A conversation was initiated by my sister the other day when she commented via Facebook Messenger regarding a reply I posted to one of her foodie pictures, “I sure did eat that chicken.” This after she had viewed Forks Over Knives and said she was considering a plant based lifestyle. Needless to say I was ecstatic to see her taking control of her health. Positive changes were on the horizon, much like my experiences, she would see weight loss, a decrease in aches/pains and an increase in energy and overall glow. These changes would benefit her when it comes to her passion, participating in Spartan Races throughout the year. I was thrilled at what the future would hold for her.
Last Monday the topic turned to protein. “Proteins are made up of amino acids. Think of amino acids as the building blocks. There are 20 different amino acids that join together to make all types of protein. Some of these amino acids can’t be made by our bodies, so these are known as essential amino acids. It’s essential that our diet provide these. 1” Eight of these amino acids the body cannot produce and require a source. Many Americans link protein with meat, prior to changing to a plant based lifestyle meat was always part of my diet. Recommendations from the USDA as “commonly eaten protein foods” list “Meats” as the top protein source, but nowhere are vegetables mentioned 2.
My sister was taken back by my answer as it related to the amount of protein I eat, “30?!?!? That’s really low. For you.” In reality that number was actually higher, 45-50 grams, as I was reciting it from memory, when I was tracking my daily food intake for nearly 2 years. I can guarantee that level would have elicited a similar surprised response. When I made the decision to stop eating “animal byproducts,” dairy and added oil I also tackled the challenge to learn nutrition. I was under many misconceptions I had been fed since I was a child learning about the food pyramid and nutrition through school.
All the nutritional information I have gained is supported by science and research from well known individuals like Dr. John McDougall, T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. My opinions were not formed based on “broscience” gleaned from weightlifting forums, Paleo enthusiasts or crossfitters. Nor were they taken from the USDA, supported by powerful meat trade and lobbying organizations: the American Meat Institute, the National Meat Association, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, all of whom have a powerful pull in Washington D.C. 3
While meat still tops the list as the primary source of protein, there are other, healthier options available, yet they go against the conventional norm. Take quinoa as example, 8 grams of protein per cup. “While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom. 4” Other foods that get shunned include; rice and beans, soy, chia, buckwheat, seitan and vegetables.
Brussel sprouts, spinach and broccoli each contain 6 grams of protein per 1 cup . Matt Frazier of NoMeatAthlete.com has a comprehensive chart of Vegetarian Protein Foods, listing the amino acid, recommended daily amounts from WHO (World Health Organization) and the best vegan sources.
The amount of misinformation continues to promote meat as the top source for protein. Wrong statements from experts include:
Although plant proteins form a large part of the human diet, most are deficient in 1 or more essential amino acids and are therefore regarded as incomplete proteins. (American Heart Association)
Single plant protein foods usually are lower in protein quality than most animal proteins because they lack significant amounts of various essential amino acids. (Tufts University Medical School)
Other protein sources lack one or more amino acids that the body can’t make from scratch or create by modifying another amino acid. Called incomplete proteins, these usually come from fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts. (Harvard School of Public Health)
These are a sampling of quotes compiled by Dr. John McDougall from his monthly newsletter, the article is titled, “When Friends Ask: Where Do You Get Your Protein?”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that men and women obtain 5% of their calories as protein. This would mean 38 grams of protein for a man burning 3000 calories a day and 29 grams for a woman using 2300 calories a day. This quantity of protein is impossible to avoid when daily calorie needs are met by unrefined starches and vegetables. For example, rice alone would provide 71 grams of highly useable protein and white potatoes would provide 64 grams of protein 5.
So where does the confusion comes in? What is the recommended daily allowance? Why is more suddenly better? Since when are non-meat proteins “not as good?” Worse, what are the repercussions of too much protein on the body? In America, protein usually begins and ends with meat, recently we have seen the dairy industry promoting milk as a source of “high quality protein” in their ads. Unfortunately many Americans won’t question what is being promoted by the dairy and meat industry with their agendas.
Just how much protein does the body need daily? In the words of Jeff Novick, MS, RD, “I don’t know.” He goes on to say, “The only way to know the actual protein needs of any one person on any given day is to do a nitrogen balance study on that person on that day. But, realize that whatever your needs where today, they may be different tomorrow.6”
Based on the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, “The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for both men and women is 0.80 g of good quality protein/kg body weight/d and is based on careful analysis of available nitrogen balance studies. 7” Using my body weight of 175 lbs (79.37 kg) that equates to 63 grams of protein daily.
In 1905 Russell Henry Chittenden published his findings on protein in Physiological Economy in Nutrition. These findings contradicted what German physiologist, Dr. Carl Voit concluded that protein intake for people should be 118 grams per day, which became known as the “Voit” standard. One hundred years ago he wrote, “We are all creatures of habit, and our palates are pleasantly excited by the rich animal foods with their high content of proteid (protein), and we may well question whether our dietetic habits are not based more upon the dictates of our palates than upon scientific reasoning or true physiological needs.7”
Through experiments on himself, trials conducted at Yale University and scientific research on protein, Chittenden in 1904 concluded that 35–50 g of protein a day was adequate for adults, and individuals could maintain their health and fitness on this amount. Studies over the past century have consistently confirmed Professor Chittenden’s findings, yet you would hardly know it with the present day popularity of high protein diets 7.
The role of protein can be linked back to Milo of Kroton, Olympic wrestler in the sixth century B.C. said to be one of the strongest men in ancient Greece. Olympians came from the upper social strata in Greece, these families could afford to feed on more protein-rich legumes and meats to build muscle and did not have to rely on mostly breads, fruits and vegetables 8.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many people thought protein was a miracle food because muscle magazines hyped it so much. Bodybuilders and other athletes would follow diets made up mostly of meat, milk and eggs. The raw-egg milk shake was particularly popular, thanks to Rocky Balboa. Why would anyone swill such a concoction? The answer is simple: misinformation. Articles and advertising from those days falsely communicated the notion that protein from raw foods, particularly eggs, is more available to the body for building muscle than protein from cooked foods is 9.
Since the 1990s we have seen protein supplements and powders promoted. Muscle magazines ads and commercials. Misinformation regarding protein continues to fuel debate with a whirlwind of misinformation. One fact still remains, the RDA for protein intake is 8 grams per kilogram.
“Incomplete amino acids” is a term I heard constantly when I was registered at Stronglifts Forum as it relates to my plant based diet and being successful while lifting weights. This myth regarding as it relates to veganism was disproved years ago, says Jeff Novick.
The “incomplete protein” myth was inadvertently promoted and popularized in the 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. In it, the author stated that plant foods are deficient in some of the essential amino acids, so in order to be a healthy vegetarian, you needed to eat a combination of certain plant foods at the same time in order to get all of the essential amino acids in the right amounts. It was called the theory of “protein complementing. 10”
Lappé certainly meant no harm, and her mistake was somewhat understandable. She was not a nutritionist, physiologist, or medical doctor; she was a sociologist trying to end world hunger. She realized that converting vegetable protein into animal protein involved a lot of waste, and she calculated that if people ate just the plant protein, many more could be fed. In the tenth anniversary edition of her book (1981), she retracted her statement and basically said that in trying to end one myth—the inevitability of world hunger—she had created a second one, the myth of the need for “protein complementing. 10”
As the health of Americans continues to decline and obesity continues to rise when will we realize our diet is the root of the problem. “The healthy active lives of hundreds of millions of people laboring in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America on diets with less than half the amount of protein eaten by Americans and Europeans prove that the popular understanding of our protein needs is seriously flawed. 11” Since the early 1930s, meat consumption in the U.S. has risen dramatically. In 2012 an estimated 52.5 billion pounds of meat were consumed! “Though meat consumption in the U.S. has dropped off slightly in recent years, at 270.7 pounds per person a year, we still eat more meat per person here than in almost any other country on the planet. 12” On average American men consider 6.9 ounces of meat a day or 50.6 grams of protein. Women eat 4.4 ounces or 32.2 grams. 13
Health issues start and end with food on your plate. As Dr. McDougall says, “Misinformation leads to disastrous outcomes. People have serious health problems like heart disease, type-2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory arthritis that can be easily resolved by a diet based solely on plant foods. However, advice to make this dietary change may be withheld from you or a family member because of the erroneous fear that such a diet will result in a greater catastrophe, like a nutritional collapse from protein deficiency.” My awareness on how and what I eat has increased after 3 years of following a plant based diet. I am more aware of the inaccuracies that continue rear their ugly head as it relates to this lifestyle, especially protein. Yet no one can deny the health benefits I have experienced. Still with proof (me) standing in front of them, many won’t accept this lifestyle as an alternative in order to promote their health.
1. “Nutrition for Everyone: Protein.” CDC.gov, CDC, Web. 4 October, 2012.
2. “What Are Protein Foods?” USDA.gov, UDSA, Web. n.d.
3. “The Politics of Meat.” PBS.org. Steve Johnson, n.d. Web.
4. “Quinoa: March Grain of the Month.” WholeGrainsCouncil.org, Whole Grains Council, n.d. Web.
5. Bowes & Church’s Food Values of Portions Commonly Used. J Pennington. 17th Ed. Lippincott. Philadelphia- New York. 1998.
6. “Protein Requirements” jeffnovick.com, Jeff Novick, Web. 11 February, 2012
7. The McDougall Newsletter December 2003: Protein, nealhendrickson.com, Dr. John McDougall, Web. December 2003
8. “Diets of Athletes at the Ancient Olympics.” topendsports.com, Web. n.d.
9. Kleiner, Susan and Maggie Greenwood-Robinson. Power Eating-4th Edition. Mercer Island. 1998. Print
10. “The Myth of Complementary Protein.” forksoverknives.com, Jeff Novick, Web. 3 June, 2013
11. “When Friends Ask: Where Do You Get Your Protein?” drmcdougall.com, Dr. John McDougall. Web. April, 2007
12. “A Nation Of Meat Eaters: See How It All Adds Up.” npr.org, Eliza Barclay, Web. 27 June 2012.
13. “The United States Meat Industry at a Glance.” meatami.com, Web. March 2011.