Ditching Bad Fats For Plant-based Protein Might Be An Unhealthy Choice, Especially If You Are Over 50
Instead of dumping the beef for beans have them both
Official dietary advice is a mixture of science, fads, vested interests, tradition, public relations, and sometimes even common sense. Eggs were officially bad, as was dietary cholesterol - now they are our friends. Fats were bad, until we discovered that there are "good fats" and "bad fats", and now only bad fat is bad.
Or is it?
Today, almost all current dietary advice says to avoid food with high levels of saturated fats. The website of the Dieticians Association of Australia is typical - "Saturated fats are often called 'bad fats' – they are not considered essential for good health ...".
No one would argue with recommendations to reduce the consumption of high saturated-fat-foods such as fatty snack foods, deep-fried takeaways, cakes, biscuits, pastries and pies. These foods have low nutrient density - meaning that they have a very high ratio of calories compared to essential nutrients.
Eating low nutrient density foods will fill you up - lots of calories - before you have achieved your recommended daily intake of essential macro and micronutrients. That is, you feel full but may be lacking enough protein, key vitamins, and needed minerals for your sustained good health.
Striking out a whole food group has unintended consequences
Here's the problem - elimination of a whole food group has to be adequately compensated for by other food groups.
The current common dietary recommendation to avoid "bad fat" foods includes many foods which are nutrient-dense, and contain important micronutrients. Eliminating all these foods could have two unintended consequences:
The usual "bad fat" foods that it is recommended to avoid include (American Heart Association):
Compare this list to foods with the highest protein density, showing how many calories you need to consume to obtain 1g of protein:
If we just compare protein (and not other nutrients) we see that we would have to eat more than three and one-half times as many nuts or seeds as turkey, chicken or fish to get the same amount of protein.
That's unlikely, as most people don't generally eat large amounts of non-animal protein. For example, for about 65% of US adults aged 51–70 years the main animal protein sources in descending order were (2013) as follows: dairy, beef, poultry, pork, fish, and eggs.
People with these tastes aren't likely to switch to eating twice as much tofu as they were one of the above - which is what they would have to do to get the same protein load.
But for the sake of argument, let's assume that these people did switch totally to plant-based protein, and consumed, for example, much larger calorific quantities than their animal-based proteins.
Here are some consequences:
Older people may need more protein than the RDA anyway
Emerging scientific evidence indicates (Reference #3) that intakes of dietary protein moderately greater than the generally accepted Recommended Dietary Allowance of 0.8 g protein / kg / day for adults may be beneficial for older adults.
If more protein is required, and plant-based protein is the accepted dietary guidance, then that means an even higher daily calorie intake is needed compared to animal-based proteins.
Concerning micronutrients, many studies have found that the daily intake of certain micronutrients is often lower than recommended. These are identified as "nutrients of concern". Many commonly consumed sources of animal-based protein are rich in nutrients of concern, e.g. calcium, vitamin D, potassium, dietary fibre, iron, and folate.
And, for example, pork contributes other key nutrients consumed by adults (e.g., selenium, thiamin, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, and vitamin B-12), while contributing a relatively small amount to daily total energy intakes (about 10% or less).
Cheese, beef, and milk are among the top 4 sources of dietary saturated fat. Nonetheless, despite recommendations to reduce saturated fat intake, these same foods are among the top food sources of protein and contribute >40% of vitamin B-12, almost half of the vitamin D and calcium, and other essential nutrients in the American diet.
Although animal-based protein sources contribute more protein and several nutrients (e.g., zinc, vitamin B-12, phosphorus, and iron) than do plant-based protein foods, the latter can contribute more of other nutrients (e.g., dietary fibre, vitamin E, magnesium.
For example, bread, rolls, and tortillas make a more significant contribution to US adults' intake of nutrients such as thiamin, folate, iron, dietary fibre than does the milk and dairy group.
Proteins ain't just proteins
Which is all to say that the commonly-consumed animal-based proteins are more than just protein. They are also significant sources of essential nutrients, including many nutrients of concern. Therefore dietary guidance to reduce these may lead to either deficiency of macro and micronutrients or overconsumption of less nutrient-dense calories.
"Everything in moderation" remains universally good advice, for food, exercise, and life. Adding more plant-based foods to your diet is beneficial for many reasons.
For example, high tree nut consumption is associated with improved markers of health. Also, consumers of beans (e.g., variety beans, baked beans) have been found to have better overall nutrient intakes than did nonconsumers, including higher intakes of fibre, potassium, magnesium, and iron.
For all these reasons, it is an excellent idea to consume a variety of protein food sources, both animal- and plant-based, to help meet nutrient recommendations.
It's also a good idea to drop the nutrient-poor saturated fat foods.
Don't run from nutrient-dense saturated foods - eat them in moderation, and for example, reduced-fat cheese, lean beef, and fat-free or low-fat milk instead of their higher-fat counterparts. Enjoy lean meat cuts, and add more nuts and other plant-based food sources.
If you do this, you'll be more likely to get the recommended range and quantity of essential daily nutrients and to enjoy good health.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or another qualified clinician. Disclaimer.
Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter