More Than Protein
Plant based foods like vegetables and fruits are incredibly beneficial for our health due to their content of fiber, micronutrients, and antioxidants, all of which have numerous studies to back up their powerful benefits. But what about animal-based foods, like meat, fish, poultry, and eggs? Today I want to dive into the meat of things (pun intended!) to see what other nutrients they provided other than protein. (And for the record, I am referring to quality here. So I am not referring to anything that’s been highly processed or derived from a poor source. Think of grass-fed meat over conventional factory-farm meat or wild caught salmon over farm raised salmon.)
When you say the word carnivore, a lot of people think of steaks and burgers, all of which contain beef. It’s not just a good source of essential amino acids (aka, protein). It also contains several important nutrients, including:
*Heme Iron: This is a form of iron that’s the easiest for your body to absorb. While I’m by no means saying you should give up spinach, when comparing iron content, beef will give you more bang for your buck, since you don’t have to pair it with vitamin c in order to boost absorption. Beef is also an excellent source of micronutrients, including vitamin B12, B3 (niacin), selenium, molybdenum, and zinc.
*Creatine: If there were an “A-List” of bodybuilding supplements, creatine would certainly be one of the top picks. While it is sold in concentrated form as an amino acid supplement, it can also be found naturally in animal-based foods. The benefits of creatine include exercise performance (for endurance, strength, and building muscle) and brain function. While supplementation certainly has its benefits, you can’t go wrong with simply eating a steak!
*Carnitine: This is a special amino acid with equally as special benefits. Its main role is to help our mitochondria (the virtual “engines” of our cells) by transporting fatty acids to them, where they can be burned for energy. Mitochondria are currently at the forefront of anti-aging research because of their significant role in disease and healthy aging. If that’s not enough to catch your interest, carnitine is also being investigated for its ability to support brain function, weight loss, insulin sensitivity, heart health, and exercise performance, just to name a few.
*Carnosine: Carnosine is unique for two reasons. First, it can only be found in animal foods. Secondly, it acts as an antioxidant. Athletes in particular benefit from carnosine due to its role in muscle function, and both exercise performance and recovery.
*Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): Many bodybuilders take concentrated CLA pills as a fat burner. Instead of shelling out your hard-earned money on supplements, why not go straight to the source? (Your wallet will thank you; plus you’ll be getting more than just CLA!) The benefits of CLA include improving body composition (according to some studies at least), and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Next is poultry, which includes chicken and turkey. Their nutrition often depends on the type of meat that’s consumed: dark, or white. The darker the meat, the more fat you consume. White meat is very lean and higher in protein.
*Tryptophan: This amino acid helps to increase levels of serotonin in the brain, thereby supporting mood, sleep, and cognition.
*Phosphorus: Chicken and turkey both contain phosphorous, a mineral that helps in building strong and healthy bones and teeth, filtering out wastes (aka, detox), producing genetic “building blocks” (DNA and RNA), and maintaining healthy cells. Poultry are also great sources of Vitamin B3, B12, selenium, pantothenic acid, zinc, and choline.
*Leg Up: Ever eaten a drumstick and gnawed at the chewy bits on the ends? That soft portion of the bone is actually a rich source of collagen, as well as calcium, Chondroitin, and Glucosamine (all of which help in rebuilding cartilage and keeping our bones and joints healthy).
*Don’t Peel the Skin (!): We’re told to ditch the skin on poultry, but it’s time to challenge convention. The skin on poultry contains oleic acid, a form of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, which we normally look for in foods like olive oil. It’s also another source of collagen, which may also support healthy hair, skin, nails, and joints.
Not a fan of creatures of the sea? You may want to reconsider! Lobster, mussels, crab, and shrimp are all nutritious, and surprisingly don’t the credit that they deserve!
*Chondroitin: This is a component of the connective tissues found in cartilage and bone. And it so happens to be found in shellfish. Chondroitin is widely known for helping to reduce arthritic pain and inflammation and is all in all incredibly good for joint health.
*Chitin: The shells of crustaceans like shrimp contain a starchy-fiber-like compound known as chitin, which is considered to be the most abundant organic fiber on the planet after cellulose (wood). Chitin helps to protect the lining of the gut, preventing it from turning “leaky” and developing intestinal permeability. In other words, it’s muscle food for a strong gut! It’s also a rare type of prebiotic, feeding the good bacteria in our digestive system.
*Astaxanthin: Shrimp and lobster contain a unique carotenoid known as astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is both an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, and has been studied for its ability to act as an “internal sunscreen”. Astaxanthin can also be found in salmon and krill oil.
*CCK Boost: The hormone CCK comes from our stomach, and helps to regulate hunger. The peptides (amino acid chains) in shrimp release CCK, helping you to stay full and satisfied. While research on shrimp and CCK is still undergoing, it’s quite fascinating to know that there’s still much we don’t understand about the sea (and the food it provides)!
Don’t let the smell turn you away. Fresh seafood is full of nutrients, and shouldn’t have any foul or off-putting odors (usually that’s a sign it’s been out too long!). On an anecdotal note, many people find them easier to digest compared to meat, so if you tend to have a sensitive stomach or struggle with meat, consider incorporating more flaky, tender fish into your diet.
*Omega-3 Fats: Fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, rainbow trout, and sardines are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The shortlist of benefits of omega-3 includes reducing inflammation, depression, ADHD symptoms, and triglycerides. Unlike plant-based omega-3’s from foods like walnuts and flaxseeds, animal-based omega-3 are easily absorbed. Animal based foods also contain a form of omega-3 known as DHA, which is important for the brain, especially for babies and children. You can also find omega-3’s in grass-fed beef and pasture-raised eggs.
*CoQ10: One of the most important antioxidants for our health is Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), or ubiquinol. While our body produces it naturally, extra CoQ10 from the diet provides additional benefits. It protects against cellular damage, sustains energy, maintains our metabolism, has anti-aging effects (at least in animal-based studies), and supports cardiovascular health. Fatty fish like sardines, herring, and trout all contain CoQ10.
*Vitamin D: Hardly any foods contain Vitamin D. There’s some evidence to suggest it may be found in mushrooms, seaweeds, algae, and yeasts, but whether or not it’s in a form that our body can process and use is up for debate. Meanwhile, there are indeed a few outliers in the animal kingdom that naturally contain small amounts of bioavailable Vitamin D. These include salmon, tuna, mackerel, swordfish, and cod liver oils.Vitamin D is very special in that it’s a vitamin with hormone-like effects on the body, supporting reproductive health, immunity, and bones.  Fish are also wealthy sources of micronutrients, including Vitamin B12, Vitamin B3 and B6, Biotin, Pantothenic Acid, Choline, Iodine, Selenium, Phosphorus, and Potassium.
*Taurine: While also found in meat, poultry, and eggs, Taurine is a sulfur compound that cannot be obtained in plant-based foods. It’s been shown to participate in numerous functions in the body, including muscle function, bile production, immunity, antioxidant defense, and both nervous system and eye activity.
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