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What Nutrients Are There In Meat And Do Vegans Need Them?

Updated: Jan 28

What nutrients are there in meat that leads to a fear that life without meat is dangerous?

Many people think of meat as being nutrient dense, that the most vital of nutrients that we need can be found in a meat based diet. This leads to a general consensus that a life without meat is unhealthy, even dangerous. This opinion is then reinforced by the meat industry as they argue that people should buy their products, the government becomes complicit in strengthening this message by implementing guidelines that encourage the consumption of meat.

man eating a burger
Is meat really so nutritious that we can't live without it?

The Nutrient List

When people talk about the nutrient content of meat they will often give a general overview, meat contains this mineral, that fat or this much protein. Though this can be true it is also important to note that not all meat is the same, even if the meat comes from the same animal. For example 100g of steak can contain anything from 7g to 22g of fat, depending on where in the animal the meat was cut from. The nutrient content of the meat can change again when cooked, with different methods of cooking leaving the nutrients quite different to what they were or having little influence at all. The nutrient content of meat, per animal, per cut of meat, is more important for those meat eaters on a strict diet, whether that's to lose weight, gain muscle or increase endurance. However, although the amounts may change, the general list of nutrients found in meat does not alter too much from one piece of meat to the other.

  1. Protein: Everyone knows that meat contains protein, it's a staple question that vegans get asked "But, where do you get your protein?" Meat is considered an excellent source of "high-quality" protein, which is essential for the growth, repair, and maintenance of body tissues. The term high-quality is used interchangeably with complete protein. This means that meat is a source of the full complement of amino acids that our bodies need. This does not mean that, without meat, you cannot get all of the amino acids that you need. For example, quinoa is a complete protein source, as are tofu and tempeh. You can also get the full complement of amino acids by combining foods that go happily together such as rice and beans.

  2. Iron: Meat, particularly red meat, is a significant source of heme iron, which is more easily absorbed by the body compared to non-heme iron found in plant foods. Iron is crucial for the formation of haemoglobin in red blood cells, which transports oxygen throughout the body. Heme iron, only found in animal products has been found to be pro-inflammatory and could make certain diseases worse, increasing pain and slowing healing in people. The non-heme iron, found only in plant sources, seems to have an anti-inflammatory affect with other compounds found in plants having a calming and healing affect on the body. Iron can be found in many plant-based foods, including, legumes, tofu, tempeh, fortified cereals, whole grains, dried fruits, and dark leafy greens (e.g., spinach, kale).

  3. Zinc: Zinc is an essential mineral for health, it is involved in various physiological processes in the body including immune function, would healing and DNA synthesis. Meat is a good source of zinc, but zinc can also be found in legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, tofu, tempeh, and fortified cereals.

  4. B Vitamins:

    1. B12 (Cobalamin): Found mainly in animal products, B12 is essential for nerve function and the production of DNA and red blood cells.

    2. B6 (Pyridoxine): Important for metabolism, brain development, and function.

    3. Niacin (B3): Plays a role in energy metabolism and the maintenance of skin health.

    4. Riboflavin (B2): Essential for energy production and the metabolism of fats, drugs, and steroids

  5. Phosphorus: Meat is a good source of phosphorus, which is vital for bone health, energy metabolism, and the regulation of acid-base balance in the body. Vegans and those on a plant-based diet phosphorus can be found in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and plant-based milk.

  6. Selenium: This trace element functions as an antioxidant and is important for thyroid health and immune function. There are many plant foods that are rich in selenium, so much so that vegans and those who are plant-based do not need to supplement with this mineral if they are eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, whole grains, legumes or vegetables grown in selenium-rich soil.

  7. Creatine: Found primarily in muscle tissue, creatine plays a role in energy metabolism, especially during short bursts of intense physical activity. However, humans do not need creatine in their diet, our bodies make the creatine that we need. Additional creatine can be considered necessary for those who have an aim to increase muscle mass or have certain conditions affecting the brain, however, in those cases, creatine powders or capsules can be used.

  8. Choline: Present in meat, choline is important for brain development, nerve function, and liver health. Non-meat sources of choline are cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli, Brussels sprouts), soy products, quinoa, and peanuts.

Is Meat Essential

It is clear that meat provides nutrients and, for some people, can be the only source of those nutrients. There are countries around the world where some plants do not grow and imports are not possible. For people living in those regions meat may be the only source of choline or a sustainable amount of protein. For those not in such a situation it is clear that a diet that includes legumes, whole grains and cruciferous vegetables is key to optimum nutrition.

Legumes and whole grains are indispensable components of a well-rounded and nutritious diet and provide a multitude of health benefits. Legumes, including beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are excellent plant-based protein sources, crucial for muscle repair, immune function, and overall growth. Rich in dietary fibre, legumes contribute to digestive health, blood sugar regulation, and weight management. Containing essential nutrients such as iron, potassium and vitamins, legumes promote heart health by lowering cholesterol levels. Similarly, whole grains like brown rice, oats, and quinoa provide substantial amounts of dietary fibre, increasing satiety, digestion, and weight control. Loaded with essential nutrients and antioxidants, whole grains contribute to overall well-being and have been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. In summary, we do not need meat to survive, we do not need meat to be healthy and an increasing number of quality studies, including twin studies, are showing that eating less meat is better for our health.

A well-structured and balanced plant-based diet can offer all the essential nutrients necessary for optimal health. Plant-based sources like legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables provide abundant protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Research has shown that vegan diet can have various health advantages, including a reduced risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes. It is important to pay attention to your nutrient intake, especially for iron and B12 when going plant-based diet. Overall, embracing a diverse and thoughtful plant-based approach to eating can contribute to long-term health and well-being. Consulting with a healthcare professional or registered dietician can help customise a plant-based diet according to individual nutritional needs.


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