Dispelling Protein Myths

As a vegan I am often asked the question, "Where do you get your protein?" I decided to dedicate a post to answering this question and dispelling some long-adhered-to myths about protein consumption.

Over the years, we (the American public) have been bombarded with propaganda (yes, I know that's a strong word, but it's true) from the meat and dairy industries. As far back as when I was in grade school, I remember advertisements for milk and beef. It was also a social status indicator. If your family had meat at every meal, you were considered to be doing well financially.

So let's take a look at some of these very enduring myths about animal protein, shall we?

MYTH #1: You need to eat meat to get enough protein.

MYTH-BUTSER FACTS: The first scientific studies to determine human protein requirements were conducted in the 1950s. These studies demonstrated that adults require 20-35 grams of protein per day. Today, the average American consumes 100-120 grams of protein per day, mostly in the form of animal products, which is WAY too much. People who eat a plant- based diet (vegan) have been found to consume 60-80 grams of protein per day, which is well above the minimum requirement.

Foods such as peas, green vegetables, and beans have more protein per calorie than meat. But what is not generally considered is that the foods richest in plant protein are also the foods richest in micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, fiber, bioflavonoids and antioxidants, which are completely absent in animal 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.

FDA Poster, 1940
MYTH #2: Plants are incomplete proteins. You need to eat animal protein or eat meals with balanced amino acids to ensure you are getting the proper intake of protein.

MYTH-BUTSER FACTS: All vegetables and grains contain all eight of the essential amino acids, as well as the twelve other "non-essential" ones. While some vegetables have higher or lower proportions of certain amino acids than others, when eaten in amounts necessary to satisfy your caloric needs, a sufficient amount of complete proteins is attained. They do NOT have to be consumed at the same time.

“We now know that through enormously complex metabolic systems, the human body can derive all the essential amino acids from the natural variety of plant proteins that we encounter every day. It doesn’t require eating higher quantities of plant protein or meticulously planning every meal.” ~ T. Colin Campbell, PhD

circa 1950s?

MYTH #3: You cannot build muscle without animal protein.

MYTH-BUTSER FACTS: Body builders and those interested in putting on more muscle often eat protein far in excess of what is considered optimal. The question is whether all those whey protein shakes do them any good. No scientific study has ever shown the consumption of protein beyond 10 percent of calories to have any affect whatsoever on muscle growth. That's because no food will ever "build muscle." In reality only weight-bearing exercise builds muscle. When insufficient carbohydrates are supplied, it is true that protein requirements go up, as the body transforms the protein into carbohydrate (an energy-expensive process) and utilizes it for fuel. This does not, however bring about the result body builders desire...

So what is happening to all that protein?

MYTH #4: You can't eat too much protein.

MYTH-BUTSER FACTS: Oh yes, you can. Recent studies have proven beyond doubt, superstition, opinion and stubborn myths that eating too much protein is, in fact, harmful in more ways than one.

The following conditions may result from too much protein in the diet:
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney damage
  • Constipation
  • Tumors and cancerous growths
  • Biochemical imbalances in the tissues (overacidity)
  • Arthritis
  • Bone-loss (osteoporosis)

Let's take a closer look at some of these problems caused by an excessive protein diet in more detail.

BONE LOSS: As people on a Standard American Diet (SAD) grow older, they often experience bone loss or osteoporosis. Bone loss usually occurs more often in elderly women than anyone else, but almost everyone who eats a high-meat and protein diet will suffer from some amount of bone loss, and this includes children as well as mature adults. This occurs when calcium is removed from the bones of the body in order to fulfill the body's metabolic requirements for this stored mineral. Why does the body need so much calcium that it must rob its own bones? The more protein you take in, the more calcium you excrete. Studies have shown that a diet that contains 50% more protein than is needed may result in as much as one percent loss of bone per year.

KIDNEY DAMAGE: Intake of protein greatly in excess of the body's needs creates extra work for the liver. Excessive protein also creates extra work for the kidneys. Ideally, it is their job to remove excess acids to be disposed of when excreted as urea. When a high-protein diet is followed, the kidneys soon become overworked as they try to eliminate all the toxic by-products of protein metabolism.

TUMORS? We create cancer in our own bodies with every bite we take of processed, refined, and preserved foods. And the biggest offenders are the traditional high-protein foods—cheese, eggs, and especially meat. In 1982, the National Academy of Sciences suggested that there is a strong link between animal product foods high in protein and cancers of the breast, prostrate, and colon.

"The weight of the evidence certainly points to a link between high-protein foods and resultant cancers. You don't hear too much about it because consumption of animal products is a big industry in this country. It's also a status symbol. But the result is that there's a higher level of breast cancer here than in countries where people eat fewer animal products." ~ T. Colin Campbell, PhD

So with all of this evidence it is easy to see that eating a plant-based diet—particularly one rich in fruits, vegetables, beans nuts and seeds—is not only a superior source of nutrients, including protein, but is also a choice that will more likely result in a disease-free life.

Healthy trails!

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