Week 4:

Plant Proteins

Thinking back through the last 3 weeks, we’ve built a case against ultra-processed foods and how they contribute to poor health. For our last week, we will be discussing the conventional meat supply and how it affects us. While some animal products like meat and eggs can be eaten as whole foods, some of today’s conventional farming methods have reduced the quality of these foods, which can have negative consequences on how healthy they are for us and the planet.

Conventional Meat 101

When shopping for meat at the grocery store, chances are what you are looking at is conventional meat. The animals are typically sent to concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs), where there are a lot of animals together in a small area. This has negative impacts for the environment as it contaminates local water supplies, causes a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and uses a great deal of water that depletes groundwater sources. Pollutants in our water, air, and land can drastically affect our health and the health of our communities.

Not only are there environmental effects from these CAFOs, but you can imagine what happens when a lot of animals are confined into a small area. Animals get sick frequently and are given antibiotics. In fact, just over half of all antibiotics sold in the US actually go to livestock!  With continual exposure to these antibiotics, the risk of creating antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria increases. 

We are then exposed to these antibiotic resistant bacteria directly and indirectly. Our indirect exposure happens through environmental contamination (basically a whole lotta poop making its way into our water and surrounding agricultural crops). Our direct exposure is when the meat is contaminated with the bacteria during the processing steps, and we can get ill after eating or handling it. 

Antibiotic resistant bacterial infections are a huge public health risk and can be tricky to treat, so it’s important that our society take steps to avoid creating antibiotic resistant bacteria in the first place.

The purpose of CAFOs is for farmers to produce as many animal products as possible, with as little time, money, and space as they can. One way of growing large animals quickly is to feed them foods that fatten them up – foods that are not naturally part of their normal diets like corn, soy, or byproducts from making ultra-processed foods. Maybe you remember from last week that some of the byproducts from making canola oil went to making animal feed. 

Other examples of byproducts used to feed food animals are things like defective candy, stale bread and pastries, leftover starches or imperfect pasta from factories. Some of these foods might even be fed with the wrappers still on!

These foods (or nonfoods) impact the nutrient levels in the meat. Conventional meat has a higher-than-normal ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats, and as we learned last week, that’s not great for our health! 

There are also some additional processing steps for meats that can move them more firmly into our ultra-processed category. Meat byproducts or trimmings can be treated with ammonia (like the infamous “pink slime” sold as ground beef) or other chemicals to make them more appetizing. Plumping solutions are injected into raw chicken meat which typically have a lot of sodium, but also can have seaweed extracts or chicken broth.  Eating meats treated with saltwater solutions can drastically increase the sodium content of your diet without you realizing it! Certain dairy products like cheese go through varying degrees of processing, and can contain a lot of salt and additives, as well.

Does this mean that you should never eat meat? Not necessarily. But we do know that reducing the amount of conventionally raised meat in your diet can reduce risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and many more ailments common in our society today.

We do know that meat from animals that have a lot of space and eat the foods they were meant to eat have better fat profiles and are just generally healthier for both us and the environment than their conventional counterparts. These are animal products like grass-finished beef, pastured chicken and eggs, and pasture-raised pork. However, this higher quality meat can be expensive, but the good news is that many plant-based proteins aren’t!

The scoop on plant protein

Protein is a crucial nutrient – it’s the building blocks of the body. Protein is made up of pieces called amino acids, which create everything from muscle cells to hormones. Without protein, you wouldn’t be able to heal from a cut or grow your hair. While many people tend to worry about getting enough – it’s actually very rare to get a protein deficiency as long as you are eating enough calories during the day. Most Americans eat far more protein than they need, primarily from meat. Reducing your meat intake does mean you’re reducing your protein intake, so it’s important to know which plant foods contain high levels of protein to get what you need. Don’t worry – it’s simple once you get the hang of it, and we are here to help.

Most plants contain at least some, they need it to build things too! Although they don’t seem like it, foods like potatoes and broccoli do contain protein. However, in order to make meals satiating and satisfying, it’s good to include foods that have a higher amount of protein than potatoes do.

What we’re looking for is the biggest bang for our proverbial buck when thinking about what plants “count” as protein foods. So, which ones count?

Here are some whole foods that are good sources of protein:

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Edamame (whole soybeans)
  • Nuts
  • Seeds 


There are also some minimally processed foods that are good sources of protein:

  • Tofu (made from soy)
  • Tempeh (also made from soy)
  • Nut butter (ex. almond butter, cashew butter, peanut butter)
  • Seed butter (ex. sunflower seed butter, tahini made from sesame seeds)
  • Hummus & bean dips

Processed meat substitutes

You may be wondering about the products available at the grocery store like “faux chik’n strips,” “beyond beef,” or “soy chorizo.” These mock meats can be helpful while transitioning from a meat heavy diet to a primarily plant-based one as they often try to mimic the texture and flavor of meat. However, while these are technically plant-based, they are also considered an ultra-processed food and not the best for your health.

So, While they’re totally okay to eat occasionally, these items are not something we recommend as a regular part of your diet.

What about soy?

Some people have expressed concerns about soy since it contains compounds that are similar to estrogen. While that’s true, when traditional soy foods are eaten in a reasonable amount, like up to two servings per day, we don’t see the effects on the body that estrogen has. In fact, research shows that eating these traditional soy foods is beneficial for our health, not harmful.

What about making sure I have a complete protein?

The theory used to be that you needed to combine certain plant foods together in a meal to make what was called a “complete protein.” It turns out, that actually isn’t the case! Our bodies are smart, and good health is made over days, weeks, months, and years, not by individual meals. When you are eating a variety of foods and getting enough calories, you should be getting all the different types of proteins your body needs throughout the day or week.

Super Simple Swaps!

There are lots of instances where meat or ultra-processed meat substitutes can be easily swapped out in favor of a whole or minimally processed type that lends a similar texture, look, and feel. Let’s go over a few examples!

If you reach out to a Health Coach in your Brook app, they’ll be able to help you find simple swaps that work for you!

That’s everything for this week!

Now let’s look at our action plan:

Log meals, snacks, and drinks for the week and identify main protein sources
Swap out meat or ultra-processed meat substitutes for 3 days 
Chat with a Health Coach about easy swaps to increase your whole food sources of plant proteins
Chat soon!
Image of Brook Health Expert Kelsea
Reviewed by Kelsea Hoover, MS, RDN​

on November 13th, 2020. Kelsea is a Registered Dietitian with her Master's degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA, and is one of our Health Coaches.