beans vs meat

Studies have concluded many times that including more vegetables in your diet is the most important thing you can do for your health. If you’re reducing meat intake at the same time you’re helping your body even more. The fact is that proteins are important for our health and the highest sources of protein are found in meat. How can you still get enough proteins while reducing meat intake? Beans are one of the answers. But are beans a great source of protein and but how do they compare to meat? Find out:

  • How beans compare to meat proteins
  • Why beans are the superior form of protein

The problem of plant proteins

Proteins are an essential part of almost all cells in your body. They are the main building blocks of  muscles, organs, hair and skin. Proteins have many important functions like regulating the metabolism or supporting the immune system. They are also essential for the formation of blood cells.

When you eat foods rich in protein digestive juices in the stomach and intestines break down proteins into basic units called amino acids. Individual amino acids are then reconnected in order to produce proteins which are necessary for your body to function well. Depending on which amino acids are joined together, proteins are used to build enzymes, hormones, muscles, organs and many other tissues in the body.

plant proteins
There are two types of amino acids :

  • Non-essential amino acids
    Your body can produce these amino acids independently by itself
  • Essential amino acids
    Your body can not produce these amino acids. You have to supply them to your body by eating protein rich foods. There are 9 essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Animal sources of protein like red meat, chicken, eggs, fish and milk products contain all essential amino acids in high concentrations. They are often called complete sources of protein.

Non animal sources of protein are typically low in some of the essential amino acids. That’s the case with beans as well. Although they are a good source of protein they are low in certain amino acids compared to meat. That’s why they’re often called incomplete sources of proteins.

Both animal and plant sources of protein contain all types of essential amino acids.

The classification of ‘complete’ or’ incomplete’ proteins is very misleading to many people since the name ‘incomplete’ suggests that something is missing from plant proteins. This leads to the idea that you have to eat more meat to make up for the lack of plant proteins. Plant sources of protein are not incomplete. They contain all of the essential amino acids just to a lesser amount. This is not something that will endanger your health if your eating a healthy diet with lot’s of vegetables, grains, legumes and an occasional serving of meat.

The protein package is what matters

Why are we considering plant proteins at all then? Wouldn’t it be easier to just eat enough meat? Plant sources of protein may have less amino acids but they are ‘better packaged’ than meat proteins. Meat is high in proteins but also high in saturated fats and cholesterol. High meat consumption is also linked to various diseases like cardio-vascular disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and several cancers including colon cancer. On the other hand plant proteins have small amounts of fat and are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Plant proteins also contain phytochemicals and antioxidants which are linked to many health benefits including cancer prevention.

A healthy diet should contain more plant source proteins than meat.

If you’re not vegetarian your diet should ideally contain more plant source proteins like beans. Meat should be eaten occasionally with moderation. That’s why it’s important to eat a variety of plant source proteins to make sure that you’re covering all the essential amino acids. This sounds more complicated than it really is. Just eat a variety of vegetables, beans and legumes and they will provide you all the amino acids you need without you having to worry about it too much.

Beans vs Meat nutrition

beans vs meat

Beans are definitively a ‘well packaged’ protein and bring a bunch of additional, beneficial nutrition with them. Beans have a meaty taste and are usually well liked even by meat lovers as well. That’s why they’re ideal to pump up your meatless meals. But how do they compare to meat proteins?

There exist different kinds of beans and nutritionally they are very similar in composition. Analyzing  the amino acid content of 11 kind of different beans including black beans, chickpeas, lima beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, edamame, fava beans, white beans, mung beans and adzuki beans it is obvious that their  amino acid profile is very similar. All of the beans contain all of the 9 essential amino acids. They are low in two amino acids – methionine and tryptophan.

amino acid profile of beans

The chart below shows that the most popular meats like beef, pork, chicken and turkey contain more amino acids than beans. Especially beef has significantly more amino acids compared to the other meats.

amino acid profile for meat

When we consider the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for all amino acids beans are a good source of protein except for methionine. A cup of beans won’t provide you all the proteins you need for one day but it contains sufficient proteins for one meal. The important thing is to have sufficient protein intake during the whole day. Further if you have a sufficient calorie intake that includes plenty of fresh vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds you will have sufficient intake of all essential amino acids.

Protein deficiency is very rare in the developed western countries. Our diet is very high in proteins. In fact the majority should consider lowering protein intake, since excess protein is stored as fat and can’t be used for later synthesis of proteins in the body. Excessive protein consumption can trigger weight gain, extra body fat, stress on your kidneys and dehydration.

Other benefits of beans

bean salad

While beans provide you with sufficient protein they have other benefits as well:

  • Beans are cholesterol free.
  • Beans have no or only a very small amount of fat.
  • Beans are a good source of folate.
  • One cup of beans provides you with about 50% of the daily recommended intake (RDI) of fiber, which many are severely deficient in the modern western diet. Fiber will make you feel full which will help with weight loss and it can lower cholesterol levels.
  • Beans contain phytochemicals that have been linked to lower risk of heart decease. People who consume beans regularly have a lower risk of heart disease.
  • Isoflavones and phytosterols found in beans are cancer fighting agents.
  • Beans are much cheaper than meat and a little goes a long way.

Because of these benefits beans are a superior source of protein compared to other animal sources. The low methionine content can easily be overcome by eating other legumes, grains, nuts and seeds during the day.

When to avoid beans

There are some situations where beans should be avoided:

  • People who suffer from gout should avoid beans since they have a high purine content which can trigger gout attacks.
  • Also if you have problems with bloating, beans are best avoided or eat them when you won’t feel embarrassment by the excessive gases. Dried beans will almost always make you feel bloated, but this flatulence doesn’t have any negative health effects. You can try to avoid excessive gas by changing the cooking water of beans several times, adding lemon balm or a peppermint tea bag while cooking the beans.

Why you shouldn’t ditch meat completely

Although high protein intake from meat is not recommended it is good to have several portions of meat servings during the week. Meat especially red meat is high in vitamin B12, which many vegetarians are deficient in. Vitamin B12 helps maintain your energy levels, lowers the risk of neuro- degenerative disease, helps the nervous system to function properly, maintains your heart healthy, is crucial for healthy skin and hair, may help to prevent cancer in the combination with folate and produces red blood cells. Red meat is also an excellent source of heme iron that is better absorbed by our bodies than non-heme iron and prevents anemia.

Consuming meat moderately in small portions prevents nutritional deficiencies.

Combining beans to make whole protein

An old myth exist that beans should be combined with grains to make them a complete protein and make up for the low methionine content. Typically a combination of beans and rice or tortillas are recommended. But these foods are low in methionine themselves (a cup of brown rice has only about 100 mg of methionine). The question is why should we combine beans with other foods then. The intentional combing of plant proteins is not necessary, contrary to popular believe. The important thing is to consume enough of all of the essential amino acids during the whole day.

Beans are a nutrition-dense food that contains all essential amino acids and by eating a balanced diet rich in vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and occasional small meat servings you’ll make up for the low methionine content. Making beans a staple food in your diet is an excellent idea and will contribute to your health.

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