The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Shift in the Paradigm: Plant vs. Animal Protein

Shift in the Paradigm: Plant vs. Animal Protein

Dietitian Dialogues

July 25, 2010

Should I eat animal or plant protein? How do I eat green? How can I reduce my carbon footprint? These are questions health professionals receive regularly. Although no tent has been set up in either camp, the discussion warrants attention. This article neither attempts to persuade carnivorism or vegetarianism, but merely encourages a look at the new paradigm in the grocery shopper’s basket. 

Americans love their animal products and have for several decades. It's hard to plan a meal that doesn't focus on animal protein, be it beef, poultry, pork, or fish. Recently, more emphasis has been placed on the impact of animal protein on health, our pocketbooks, the environment and the issue of hunger and malnutrition on a global scale. Below are a few nuggets of information to help you intellectually discuss animal and plant protein. 

Health: A paper published in Public Health Nutrition lead by Polly Walker summarizes the diet issue. Americans eat about twice the global average for meat with other countries consuming a "western" diet closely following. Diets high in meat, particularly red meat, are higher in saturated fats and cholesterol while being lower in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Health professionals have seen through research that this eating pattern has been associated with higher rates of certain types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. 
However, when consumed in moderation, animal proteins are beneficial in the diet because they provide certain nutrients not available in their plant counterparts. Most of an individual’s iron is absorbed during meat consumption. Meat eating also increases the amount of iron absorbed from plant products and provides quality amounts of zinc, which is essential for cell metabolism. 

Protein is necessary for growth and development as well as for immune function and every day living. It is also a filling component to our meals. Protein expands our kitchen creativity and leaves us satiated and satisfied in a way that carbohydrates or fats cannot. But meat eaters don’t have to be the only ones getting the benefits of protein. Vegetarians and vegans can also get a healthy dose of protein from nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds.
Environment: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2006 that livestock production was the source of 18% of greenhouse gas emissions – that’s more than transportation. Feeding animals also requires greater and greater supplies of grain. In addition, high intakes of animal proteins can have an impact on global hunger and malnutrition because produce and grain are going toward feeding livestock, and as a result, feeding far fewer people. 

A slightly smaller demand for animal products in the U.S. could possibly improve some air and water pollution, while decreasing the amount of land needed for the feeding and raising of livestock.

Cost: Mark Bittman explains the high cost of meat in an article published in The New York Times. Animal proteins are higher priced at the checkout line due to the cost of the grain it requires for feed, the cost of processing the meat, and the cost of transportation to the local grocery aisle. And meat is a highly perishable commodity – waste compounds the issue of its cost. Perhaps not surprisingly, recent economic woes have led to a shift in our meat eating habits. Some families are now treating meat as a special occasion ingredient rather than a kitchen staple.

Going green doesn’t have to mean vegetarianism. Most Americans eat more meat than is recommended. If your shoppers are interested in reducing their meat consumption, encourage them to begin this process by reducing meat portions to three to four ounces and putting the focus on large portions of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Suggest Meatless Mondays or specific meals that incorporate beans, soy, quinoa or veggie based meat substitutes, and help your shoppers explore the wide variety of frozen vegetarian options now available at stores. Most importantly, help customers to get creative. Animal or plant protein aside, we can encourage customers to make healthy choices and choose a well balanced diet year-round.

Alicia Brown MS, RD, LD is the Health and Wellness Marketing Manager for the DFW area Market Street Supermarkets. Her mission is to make nutrition as simple as she can for the store guests. Through store tours, community programs, maintaining the NuVal tag program, recipe analysis and more, she is realizing more and more every day, that this is her dream job.

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at