The biggest and most important differences between vegetarian and omnivorous diets is they’re lower in calories and saturated fat, and higher in fiber and phytonutrients. Taken together this usually means lower weight and longer lifespans. Sign me up.
However an underappreciated difference between vegetarian and omnivorous diets is the difference in protein composition.
The protein in animal diets is typically considered superior since it has a more “complete” amino acid profile and it’s generally assumed that more protein is always better.
I’ve written before about the flaws in the latter two points, but the differences in composition of animal and plant proteins deserves its own consideration because it can have a large impact on your health.
How Animal Protein Harms Your Health
Consuming significantly more animal protein than vegetable protein can cause the following problems:
- it’ll raise your cholesterol
- it’ll mess up your kidneys
- it’ll weaken your bones
Let’s discuss these three points in some detail so you can understand the long term health risks of consuming too much animal protein.
How Protein Works
Proteins are the building blocks of cells. Practically every cellular molecule is made up of different proteins that your body synthesizes from 20 different amino acids. (There’s technically more than 20, but the others are esoteric and not relevant to our discussion). The twenty amino acids comprise all dietary proteins, regardless of whether or not they come from plants or animals.
The Difference Between Animal And Plant Proteins
So we know all proteins are made of the same basic stuff, which is all used to build our cells. So why would there be a big difference between different types of proteins? It boils down to the following point:
- animal proteins contain the amino acids in different proportions than plant proteins
- animal proteins have more sulfur containing amino acids
- sulfur amino acids are metabolized into sulfuric acid
- your body is naturally alkaline, and thus has to make adjustments to reduce dietary induced acidity
- too many of these adjustments without corresponding changes in other nutrients creates metabolic imbalances which result in the health problems I listed above
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how excessive amounts of animal protein can change the way your body works.
1). Animal Protein Weakens Your Bones
As I said before, animal proteins tend to be acidic and your body is naturally alkaline. When acidic compounds enter your body it releases a buffer solution to bring the pH back to its normal state. This buffer solution comes from your bones and it causes a lot of calcium to be excreted into your blood stream.
We all know that calcium is the building block of strong bones. So if your bones are getting rid of calcium that’s not a good thing for bone health.
Most evidence more or less confirms this intuition.
For instance, here’s a useful chart from a study published in Calcified Tissue International that compared the relationship between animal protein and hip fractures across different cultures:
Other dietary factors play a role, like the amount of phosphorus in the proteins digested and the presence of other minerals which affect how much calcium is excreted, but the general relationship still applies.
2). Animal Protein Disturbs Kidney Function
A fairly famous paper published in Nature found that animal protein causes the kidney to behave very differently than vegetable protein. When you eat animal protein your body begins to secrete two chemicals called glucagon and Prostaglandin 1 (PGF1), which change the hormonal balance in your kidney, which causes more blood and other stuff to pass through it.
More stuff passing through the kidney is called an increase in the Glomerular Filtration Rate (GFR) which causes the kidney to become swollen and can lead to kidney hypertension. Your kidney exists to effectively filter stuff out of the blood. So it’s not cool if it stops filtering things very well.
The relationship between animal protein and kidney function has become so strong that reducing animal protein is practically always considered the first step in treating a kidney disease of almost any sort. It’s possible that over time high amounts of animal protein can also lead to renal cancer, but that’s still up in the air.
Gout, Kidney Stones, and Arthritis, Oh My!
Anyone who’s ever had a kidney stone knows they’re a royal pain in the ass. They cause acute pain that comes in waves and leaves the body just as quickly as it storms in. It makes taking a piss (perhaps the most basic of all human functions) an act of pain tolerance.
The most common form of kidney stone is made of a compound called calcium oxalate.
Remember what animal protein causes your body to secrete more of? That’s right….calcium.
It also increases the excretion of uric acid and citrate, which are other precursors of kidney stone formation, and reduces your body’s ability to dissociate oxalate crystals in the blood.
Want to stop that burning sensation when you take a leak? Stop eating meat.
And It Doesn’t End There
Closely related to the problems of kidney stones is gout. Gout is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, and people who suffer from kidney stones are twice as likely to suffer from gout as people that don’t.
Animal protein causes your body to excrete more uric acid. Increased excretion of uric acid and a diet rich in purines are the biggest precursors to gout, and both are closely associated with large doses of animal protein.
3). Animal Protein Raises Your Cholesterol
The idea that protein intake influences your cholesterol might seem novel, but it’s actually been known for over 100 years when a scientist known as Mr. Ignatowski published evidence in 1908 that his barn rabbits suffered from increased rates of athersclerosis when they were fed animal protein instead of egg protein.
The link between animal protein and cholesterol was eclipsed by the role of fat in the 1920′s, but increasing evidence has suggested that animal protein is atherogenic. Clinical studies in humans have found that serum cholesterol is lowered when casein protein is replaced with soy protein. Longer term clinical studies done on pigs have showed the same effect. When it comes to cholesterol pigs are a very good subject because their bodies metabolize cholesterol in a way that’s very similar to humans, so the evidence there is very solid.
It’s not clear exactly why animal protein raises cholesterol, but there are currently two good guesses:
- Vegetable proteins have an increased arginine to lysine ratio
- Animal proteins reduce the rate of cholesterol turnover in the cells, which causes them to build up
Damn, So Is Animal Protein Terrible For You?
Hopefully this article has scared you about gorging on animal protein. However, it shouldn’t scare you too much.
In the overall pantheon of nutrition, how important is the difference between animal and vegetable protein?
Not a whole lot.
At least not compared caloric intake, the sodium/potassium ratio, or the excessive levels of saturated fats that come with meat. All proteins are made of amino acids, and your body’s pretty good at getting rid of what it doesn’t need.
From what I can tell, the protein in animals doesn’t have an effect on the following conditions:
- blood pressure
- most forms of cancer
- metabolic disorders
Eating meat might contribute to these disorders….but it ain’t the protein that’s doing it.
Rethinking The Superiority of Animal Protein In the Human Diet
Protein in general is good for you, and that includes animal protein.
However, given the metabolic changes your body undergoes when it continually digests extremely large amounts of animal protein, eating a lot of it relative to vegetable protein is probably not a great idea.
It’s a common chestnut that you need complete proteins (aka animal) to be healthy, but there are a lot of reasons to think this is not the case.
Vegetable proteins from soy and hemp provide all the essential amino acids and don’t create the acidity in your body that animal protein does.
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