In today’s post, nutritionist and food blogger Pixie Turner talks about the battle between plant and animal protein.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “protein”? A steak? Chicken? A post-workout protein shake? Beans? Tofu? Animal or plant?
Animal proteins provide us with complete sources of protein – sources with all the essential amino acids our bodies can’t make, and in the right quantities – as well as highly bioavailable iron and vitamin B12. Plant proteins on the other hand are fibre-rich foods that are highly beneficial for gut health as well as overall health. They provide us with additional phytochemicals that aren’t found in animal proteins.
But to different groups of people, animal and plant proteins elicit different emotions and associations. Even now, plant proteins and vegetarianism/veganism are associated with skinny hippies, “rabbit food”, and are considered quite feminine. Animal proteins, on the other hand, such as meat and eggs are associated with strength, ‘gains’, muscles, and masculinity. Disney’s Gaston, by all arguments an extremely ‘manly’ man, even sings “when I was a lad I ate 4 dozen eggs every morning to help me get large”.
These perceptions are arguably less prominent than they once were, but still exist today in the context of ‘you are what you eat’. Men eating animal proteins is a way of asserting their masculinity and dominance over living things, whereas women eating plant proteins is a way of maintaining femininity and avoiding ‘bulking up’ and (god forbid) ‘looking manly’.
And so came the war of vegan vs paleo. Think of paleo and you’ll likely conjure up a Crossfitter with big muscles, eating an egg-white omelette or a plate of chicken, sweet potato and broccoli.
Think of vegan and you’ll likely conjure up a slender bendy yogi with a bowl of salad. Both extreme stereotypes of course, but there’s a reason these exist.
Although ethics is a huge part of the vegan diet, the majority will also argue a series of health benefits (some true, some nonsense) to back up their stance. Many vegans believe animal products to be ‘acidic’ and the cause of chronic disease. These foods are demonised with derogatory terms: “flesh” and “chicken periods” rather than meat and eggs. This is strong moral language designed to disgust and discourage the consumer.
Paleo advocates counter this by calling sugars and starches (which here includes beans and pulses), “toxic” and “addictive”. Even industrially farmed meats are considered “toxic”, with grass-fed or wild animals being hailed instead. The argument here is highly focused on health, with grains and sugars believed to be the cause of all modern disease, and an appeal to the ‘good old days’ of hunter-gatherer life where there was no processed food and metabolic syndrome wasn’t an issue.
Both choices have clear moral connotations attached.
Analysis into the justification of meat consumption shows that increasing intake is linked to masculinity, particularly “stoicism, toughness, emotional restriction, strength, athleticism, and dominance” (1). As such, the moral animal rights arguments for veganism and consumption of plant proteins just won’t have the desired effect – these are designed to produce emotional and compassionate responses. Conversely, the paleo hunter-gatherer arguments are a backlash to modern society, including the rise of the modern woman who spends her day working rather than cooking at home. Women are now also “bringing home the (coconut) bacon” thanks to increased gender equality, and the abundance of convenience or processed foods available. Even in the kitchen, cooking inside is considered a “woman’s role” whereas outside cooking on a BBQ is much more primitive and manly. Men are entrusted with the charring of meat while women prepare a side salad indoors.
The very modernisation of society is an affront to the pure masculinity of the hunter bringing home the kill of the day. Everything about paleo simply screams nostalgia.
However, particularly amongst millennials, these associations have begun to shift, with more of a focus on ethical and environmental reasons for choosing plant proteins over animal ones (2). This is perhaps due to an awareness of living with the long-term consequences of their choices, which has been heightened by the popularity of social media. Choosing plant proteins, even if only “part-time” is seen as a more compassionate and environmentally-friendly choice. We now have evidence into the effects of animal farming to back-up arguments, instead of relying on the vague notion of animal rights. This, combined with research showing an association between plant proteins and lower mortality (3), is perhaps compelling enough to slowly erode away at the masculinity justifications.
Overall, once you remove the moral connotations attached to plant and animal proteins, and focus on the nutrition, there are clear arguments for eating both.
Pixie is a nutritionist (MSc), food blogger, and avid Instagrammer. She graduated with a First Class degree in Biochemistry, and went on to complete a Masters in Nutrition with Distinction. She is the brains behind the ‘Plantbased Pixie’ blog and social media accounts, and is dedicated to promoting a fad-free healthy lifestyle supported by evidence-based science. Her first book, ‘The Wellness Rebel’ will be published Spring 2018.
- Real Men Don’t Eat (Vegetable) Quiche
- Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK
- Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality