It’s no-brainer that animal foods and plant foods have many differences especially in terms of nutritional value. There are nutrients specific to either plants or animal foods.
For optimal nutrition, it makes sense to follow a balanced diet that includes both. In this post, we’ll talk about the common nutrients that are difficult or impossible to get from animal foods.
1. Vitamin C
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The essential vitamin C is the only vitamin not found in useful amounts in cooked animal foods.
Vitamin C1 is antioxidant that is important for the maintenance of connective tissue. It also functions as a co-factor for many enzymes in the body. It is water-soluble, and it is needed for normal growth and development.
Vitamin C deficiency may cause scurvy, a condition initially characterized by spotty skin and fatigue. Advanced scurvy can cause yellow skin, loss of teeth, bleeding and eventually death.
Animal foods doesn’t have enough vitamin C. Ample amount of this vitamin can be sourced from fruits, vegetables, fortified food, and supplements.
Tip: There are sufficient amounts of vitamin C from raw liver, fish roe and eggs. Lower amounts are also present in raw meat and fish (Source 1).
Vitamin C is found in most plant foods, especially raw fruits and vegetables. The richest food sources include bell peppers, kale, kiwifruit, citrus fruits and various berries.
Flavonoids2 are the most common group of antioxidants in plants. They are found in virtually all plant foods.
Many of the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables may be due to their flavonoid content. In fact, studies indicate that flavonoid-rich diets may have health benefits, such as:
- Reduced risk of heart disease (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3).
- Improved brain health and function (Source 1, Source 2).
- Better colon health (Source 1, Source 2).
There are various types of flavonoids:
Catechins are a family of flavanols4, the most abundant of which are (+)-catechin and epicatechin.
Catechins are abundant in green tea, and the health benefits of green tea catechins have been widely studied. They have been linked to reduced blood pressure, improved blood vessel function and lower blood cholesterol.
Hesperidin5 is one the most common flavanones usually found in citrus fruits especially oranges and lemons. In fact, a number of studies indicate that hesperidin may help prevent heart disease and cancer. However, the evidence is mostly limited to studies in laboratory animals.
Cyanidin6 is a particular type of anthocyanin. It is the pigment found in many red berries like grapes, black currants, black raspberries, bilberry, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, and elderberry among others.
By the way, anthocyanins are antioxidant pigments that are responsible for the bright colors of many fruits and vegetables. Studies indicate that anthocyanins may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Topping it all, plant foods are rich in a diverse group of antioxidants called flavonoids. Common flavonoids include quercetin, catechins, hesperidin and cyanidin. Their intake has been associated with a variety of health benefits.
Dietary fiber7 is a type of carbohydrates. These fibers are parts of plants that cannot be digested in the upper digestive system. Generally, they are labelled as soluble fiber and insoluble fibers – both have important health benefits such as:
- Lower cholesterol (Source 1).
- Reduced risk of heart disease (Source 2).
- Decreased risk of constipation (Source 3).
- Lower risk of colon cancer (Source 4, Source 5).
- Increased feeling of fullness after a meal, promoting weight loss (Source 6).
Below are 5 types of dietary fiber that have been shown to have health benefits in humans.
Beta-glucan, a widely studied type of fiber, is a viscous fiber usually found in oats and barley (also in sorghum, rye, wheat and rice, but in lower amounts), and has been linked with numerous health benefits.
Beta-glucan is an effective prebiotic. They ferment in the colon where it stimulates the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria. This can lead to improved colon health.
Pectins8 are a family of prebiotic fibers found in fruits like oranges, apples, plums, guavas, bananas, and various berries. They come in various forms with different health effects.
Pectins are known to promote good bacteria in the colon. They may also help ease chronic diarrhea and moderate blood sugar levels after meals. Ultimately, studies suggest that pectins may help prevent colon cancer (Source 1, Source 2).
Inulin belongs to a group of fibers known as fructans. They are usually found in various fruits and vegetables such as bananas, artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks and chicory.
Inulins are also prebiotic fibers like other fructans and can promote colon health by stimulating the growth of good bifidobacteria. Studies indicate that diets high in inulin may relieve constipation.
They are also fermented by intestinal bacteria. This fermentation process turns them into phytoestrogens, which are subsequently absorbed into the bloodstream. Phytoestrogens have been linked with several health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and breast cancer.
10. Resistant Starch
Starch is the most common carbohydrate in plants which are usually digested well by humans. However, some starch are resistant to digestion — resistant starch10. They are found in various high-carb foods like whole-grain cereals, pasta, legumes, unripe bananas, and potatoes.
Resistant starch promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon, improving colon health. Several studies also indicate that resistant starch may increase the feeling of fullness and moderate the rise in blood sugar after meals.
All about fiber: Fiber may be responsible for many of the health benefits of plant foods. Important types of fiber include beta-glucan, pectin, inulin and resistant starch.
Topping It All
A balanced diet rich in both plants and animal foods has many advantages. Although a carnivorous diet can be healthy, it lacks many important nutrients that are specific to plants.
1 “Vitamin C: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” 2006. 11 Mar. 2016 <https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002404.htm>
2 Hertog, Michael GL et al. “Dietary antioxidant flavonoids and risk of coronary heart disease: the Zutphen Elderly Study.” The Lancet 342.8878 (1993): 1007-1011.
3 “QUERCETIN: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings …” 2012. 11 Mar. 2016 <http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-294-quercetin.aspx?activeingredientid=294&activeingredientname=quercetin>
4 Salah, Nida et al. “Polyphenolic flavanols as scavengers of aqueous phase radicals and as chain-breaking antioxidants.” Archives of biochemistry and biophysics 322.2 (1995): 339-346.
5 “HESPERIDIN: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings …” 2012. 12 Mar. 2016 <http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-1033-hesperidin.aspx?activeingredientid=1033&activeingredientname=hesperidin>
7 “Dietary Fiber: MedlinePlus.” 2015. 12 Mar. 2016 <https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/dietaryfiber.html>
10 “Resistant starch – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” 2011. 12 Mar. 2016 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resistant_starch>