This is very much up for debate as the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle is becoming very popular. You have one side of the fence saying that living without meat/animal products means you will not get the nutrition you need and the other saying you get more than enough. But who is right? Now I personally believe the choice to eat meat/animal products is more of a personal choice than a nutritional one. You can actually achieve your daily protein requirement through plants alone, you just need to be a bit more cleaver with your food choices. But when it comes to proteins its more about quality than quantity, so plants can provide the right amount but is this of high enough quality? The amino acids that make up proteins come in 2 varieties, essential and non-essential and we require 22 of these in total. The 9 essential amino acids can not be produced by the body and must be obtained by food, and this is where the argument arises!
Foods derived from animal sources are considered to be high quality proteins as our bodies absorbs these proteins efficiently. An animal's body is similar to ours and so the amino acid combinations tend to match what we require. These can also be described as complete proteins, in that it contains ample amounts of all of the essential amino acids. However an incomplete protein is one that does not contain all the require amino acids and so it is of lower quality. Protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) is a measurement used by the worlds major health organisations to rate digestibility of protein and its ability to satisfy human amino-acid requirements. The highest possible score is 1.00 and it is normal to compare this to the humble egg, with an egg white score of 1.00. Milk and its proteins (whey and casein) are also ranked at 1.00 and soy protein is the only non-animal source with this score. Chicken, beef, turkey and fish are also high up there while vegetables, beans, oats, lentils, nuts and fruits tend to have a lower score.
Now food is to be enjoyed and scoring each bit of food by it's PDCAAS is probably no ones idea of fun. And you would think this means round 1 to the meat eaters with their high quality proteins? Well actually this is where it gets more interesting as you can actually improve the quality of food with incomplete proteins. This is done by combining foods and eating complementary proteins that go together to become complete. For example; Grains are low in lysine (essential amino acid), and beans are low in methionine (essential amino acid), combine them by eating some beans on toast and voila you complete the proteins and improve the quality. A few other combinations like this are rice and peas, tofu and noodles, falafel and pitta, mixed bean salad and hummus and refined beans with tortilla. If you do allow some dairy try baked beans and cheese, wholemeal pasta and cheese and yogurt and muesli.
So in terms of health who is actually winning the animal vs. plants war? Well, I'm afraid it is actually the plant eaters. The health benefits associated with a healthy and well-balanced vegetarian lifestyle are undeniable. Countless studies have shown that a well-planned, nutritious, plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and stroke, as well as with longer life expectancy. A lot of this is linked to the fact that meat and dairy has a lot of saturated fat and a lot of calories that is linked to many of these health conditions. But vegetarian doesn't necessarily mean healthy, there are many unhealthy plant foods and an uneducated vegetarian/vegan could have quite a nutritionally poor diet. You do have to become more educated about what you eat when you take out a food group, this education can lead to better choices and health.
Another factor to consider here is the environmental factor and I think we all now know how much the raising and eating of animals (mostly cows) can impact the environment. So we can see that there is not only our health but environmental reasons to reduce your meat in take. However, as meat eaters we can be more considerate about the meat we eat, it can be high quality and free-range so we know animals were reared correctly. Also, when animals have space to live and are not so tightly packed they do not need so many anti-biotics, a side-effect of these anti-biotics are that they tend to plump up animals, giving more to sell. However, there are many reasons why we don't want anti-biotics in our systems and our food chains, our gut microbiome is one of them!
My personal view on this is that I like meat, dairy and plants. I am a big fan of the mediterranean way of eating which limits meat and dairy and their associated health risks, increases fish intake, and bases most meals around plant foods. The glass of wine a day also makes me happy! I try and pop in a protein shake as well especially if I am doing a lot of exercise, soy protein is my go to, and you get the best of both worlds. Remember the extremes of both ways of eating is unhealthy, an overload of protein can put a strain on the kidneys and is just as bad as an uneducated vegan risking protein deficiency.