Beef Versus Broccoli: Making an Apples-To-Apples Comparison

Tips for Making Sense of Conflicting Nutritional Claims

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Five Ways to Compare Protein Content

  1. Percent of calories (calories from protein divided by total calories)
  2. Calorie-matched servings (e.g grams protein per 100 calories)
  3. Mass-matched servings (e.g. grams of protein per 100 grams)
  4. Volume-matched servings (e.g. grams of protein per cup)
  5. ‘Typical’ serving size (e.g. grams or protein per random serving size, not necessarily the same for the two foods)

Which Cut of Beef?

I based my analysis on ground beef, because it is the most commonly consumed type of beef in North America. Within ground beef, I opted for 85% lean (on the leaner side of the most common ground beef cuts).

Show Me the Data!

The chart below shows my findings, with each row displaying a different method:

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Different ways to compare protein content of broccoli vs ground beef. Data from USDA.

And the Winner Is…

Broccoli “wins” according to percent of calories from protein and grams of protein per 100 calorie serving. Ground beef “wins” using servings of 100 grams, one cup or a ‘typical’ serving size .

Which Method is Best?

The right method depends on the intent of your question.

The Case for Calorie-Based Comparisons

Using percent-calories or calorie-matched methods has several advantages:

  1. They are not impacted by water and fiber content. Foods high in water or fiber will always score lower when you compare servings by weight or size. It’s no surprise that a cup of nuts has far more protein than a cup of spinach — spinach is mostly water (only 7 calories per cup!)
  2. Last but not least, these methods put the protein content in context. They tell us the nutritional contribution of protein relative to other macronutrients. If all the calories in a food make up a pie, these methods tells us how big the protein slice is (versus the fat and carbohydrate). See image below:
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Introducing the Broccolivore

It can be a useful thought exercise to take things to the extreme. How well nourished would you be if all you ate were broccoli? Or only ground beef?

The Bottom Line

As an information consumer, you should look for advice that:

  1. Provides clear methods behind the findings.
  2. Provides a rationale for the choice of method (icing on the cake!).

Future Directions

It saddens me that the public has become so disenchanted with nutritional research that they are ready to throw up their arms (or have already) and ignore it. What can we do so that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater?

Limitations and Caveats

  • This analysis does not take into account differences in protein absorption. In general, these tend to be lower with plant-based proteins, but not by a large enough margin to change the overall findings.
  • This analysis does not look at the specific essential amino acids contained in broccoli versus beef. I cover this topic in my mythbuster article below on the ‘completeness’ of plant-based proteins.

Related Articles

Data Sources

Written by

Scientist (PhD Genetics @Stanford) * Mother * Passionate about science-based healthy choices * Lifelong learner * Founder: Fueled by Science

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