The protein myth debunked

I’ve been having a difficult time knowing what to post about over the last few days, and it’s not because I’m at a loss of what to write. Actually, I’ve been at a loss of what not to write! The problem being that I want to convey so much of what I’ve learnt, that each time I start writing on a particular topic, I end up writing pages and pages on material that I had not intended to cover yet! The beauty of a natural way of eating and returning to the way in which we were designed to nourish ourselves is that every detail of this lifestyle is interlinked. But it sure makes it tricky to edit down copious amounts of valuable information into bite-sized chunks to best get the message across!

The number one question I am asked about a predominantly plant-based diet is hands-down without a doubt the following…

“But where do you get your protein?”

It was not too long again that I subscribed to the idea that we needed ample amounts of protein for optimum nutrition. Let me reassure you that I am not one to change my views lightly or without sufficient research and critical analysis of what I’ve read. This being said, I absolutely now have no doubt that we do not need the amounts of protein (in particular, animal protein sources) that we are led to believe.

Yes, proteins are absolutely essential for optimum health – for building and repairing body tissue. However, while it is heavily ingrained in us in the idea that we need to supplement our diet with large amounts of protein, the suggested daily amounts of protein are far in excess of what humans actually require for optimum nutrition.

Oh the frustration!

Firstly, I know I have already mentioned this book probably more times than is warranted by the short time that my blog has even been in existence, however if you have not yet read The China Study, by Dr T. Colin Campbell then you are doing yourself a serious disservice! Read this now! This book documents the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted, which single-handedly blew apart the theory that we need animal protein (which includes dairy products and eggs in addition to animal meats) in our diets. Campbell proved without a doubt that the excessive consumption of animal protein has a direct correlation to the increased incidence of diseases such as heart disease, kidney failure, cancer and osteoporosis, all of which are diseases of affluence that are rife within Western developed nations that consume large amounts of animal protein. Not only did he show that the risk of these diseases lessens with decreased consumption of animal protein, he also went so far as to advocate a diet void of animal proteins completely, ie a vegan diet, as being the healthiest diet of all. If you haven’t read the book, it’s worthwhile familiarizing yourself with the basics here.

(FYI, it’s interesting to note that Dr Campbell came from a background of diary farming and great faith in the dairy and meat industries, so the findings of his research and his consequent re-evaluation regarding the consumption of animal protein reflect a complete 180 turnaround against his original beliefs).

Secondly, our bodies just do not use protein from animal sources efficiently. Animal sources of proteins require breaking down into amino acids so that they can be reconstructed into something the body can actually use. Our bodies build proteins from 20 different amino acids, all of which are abundantly available in perfect ratios in vegetables, particularly leafy greens.

Would you look at a powerful animal such as a gorilla, ox, horse or elephant and assume that it might be protein deficient in any way? I would imagine not. Yet, these species rely on raw plants for building massive strength and muscle mass without the need for animal proteins. This is because, not only do plant foods contain enough protein to supplement our diets, they contain the building blocks of proteins in the most absorbable, usable forms. The body uses the amino acids found in plant foods to synthesize the perfect complete proteins it needs for optimum health. The following is a great example of this:

“During an expedition in the interior regions of New Guinea, the researchers Hipsley and Clements of Sidney discovered an aboriginal tribe living in the mountains of Mount Hagen whose diet consisted mainly of certain plants, 80% to 90% of their diet was sweet potatoes. The rest was composed mostly of young shoots, sugar cane, green vegetables, bananas, palm hearts and various nuts…The population, including the children and teenagers, was obviously in very good health, while accomplishing great physical work.
Professor H.A.P. Oomen… discovered that their daily consumption of protein was 9.92 grams (due to the fact that sweet potatoes only contain between 0.5 and 1.5% protein.) Meanwhile they eliminated in their fecal matter around 15 times more protein than was ingested through their diet, eating between 1.4 and 2 kilos of sweet potatoes a day. The logical conclusion was that proteins were synthesized in the body.” ~ Albert Mosséri, La Nourriture Ideale

Another detail to keep in mind is the fact that human breast milk contains no more than 6% protein. That’s all. When this is what nature has provided for the growth of an infant, who develops at a considerably faster rate than the adult human, why would we need any higher amounts of protein later in life?

Lastly, the human body runs on carbohydrates (glucose), not protein. Diets high in protein are often advocated as being more healthful alternatives to those high in carbohydrates, which is about as far from the truth as you can get (stay tuned for a carb-loving blog post in the near future). For those Atkins fans out there, consider the fact that Dr Atkins himself died overweight at over 250 lbs and suffering from congestive heart disease and renal failure.

For those of you still concerned about suffering from a deficiency, protein sources in a plant-based diet include a vast array of raw and cooked vegetables, sea vegetables, nut and seeds (this is, of course, assuming you might also exclude further protein sources such as grains and legumes from your diet or follow a raw foods diet**).

For example, vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli, spinach and cauliflower (just to name a few) get about 35-55% of their calories from protein. Nuts and seeds range from about 8-21%. A more detailed list of plant protein sources is available here.

Even when these sources of protein are acknowledged, they are still often considered second-rate when compared to animal proteins. Some people believe that you cannot get the full range of amino acids from plant foods to provide you with complete sources of protein for optimum health. This is absolutely not the case.

“Another myth is the idea that you need to combine different plant foods to form complete proteins. The idea was that most plant foods only contained some of the essential amino acids, so you’d have to combine “incomplete” foods like beans and rice to form meals that contained complete proteins. This idea was put forth in the 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. It was a million-copy bestseller. Unfortunately, many people still aren’t aware that this theory was later found to be completely false, as Lappé herself recanted her original theory in later works that were far less popular. The truth is that most plant foods do contain all the essential amino acids, but furthermore, your body will store amino acids in a pool between meals — it doesn’t even need to get all the essentials in a single meal. So the theory of combining plant foods to form complete proteins isn’t even remotely correct. Of course, lifelong vegans already knew Lappé’s theory was wrong, as they weren’t suffering from protein deficiencies regardless of how they combined their meals.”  ~ Steve Pavlina (source)

I hope this information makes sense of some of the concerns people might have about getting adequate amounts (and types) of proteins whilst following a plant-based diet (and apologies for the crazily long post!!). Please, any further questions regarding protein (animal or plant-based), don’t hesitate to ask!

“The truth is, no-one ever suffers from a protein deficiency – and certainly no one ever dies from one. But people die of protein poisoning en masse every day. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer, etc. are all the inevitable results of overburdening the body with cooked animal products.” ~ David Wolfe

**On a side note, I absolutely believe that millions of years ago, humans existed on a raw vegan diet of fruits, vegetables, nut and seeds, and that this is our natural and ultimately optimum diet, but I could write essays upon essays on the evidence and science behind this notion and therefore will save this extremely important topic for another post (or several!!).

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9 Responses to The protein myth debunked

  1. bonne_santé says:

    Excuse me Kate, I’m not sure how exactly you’re taking the words straight from my mouth, but please desist, it’s freaking me out! Your first paragraph = the story of my blog.
    I have so many kooky ideas swirling around in my brain that I get over-excited, resulting in a garbled attempt at meaningfulness that really never gets to the point.
    But YOU certainly did get to the point, and what a point! I learned so much reading this.
    I’m really interested in your pro raw arguments – I’m having one of those moments where I feel completely overwhelmed with dietary options & advice…normally I’m confident in my choices, but the more I learn, the more soupy and unclear it all becomes.
    All I know is, I felt GREAT eating raw the other day; I just need to know how to physically (and financially) accommodate that magnitude of fresh produce! Oy.
    P.S Do you start college after x-mas?

    • I know I felt that way too when I started reading about raw food (actually the whole of health and nutrition in general) – so much information it’s just overwhelming! You MUST look up also the Comparative Anatomy of Eating which explains our natural diet (it’s a book by Dr Milton Mills but you can find out lots online). Also check out Steve Pavlina’s blogs about the 30-day raw food trials he did (some were low-fat, some higher-fat etc and he is now 100% raw) at http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2008/04/the-anatomy-of-personal-change/. And also Frederic Patenaude – actually I have a really great introduction to raw foods that he wrote (it’s a pdf) that I’ll email you now. I think you’ll find it fascinating!! It’s not actually an aim of mine to go completely raw any time soon (I am still just getting used to zero processed foods and slowly heading in the general direction of high-raw veganism) but I do think that it’s ultimately the diet we were meant to eat.
      PS yes I start in Feb it can’t come quickly enough!!

      • bonne_santé says:

        Steve Pavlina is great – I’ve read & re-read his raw articles too many times, as well those biting (and hilarious) criticisms of religion & the like… His blog is an amazing resource.
        FYI – the Raw Secrets PDF you sent me has gobbled up my whole morning, in the best possible way :) Thanks again.

  2. “Where do you get your protein?” just never gets old, does it?
    Great topic!

  3. Lori says:

    I have not read The China Study but I have done SO MUCH RESEARCH into raw eating/vegan eating/etc. It’s so interesting and makes 100% sense, for the most part. I truly believe that we should live off of plant sources of food and try to alkaline our bodies as much as possible. That being said, I tried it and realized that my body needed animal protein (a little) to gain muscle (which is what I was/am after). I’m still incorporating mostly plants but for me, animal protein is working.

    But you definitely wrote some great thought-provoking info and arguments regarding this topic and book. VERY well written too!

    Welcome to the blog world, Chica! Hope to read more great posts from you! :)

  4. Lindsay says:

    Fascinating.

    This echoes what I’ve been learning from Meghan Telpner lately… and something I’ve been trying to explain to a lot of people. When they ask the dreaded protein question I just know they’re not going to understand my answer of “from leafy greens!”

    Thanks for posting this in such a clear way. It helps me feel less *concerned* about my proteins as a vegetarian!

  5. Sohara says:

    Yes. Absolutely. Abso-freaking-lutely. I’ve got a companion post on this and some other questions I generally got asked about veganism here, and some of it just seems so self-evident that I cannot understand why so many people can’t realize it. My darling mother, no matter how often I send her articles about cow dairy and the amount of vitamins and minerals in juice, is still freaking out about my lack of protein/calcium which will obviously lead to my rapid deterioration from osteoporosis. We’ve got a lot of prejudice and false information to fight against, but I believe we can do it!

    http://operachild.blogspot.com/2009/07/veganism.html

    • I love your post on veganism it is awesome!! (anyone reading, click on Sohara’s link!). I was totally gearing up to do a ‘comparative anatomy’ post about what humans were really meant to eat but you’ve got it down pat – do you mind if I put a link to your post?
      Ugh, I know we are battling so much blatant propaganda that’s been put forward by multi-billion dollar dairy and meat industries! It is so incredibly frustrating but it seems like, thanks to people like Natalia Rose etc, the message about the value of plant-based diets is being more widely circulated, little by little (and that’s just only the tip of the iceberg I’m sure you’ll agree!!!!)

  6. Pingback: Dairy Revisited | Green and Juicy

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