In Fitness and Health, it is not really a question of plants vs meats, but that of Nutrition required to fulfill a purpose for the body. This will not be an article that proves anything from being right or wrong, but a discussion of the factors that matter. We will not site any studies nor comment on the ethical nature of the subject - this is due to their being too much conflicting scientific views as well as moral view points - which could cloud the real purpose of discussing this matter in the first place. Which is; What is going to help me the most to obtain my fitness goals? (Muscle Building + Fat Loss + Performance).
1. Protein Synthesis
Definition: The process of Protein utilisation within a cell.
Muscle Cell Structures are partly made from Proteins (along with Fatty lipids), therefore Protein Synthesis must occur in the muscle cells to maintain and/or grow existing muscle cells. The Amino Acids that are especially important for muscle growth and Repair are named BCAAs (branched chain amino acids), they consist of leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. BCAAs are Essential, meaning they must come from the diet and cannot be synthesised by the body alone. These are just the most essential amino acids for muscle growth, the body needs other proteins for additional body processes such as enzyme production and other cell structures/ processes. See below a table comparing the top BCAA ratios of popular foods.
Roasted peanuts contain the most BCAAs per 6oz serving (170g), which although is more total BCAAs per gram of protein (over 50%) compared with meats, a 6oz serving of peanuts is very large and packs only a third of the overall protein within the same serving size of most meats. In the protein profile of meats (muscle), it is evident that many more other proteins (non BCAAs) are also needed to maintain the bulk of their mass, and therefore it is important to consume and synthesize enough other protein to do so. Most other plant foods do not score highly in comparison to the food sources listed above for BCAAs and have even fewer amounts of the other 5-6 Essential proteins needed from the diet, and therefore, like Roasted Peanuts, must be consumed in huge amounts to obtain the same level of Protein. See below for a table summarising protein content of popular plant foods.
NOTE: 1 cup = Approx. 4.5 ounces or 128g (dry weight)
2. Natural Hormones + Cell Function
Fat and cholesterol within our bodies plays a truly vital role in the regulation of multiple hormones and cell processes. Cholesterol is an essential part of all animal cell membranes and is also essential for the biosynthesis of steroid hormones and sex hormones (e.g. Testosterone, Estrogen). It is also required for cell communication and transport and needed for the growth and maintenance of all cells. Bile is formed from cholesterol which enables the absorption of essential vitamins A, D, E and K (found only in Fat). Animal fat (including Saturated Fat) is a good source of dietary cholesterol which on average has an absorption rating of 50%. Plants contain insignificant levels of Cholesterol with the exception of Avocado, Seeds and Nuts, in which their cholesterol competes with that from Animals for absorption. Cholesterol needs for the progressing athlete are high. Cholesterol can be synthesized by the body itself but utilizing it from the diet reduces its own production.
Insulin is a nutrient transporting hormone. It helps transport nutrients into cells and excess glucose (Carbohydrate) into Fat Storage. When Blood sugar levels are too high, Insulin is released to remove the excess sugar from the blood, either storing it in the muscles or the Fat Cells. Dietary Fat does not affect Insulin levels and therefore blood sugar levels, and while Protein has a regulatory effect without causing big Insulin spikes, Carbohydrate has a big impact on blood sugar and therefore Insulin levels. Too much Insulin stimulation can reduce Insulin sensitivity, increasing the amount of Insulin secreted to reduce blood sugar, thus promoting more Fat Storage. Insulin levels must remain low to decrease body fat, and a diet dominant in Carbohydrate will raise Insulin more than a diet low in Carbohydrates. Meat typically contains zero Carbohydrate, while Plants are composed mainly of Carbohydrates with the exception of Avocado, seeds and nuts which also contain moderate levels of Protein and Fat.
It is not what you eat but what you absorb. The absorption of a nutrient depends on its source as well as the health of your digestive system. For every ingredient you eat your body must produce an enzyme in order to digest it and make it available for absorption, without this process the nutrients will simply pass through your system. Proteins are vital for enzyme production and without enough the body may choose to leech enzymes from other places in the body (muscle + organs). Cellulose, the substance that makes up the structure of all plant cell walls cannot be broken down sufficiently by human digestive enzymes (we do not produce the enzyme Cellulase to break it down). Therefore, the bio-availability of the already small amounts of protein within plants is very limited. See below for the table showing the bio-availability of popular foods.
Note: The scores given are based upon Whole Eggs scoring 100% - so all other foods are plotted against Whole Egg Protein absorption rates.
5. Micro-Nutrients + Omega Fats
Micro-Nutrients consist of minerals and vitamins, e.g. Vitamin A, B, C, D, E, Zinc, Magnesium etc. They are nearly all essential from the diet. Generally speaking, most of the essential minerals can be obtained from both a plant or animal based diet, albeit in differing amounts. Plant based dieters must make sure they eat a variety of food sources to obtain the right amount of essential micro-nutrients, especially Vitamin B12 which can only be found in grains that have been specially fortified as well as nearly all animal foods. Omega Fats such as 3 and 6 are also dietary essential nutrients. Omega 3 is a vital anti-inflammatory fatty acid that protects blood vessels, regulates cholesterol and improves brain health. Omega 6 and 3 should be consumed with a 1:1 ratio. However, consuming a lot of Plant based oils and processed meats can change the ratio to up to 30:1, which can cause inflammation, and can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Omega 3 can be found in mainly Fish Oils, Nuts and grass fed Organic meat.
BONUS: Food for Thought.
All plant foods are Seasonal, and if we wish to eat plant food out of its natural bloom we must harvest it and store it. In every habitat however, animal food sources are available all year round. Since our anatomy evolved long before the concept of farming and food storage it is likely that our biology relies on the consumption of solely animal food sources for at least part of each year.
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