Written by Jason Prall
We’ve written previously on How To Eat More Protein and about the importance of getting enough protein in your diet and why some people have a hard time getting enough. Today we compare the differences of two prominent sources of protein – chicken versus beef protein.
Over the last few decades in the health and fitness community, I would typically hear that chicken is the more preferable source. But with the rise of the ancestral food movement in recent years, red meat seems to be mounting a comeback. So what’s the deal? When it comes to things like protein synthesis, bio-availability, digestibility, muscle development, fat loss, and overall health impact: is beef or chicken the better choice?
I think it’s prudent to first make sure we’re asking the right question. First and foremost, quality is everything. As I tell my clients, you are what you eat, what it ate. The first questions you should be asking yourself are, where was your meat sourced and what did it eat? A chicken or cow raised in an inhumane setting, with little movement or access to sunlight, and fed GMO grain loaded with chemicals, will inherently produce a meat of lesser quality – more on this later.
When comparing the amino acid profiles for chicken and beef sources, you’ll find that they are very similar. That is to say that they are both complete proteins and all have similar, adequate levels of essential amino acids. While there is some variation in composition, the difference is negligible and for all intents and purposes, meaningless.
Given the similar amino acid profiles of beef and chicken, there is little difference in metabolic activity after consuming meat from either source. A study from the Journal of Nutrition looked at the consumption of muscle meat from beef and chicken and the effects each had on: satiety, plasma amino acid, insulin, and glucose concentrations in lean male subjects. They found no significant differences in any of the markers. [ref]http://jn.nutrition.org/content/122/3/467.full.pdf[/ref]
Other common methods of assessing protein quality include Net Protein Utilization, Protein Efficiency Ratio, and Biological Value. However, none of these methods have much relevance in humans when protein consumption is above absolute minimum levels.
Pastured vs. Grain-fed
In terms of protein quality, there is little difference between chicken and beef. However, when you consume a chicken breast or thigh, top sirloin, or organ meat, your body sees much more than just protein. When comparing vitamin levels, mineral content, and fatty acid profiles of the various sources, the differences become quite apparent.
But before we address the main question at hand, let’s first look at the differences between pastured chicken and beef, and their counterparts raised in the standard commercial feedlot setting. With respect to fat content, pastured beef tends to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-5 times as much beneficial omega 3s as feedlot cattle. As such, the omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is much more favorable in pastured beef than both all chicken and feedlot beef [ref]http://www.journalofanimalscience.org/content/80/5/1202.long[/ref]. The fatty acid profile of pastured chicken meat is also dramatically superior to that of grain-fed commercial chicken [ref]http://ps.oxfordjournals.org/content/87/10/2032.long[/ref]
Looking specifically at grain-fed vs. grass-fed beef, several studies indicate that grass-fed beef contains significantly higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), antioxidants like vitamins A & E, glutathione, and super-oxide dismutase (SOD) [ref]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16500874[/ref] [ref]http://www.nutritionj.com/content/9/1/10[/ref]. So there really is something to be said for pasture-raised animals. They clearly provide superior health benefits over to their feedlot, grain-fed counterparts.
Interestingly, the overall ratio of saturated fat and unsaturated fat tends to remain constant in ruminant animals despite what they eat. This makes beef a better choice than chicken for those who cannot afford to buy pasture-raised meats.
Fat And Happy
We’ve covered the protein. So what else is there?
As it turns out, beef, even the leaner grass-fed variety, tends to contain more fat than chicken. And of this fat, about half tends to be saturated and half monounsaturated. Yep the same fat found in olive oil that everybody agrees is healthy for your heart.
For years the high levels of saturated fat has raised significant health concerns. But times are changing and the fears, based upon shoddy science at best, have been proven to be unfounded [ref]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20071648?dopt=AbstractPlus%20A[/ref]. Not all saturated fat is created equal. Stearic acid (C:18), the main saturate found beef, actually reduces liver and plasma cholesterol, and prevents arterial clotting.
Compared to chicken, beef is much higher in CLA, vaccenic acid, and omega 3s. The health benefits of omega 3s are fairly well known, but what about CLA and vaccenic acid? Turns out CLA improves cardiovascular health [ref]http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09637486.2013.763908[/ref], improves brain function, prevents bone loss, prevents weight gain associated with menopause [ref]http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814613002343[/ref], improves fat loss [ref]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23271912[/ref] [ref]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22261578[/ref], and increases mitochondrial biosynthesis and metabolism in skeletal muscle [ref]http://www.lipidworld.com/content/11/1/142[/ref].
While the science on vaccenic acid is still in its infancy, it has been shown to protect babies from atopic eczema [ref]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25119335[/ref] and increase adiponectin levels in adults [ref]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25087591[/ref].
And to take things one step further, pastured beef finished in the summer contains higher levels of CLA, omega 3s, and vaccenic acid than non organic beef and winter-finished beef respectively [ref]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25460141[/ref].
Circling back to the original question: chicken versus beef protein?
The Winner: Beef
We’ve shown there to be no meaningful difference in the protein content of beef and chicken. Meanwhile, grass-fed beef displays many more health benefits by way of its fat profile. And to top it off, beef (specifically grass-fed) has significantly higher levels of vitamins and minerals – particularly iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12.
Given all the apparent health advantages of beef, why would you ever consume chicken? Probably the most obvious answer is that you may prefer the taste. Another advantage is the price per gram of protein tends to be one of the lowest, making it a very economical way to get quality protein in your diet. And looking at it from a different viewpoint, chickens also provide a very egalitarian and functional way to provide your own food source. It is much easier to raise chickens then it is to raise cows.
The bottom line is that the animal kingdom provides us with some of the best sources of nutrition, particularly in the way of preformed vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and digestible protein. So if you have the means and the taste buds for it, don’t be afraid to reach for that nice juicy pasture-raised steak!
Jason Prall has been a lifelong athlete with a continuing passion for all things health and fitness. During his time as a collegiate athlete, he experienced numerous injuries and was frustrated with the shortsighted and ineffective treatment he continuously received from traditional medical avenues. Since then he spent thousands of hours studying trusted medical journals, attending seminars, completing numerous classes and coursework. And it was then he began to develop his vision for helping others.