You should limit processed meats wherever you can as a source of proteinn.
2) Meat Is High In Saturated Fats. Saturated Fats Cause Heart Disease
Since the 1950s, many studies have linked the consumption of saturated fat with increases in blood cholesterol levels. Within the academic and medical communities, this conclusion was widely accepted as fact, and it influences official dietary guidelines even today.
The main conclusions from this research are that :
- Saturated fats increase “bad” cholesterol (LDL) in the blood.
- Heart disease is most commonly the result of atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in arteries).
- Atherosclerosis happens when LDL particles penetrate arterial walls, become oxidized, and are attacked by white blood cells.
- Therefore, increased saturated fat = increased risk of heart disease.
However, despite this logical framework connecting diets high in saturated fat to atherosclerosis, meta-analyses of observational studies have reported no significant associations between saturated fat intake and risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, or cardiovascular disease in general.
Conclusion: the old link made between saturated fat and heart disease, while logical, has not been supported by evidence. That said, many health organizations still recommend limiting saturated fat intake.
The Benefits of Animal Sources of Proteins
Now that we’ve talked about the main sources of criticism for animal sources of protein, let’s talk about the benefits:
1) More complete sources of protein.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids - each one plays a vital role for our bodies. 9 of these amino acids are labelled as “essential”, which means that your body cannot create them on its own. They can only be obtained from a food source.
A “complete” protein is a food source that contains all 9 essential amino acids.
Simply put, it’s much easier to find complete proteins from animal sources (e.g. meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs) compared to plant-based sources, with quinoa and soy being among the only common options.
Iron & Vitamin B-12
Most animal sources of protein are high in the nutrients iron and vitamin B-12. These are vital for the production of red blood cells and transporting oxygen around your body. Deficiency in these nutrients can lead to: loss of appetite, constipation, headaches, irritability and difficulty concentrating.
Finding adequate amounts of these nutrients from plant sources is possible, however much more difficult without supplementation.
Access to Lean Protein
Compared to plant-based sources, there are many more sources of animal-based protein that are high in protein per calorie. This is especially important for people who are trying to take advantage of all the benefits from protein (e.g. lean muscle mass, effective immune system, better mood regulation) without gaining weight.
Plant-based sources of protein, such as quinoa, beans, and tofu, are very calorically dense. Consuming your recommended daily amount of protein from these sources can be very filling, and leave room to eat little else if you're trying to reduce your calorie consumption.
It is important to note that plant-based proteins offer their own unique nutrients not available in animal sources, such as: fibre, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. A diet that includes both animal proteins and plants is optimal.
Animal sources of protein offer many unique benefits, including being great sources of complete protein and iron & vitamin B-12. Further, there are many more animal-based options for lean protein, which are helpful for those trying to take advantage of all the benefits protein provides, without consuming too many calories.
Processed meats aside, animal sources of protein are a healthy addition to a diet balanced with nutrient-dense plants and complex carbohydrates. If you decide to get your protein only from plant-based sources, you should consider supplementing with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
Note: This does not speak to other criticisms such as ethical/moral and environmental concerns, which would require another post altogether.
Did you know that Proteina High-Protein Cheese is a complete, lean and delicious source of protein? It can be added to any of your favourite meals or eaten as a snack on-the-go. Try some today.