Protein Myths

Western culture is obsessed with protein. Protein is confused with hunger, energy needs, health, diet, and weight loss. How much does one really need and can one have too much?

Eating animal-based protein is convenient for people. Choose a cow, pig, sheep, chicken or a fish and a person can fulfill their protein needs easily. Convenient for people in the short term, but convenience has a huge price that is not reflected in the cost of the commodity that is purchased in the supermarket. The cost is reflected in loss of land, inefficient production of protein, loss of water supply, pollution, and climate change. And one of the biggest costs to us all is world hunger through the concentration of protein resources in the west and lack thereof in the rest of the world.

Our culture remains fixated on animal based protein as the basis for the diet and thus is found stuffed in almost everything we eat. Choosing a diet without animal protein is challenging at first because of the overwhelming preponderance of meat, dairy and egg parts found in almost every processedfood choice.

Because protein myths are so engrained into the culture, we are all prisoners of these myths as if a new religion has taken hold. People want protein to fix everything from fatigue to strength.

Next we’ll take a closer look at some the prevailing cultural myths about protein and attempt to shed some light on the misunderstandings.

Myth 1. Humans need to eat animal products to get protein.

Nearly every unprocessed food contains some amount of protein – from blueberries to walnuts. The building blocks of protein are amino acids and our bodies produce all but eight of them from fats and carbohydrates. The rest we must obtain from protein rich sources.

In the mid-seventies, it became clear to western nutritionists that indeed plants did have enough protein to sustain life. They discovered that certain plants were rich in some of the essential amino acids but not all of them were as rich the combination in animal products. So, the concept of food combining was born. It was quickly determined that if one ate from multiple sources of plant proteins at each meal, they would get all the amino acids.

Fast forward twenty years. Food scientists discovered that the body stores all its unused essential amino acids for about 48 hours. This means that one does not need to food combine in the same meal. Having rice one day and beans the next has the same richness of protein intake as if one ate them at the same time. And the protein quality is not much different than eating a steak.

So what are the best foods for a plant based diet? First bear in mind that all plants contain protein. All the big mammals – from cows to elephants and horses to hippos – all eat a plant based diet. Seeds of plants have a greater concentration of protein than the rest of the plant. Seeds come in the form of grains, beans and legumes, seeds, and nuts. There are hundreds of varieties of these edible seeds and each provides a different mix of nutritional benefit. So the next time someone mentions that a plant based diet is boring, consider that they many not have looked beyond the first few options in this protein rich field of options.

Myth 2. Humans need animal protein for energy.

Protein is not a major source of energy. Energy comes from calories. While animal products contain calories in the form of fat, this is not the most efficient source of energy for the body. And if excess protein is consumed, it is oxidized as energy.

Quick sources of energy come from fruits. Sugars from fruits are quickly absorbed by the body and are ready to provide the calories the body needs for a quick boost. In addition, fruits have vitamins and minerals that help with cellular metabolism providing more than just a quick energy fix.

Perhaps the most maligned sources of energy are complex carbohydrates. This is overall the best source of energy for several reasons. First it is very sustaining. One can go 4-6 hours on a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast while only about 2-3 hours on a bowl of fruit. Even though fruit goes to work faster, it is also used up faster. (Try this experiment and see how your body reacts to the difference of only eating fruit versus only eating complex carbohydrates.)

It is important to point out that the reference to complex carbohydrates does not mean eating traditional white bread and white pasta. These are empty carbohydrates and can cause more harm than good. These, along with sugar, are perhaps the greatest culprits in weight control and diabetes in our culture. Eating these products, for most people, sets up a spike in blood sugar and then a quick drop. This is perhaps the biggest reason people desire high density proteins. When protein is eaten with refined sugars and carbohydrates, it reduces the spiking effect. (Eating protein rich plants will provide this solution without the refined sugars.) Many vegetarians stop being vegetarian because of this sugar “blues” problem. But most of the time, tracing the dietary history of the recalcitrant vegetarian, one will likely find too many refined carbohydrates and a poor carbohydrate to protein ratio in the diet. Either the wayward vegetarian has not thought through the diet to get sufficient protein or they have eaten largely refined carbohydrates as the base of their diet.

There is perhaps one more thought that should be brought to the discussion here and that is the absence of the vitamin B12 in the plant based diet. B12 deficiency can lead to anemia and other symptoms that may be “low energy.”

B12 isnormally produced in the healthy intestines of a person eating a plant based diet by bacteria. These bacteria come from dirt but is often lost or destroyed in the sanitizing of vegetables. So taking a supplement a couple times a week is a good precaution and very inexpensive.

Myth 3. I won’t get enough protein if I eat a plant based diet.

This is probably the most viral myth of the meat-eating world. This attitude perhaps comes from two synergistic trends.

The first is that in times of famine, animal products often become the scarcest foods. Eating animal products, then, is associated with affluence and abundance. In this scenario, plant based diets are coupled with those who are poor and less affluent.

The second is that the unplanned diets of those who transition from eating animal products to plant based diets often get sick. They, their friends and associates therefore point to its insufficiency and blame the problem on the lack of animal based protein. Perhaps the worst offenders are doctors who have generally had little to no nutritional training. They tell their vegetarian patient to eat meat to regain health. Of course the patient who has become the unwitting victim of this ignorance finds the conclusion to be true, that it was their vegetarian diet that caused the illness. And they join the ranks of the ex-vegetarians who discovered they have to eat meat to be healthy and feel better.

When we look at how much protein the average American consumes it works out to about four times the RDA (recommended daily allowance) published by the USDA. And when one looks back at the history of the RDA numbers, it is important to point out that they were doubled “just to be safe.” So in reality the average protein consumption is likely more than eight times what is required.

Vegetarians also tend to eat two to three times the amount of protein than they really need based on the hypothesis of USDA recommendations. No wonder why we are culture of such big people. A pure, plant-based diet that is well balanced will be closer to a proper amount of protein intake.

So getting enough protein is probably not the issue for most people. It is more about eating a balanced diet. Switching from a carnivorous diet by just taking the steak off the plate is not a good alternative. It takes some time to make the switch and change many years of habits. It also requires being conscious of what one eats and taking care not to consider junk food as one of the basic food groups to selected from at every meal.

The USDA and the American Dietetic Association. recommend that adults need between 30-60 grams of protein per day. To calculate your protein requirement in grams, multiply normal bodyweight by .36. (110 lb = 39.6 gms, 150 lb = 54 gms)

If you are not sure you are getting enough protein, do a food journal for a week. Record what and how much of every food is eaten. Then look up the protein values in the USDA Food and Nutrition handbook or on-line. There may be a pleasant surprise.

Myth 4. I will likely gain weight from a plant based diet.

Let’s start with the basic principle of weigh gain. The body needs energy. The body gets energy by eating food. The amount of energy stored in food is measured in terms of calories. As one goes about her day calories are burned to make the body function and to do whatever activities are asked such as walking, thinking or working out. The amount of activity one does correlates directly to the amount of calories burned. But what if more calories are consumed than burned?

Weight gain is therefore just the simple activity of consuming more calories than needed by the body to function. For most people, the real culprit is lack of exercise. Just a few hours of walking each week may be all it takes to reverse the trend. For others it is a problem of both consumption and exercise. And yet for another group, it is stress factors combined with consumption and exercise. Stress often causes people to consume more as one might in a “fight or flight” mode.Coupled with lack of exercise is a powerful combination to add weight.

The biggest culprit in the diet to weight gain is the empty calorie. Switching from white to whole grain bread and white to brown rice is a start. Cut out the sugar. It is the worst source of energy. Eating sugar will cause more hunger because it is “empty” calories -- calories void of any other nutrient value.

A plant based diet is also low in fat and absent of saturated fats. So provided one is not frying everything, fats will be of little concern

Vegetables are low in carbohydrates. Eating them as the base of the diet, creates the proverbial “filling up without filling out.” If it is feeling full that one is looking for, remember that feeling full is the stomach being stretched. This is not really being full but stressing the stomach. Getting used to the satisfaction from eating without being “full” is a big shift for most people, but a road well worth taking.