Slaying The Protein Myth

I am plant-based. Essentially, this means I don’t eat anything with a face or a mother. Animals find this agreeable. I’m also an ultra-endurance athlete. Essentially, this means I don’t go all that fast, but I can go all day. My wife finds this agreeable.

Conventional wisdom is that “vegan” and “athlete” simply don’t get along — let’s call it irreconcilable differences. I’m here to say that is utter nonsense.

“But where do you get your protein?”

Not a day goes by that I am not asked this question. If I had a dollar for every time this came up, everyone in my family would be driving a Tesla.

Most vegans bristle at the question. Armed for battle, they assume a defensive position and hunker down for the inevitable, age-old omnivore versus herbivore fight that always ensues. Because belief systems around food are entrenched — they’re right up there with religion and politics — emotions run high. Before you can blink, arrows are flying in both directions. Conversation becomes debate. And debate all too often devolves into mudslinging … an endless, hopelessly unproductive merry-go-round that leaves each side further entrenched in their preferred dogma and never leads anywhere constructive.

I hate that — it’s why a large portion of the general public finds vegans so unpalatable. Instead, I welcome the question. If someone is asking, I presume a genuine interest — simply an opportunity for a productive dialog. So let’s try to have that dialog. The productive kind. My perspective on the elephant in the room … nothing more, nothing less.

We live in a society in which we have been willfully misled to believe that meat and dairy products are the sole source of dietary protein worthy of merit. Without copious amounts of animal protein, it’s impossible to be healthy, let alone perform as an athlete. The message is everywhere, from a recent (and wildly successful I might add) high-profile dairy lobby ad campaign pushing chocolate milk as the ultimate athletic recovery beverage (diabolically genius), to compelling food labels, to a dizzying array of fitness expert testimonials. Protein, protein, protein — generally reinforced with the adage that more is better.

Whether you are a professional athlete or a couch potato, this hardened notion is so deeply ingrained into our collective belief system that to challenge its propriety is nothing short of heresy. But through direct experience, I have come to believe that this pervasive notion is at best misleading, if not altogether utterly false … fueled by a well-funded campaign of disinformation perpetuated by powerful and well-funded Big Food, Big Ag, and industrial animal agriculture interests that have spent countless marketing dollars to convince society that we absolutely need these products in order to continue breathing air in and out of our lungs.

The animal protein push is not only based on lies, it’s killing us, luring us to feast on a rotunda of factory-farmed, hormone- and pesticide-laden, low-fiber foods extremely high in saturated fat. Eating this way, I remain convinced (despite the current populist fervor over high-fat, low-carb diets), is indeed a contributing factor to our epidemic of heart disease (the world’s #1 killer) and many other lifestyle-induced infirmities that have rendered our prosperous nation one of the sickest societies on Earth.

Indeed, protein is an essential nutrient, absolutely critical not just in building and repairing muscle tissue, but in the maintenance of a wide array of important bodily functions. But does it matter if our protein comes from plants rather than animals? And how much do we actually need?

Proteins consist of twenty different amino acids, eleven of which can be synthesized naturally by our bodies. The remaining nine — what we call essential amino acids  —  must be ingested from the foods we eat. So technically, our bodies require certain amino acids, not protein per se. But these nine essential amino acids are hardly the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. In fact, they’re originally synthesized by plants and are found in meat and dairy products only because these animals have eaten plants.

Despite the “butter is back” hysteria that recently graced the cover of TIME magazine, the best medical science establishes beyond reproach that both casein and whey contribute materially to degenerative disease. A family of proteins found in milk, casein has been linked to the onset of a variety of diseases, including cancer. And whey is nothing more than a highly processed, low-grade discard of cheese production — another diabolical stroke of genius courtesy of the dairy industry that created a zillion-dollar business out of stuff previously tossed in the garbage.

On a personal anecdotal level, adopting a plant-based lifestyle eight years ago repaired my health wholesale and revitalized my middle-aged self to reengage fitness in a new way. As hard as it may be for some to believe, the truth is that my athletic accomplishments were achieved not in spite of my dietary shift but rather as direct result of adopting this new way of eating and living.

I’m not alone in this belief:

  • Just ask Oakland Raiders defensive tackle David Carter.
  • Watch this video of strongman Patrik Baboumian breaking a world record for most weight carried by a human being when he hauled over 1200 pounds — roughly the weight of a Smart Car — 10 meters across a stage in Toronto last year.
  • Witness two-time World Champion Freerunner and parkour artist Timothy Shieff hopscotching off rooftops like a video game character.
  • And be amazed by this video of plant-based strength athlete freak-of-nature Frank Medrano doing things with his body you didn’t think possible.
  • Then there are MMA/UFC fighters like Mac Danzig, Jake Shields, and James Wilks.
  • And multisport athletes like Brendan Brazier, Rip Esselstyn, and Ben Bostrom — a world-renowned motorcycle, mountain bike, and road bike athlete & victorious member of this year’s Race Across America 4-man relay team.
  • Also professional triathlete & Ultraman World Champion Hillary Biscay who just raced her 66th Ironman.
  • Check out ultramarathoners extraordinaire like Scott Jurek, his fruitarian compadre Michael Arnstein, and my old friend Jason Lester, with whom I completed 5 Ironman distance triathlons on 5 Hawaiian islands in under a week. Jason has since criss-crossed the USA on two feet and is currently prepping for a 100-day run across China.
  • Then of course there is Timothy Bradley, Jr., who took down Manny Pacquiao last year (well kind of, but you get my drift).

The point is this: each of these athletes, and countless others, will all tell you the same thing: rather than steak, milk, eggs, and whey supplements, opt instead to eat lower on the food chain and source your protein needs from healthy plant-based sources like black, kidney, pinto, and other beans, almonds, lentils, hemp seeds, spirulina, and quinoa. Even eating less-concentrated sources of protein like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and bananas will get you exactly where you need to be.

If you ate nothing but a variety of fresh fruit, you still would never suffer a deficiency of protein (or even any particular amino acid). Short of starving yourself, it’s almost impossible. Despite the incredibly heavy tax I impose on my body, training at times upwards of 25 hours per week for ultra-endurance events, this type of regimen has fueled me for years, without any issues with respect to building lean muscle mass. In reality, I believe that eating plant-based has significantly enhanced my ability to expedite physiological recovery between workouts — the holy grail of athletic performance enhancement. In fact, I can honestly say that at age 47 I am fitter than I have ever been, even when I was a world-class-level competition swimmer at Stanford in the late 1980s.

And despite what you might have been told, I submit that more protein isn’t better. Satisfy your requirement and leave it at that. With respect to athletes, to my knowledge no scientific study has ever shown that consumption of protein beyond the RDA-advised minimum (10 percent of daily calories) stimulates additional muscle growth or expedites physiological repair induced by exercise stress. And yet most people — the overwhelming majority of whom are predominantly sedentary — generally consume upwards of three times the amount of daily protein required to thrive.

The protein craze isn’t just an unwarranted, over-hyped red herring, it’s harmful. Not only is there evidence that excess protein intake is often stored in fat cells, it contributes to the onset of a variety of diseases, such as osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function, and heart disease.

Still not convinced? Consider this: some of the fiercest animals in the world — the elephant, rhino, hippo and gorilla — are Plantpowered herbivores. And nobody asks them where they get their protein. So ditch that steak and join me for a bowl of quinoa and lentils.


  • Anthony Zacchino

    Ha! I couldn’t agree more, and in fact I am eating a large bowl of lentils, quinoa, wild rice and collard greens while reading this! 

    • JM

      Wow. My guts just twisted into 6 knots just reading this!

  • Anthony Zacchino

    Also, thought you’d enjoy this video from Dr. Greger of Nutritionfacts.org about plant protein and mortality rates. 
    http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/harvards-meat-and-mortality-studies/

  • Servite888

    Thank you Rich!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1152485598 Jeff Quickle

    Would love to know Rich, if you were wanting to add more muscle to your body what would you do, just eat more or what? I want to be a distance runner but I don’t want to look like one. I think one of us, one day will blast past the limitation that says you have to be thin to run far and fast. In other words I want to be a good or great distance runner With muscle, some bulk, just a little more than what you see in these distance events.

  • Bbx445

    Minor point, but I think you don’t know the meaning of “congenital”….

    • Lee

      The point Rich is making is correct, children are born with inherited medical issues as a result of the diet generations before have been consuming.

      • tmac1

        Lee I am with BBx on this one

        Diseases are thought to be 100% congenital Hungtiton disease as example inherited from mother to child giving them 50/50 chance of disease, or 100% external to the genes: think Hiroshima cancer victims or liver failure in Etohic Cirrhosis. Most disease is somewhere in the middle.

        I was struck by his use of congenital as well, as most of the dairy meat processed food increases cholesterol inflammation IGF1 levels and gives us the familiar diabetes stroke heart attack PVD. This would be the opposite of congenital and be acquired instead.

        Lee there are high birth weight babies born to overweight moms and there is some risk to these babies in the future but I am not aware of any mother to baby diseases : congenital usually implies genetic influence from mom or dad, not cocaine jack Daniels or twinkles taken in by mom.

        Ironically whole food plant based diet can actually influence genes and turn them on and off decreasing risk of chronic disease!

        • Sharon Patricia Moore

          Huntingtons is not congenital it’s a gene inherited from either male or female parent. Children of a parent with the Huntingtons gene have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the gene which eventually leads to developing the disease. I know this because I have Huntingtons and the gene was passed to me from my Father. It is a genetic neurological disease and is fatal.

  • Cole

    I’ve been plant-strong for a few months now.  I’ve really lost my craving for meat and really look forward to my colorful, plant-based meals.  Love reading about this stuff.

  • http://www.phifoundation.org/health-benefits-of-green-tea.html Chuck

    The above says “And not all plant-based proteins are “complete”, containing all nine essential amino acids – two arguments all too often raised to negate the advisability of shunning aminal products.” This is incorrect. That is not what “complete” is defined as. They define “complete” as a near perfect ratio of all 9. I have a book (Nutrition Almanac 4th edition) that shows all 8 essential amino acids in foods (the book was written when there were only 8 essential amino acids. It shows the amounts of each of all the foods commonly eaten.

    It list 73 fruits including quice and kumquat. Of all the fruits listed, which fruit has a zero amount or less than 2 mg of any of the 8 essential amino acids. None of them, except apple without skin has only 1 mg of tryptophan. Of the 8, the amino acid that you need the smallest amount of is tryptophan. You see everything was defined in a way to market animal foods. Are there any diseases that no one has ever had? No, not unless you make one up. No one has ever had protein deficiency that was not starving from all foods. Kwashiorkor (called marasmus if under age 1) only occurs in people starving from lack of food.

    • Ryan Hahn

      Damn right! Plant protein being incomplete was a MYTH unknowingly created by Francis Lappe in her book “Diet For A Small Planet” 40 years ago. She later admitted she made a mistake and retracted her original statement. But meat and dairy industry used that false myth to create a marketing campaign to sell their products.
      Simply put, people have been brainwashed!!

      • Amo

        pleasant to read that, coming from a physique like yours!

        i’m a weight lifter for 8years ago and vegetarian since january 2014 , very difficult to find info about weight lifting and veganism…

        • Ryan Hahn

          Amo. If you are on Facebook, send a friend request to Mu Jin Han. And make sure to send a message saying that it’s Amo from,, so I will know it’s you.
          I can help you by sharing what I know.

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  • Denise Jayroe

    I cannot find any research point to the claim that casein that has been linked to a variety of congenital diseases….

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  • Téo

    Saturated fat and Animal fats(specifically those from animals raised in pasture i.e.: grass fed) are becoming less incriminating factors of heart disease as it stands today. high levels of inflammation accompany obesity and heart disease, and it is markers of inflammation that better determine the risk you have for Cardiovascular disease may be better attributed to use of Plant oils; including safflower, canola, and soy. Have been shown to contribute greatly to inflammation due to the higher level of oxidation of poor mono-unsaturated fats, not found in such high amounts in our diets pre-industrial agriculture. I agree that Vegetarians and vegans can satisfy their protein requirements and then some and be supremely healthy individuals ESPECIALLY more so then those observing SAD(standard american diet). The problem firstly is that many DON’T fulfill their requirements, they eat far to many low quality carbohydrate sources that lack the nutrients you need, especially certain aminos and B vitamins. Secondly, many veggie options including grains and legumes (yes soy) do not agree with everybody, their are sensitivities and when people have them it can increase the inflammation in the body(yes leading to health issues). I do believe their are differences in individuals based on genetic history, Some have an easier time using carbohydrates effectively, while others honestly are better off eating more fat than carbs (good fats, and saturated fats are energy just like carbs!). This applies for Veggies too! So don’t necessarily avoid saturated fat(coconut oil actually starts the ketosis process, initiating fat burning, which doesn’t happen when you eat carbohydrates directly) but do avoid cheap plant oils(they oxidize when heated!), go instead for coconut, avocado, and olive oil(only use raw due to oxidizing from heat). And Yes you do need to Ingest a supplement for B-vitamins! Good luck! and remember Saturated fat isn’t the enemy, it is the low quality fats(mono and poly unsaturated) from animals treated badly and fed diets totally unnatural(corn), Animals fed on pasture produce much higher quality fats. Imagine that healthy animals are healthier to eat.

    Experience: * I love nutrition. BA in Medical Anthropology. Starting MS in Molecular bio to study nutrition, genetics, culture and diet.*

    • Ryan Hahn

      Eating animals IS unnatural for humans. Read about the atherosclerosis in ancient mummies. 50% of them 40 years of age or older had the disease despite eating chemical and hormone free meat. A definite proof that humans are not designed to eat animals. Google—CT Scans Find Vascular Disease in Ancient Mummies – NYTimes.com

    • http://www.plantbasedyogi.com Plant Based Yogi

      Teo you raise some interesting and thoughtful points, many of them I agree especially because vegan is not the same thing as being WFPB (whole-food plant based). I also agree that it’s not helpful to blame/demonize fats vs. carbohydrates as it takes the context away from WHOLE sources. However I’m not so sure that high-quality meat, e.g. grass-fed, local organic and whatnot is any more protective especially compared against plant-sources. There is finally some good science where they looked specifically at this question (see link with ref to many many good studies): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/ They conclude that grass-fed/hq meat is in fact less bad than commercial meat. But less bad is not ideal. It showed that unlike plants, grass-fed meat was NOT protective, it was just not quite as inflammatory. So are hq organic animal foods less incriminating factors? Sure, but not compared to plants. To make an analogy, if I smoked cigarettes I could choose to smoke low-tar organic tobacco vs. regular, and I would probably be slightly better off…but not compared against quitting smoking altogether. Something else to consider…while organic grass-fed beef may be slightly healthier to consume, it is actually worse for the planet. Since they live much longer lives than commercial cattle, grass-fed produce many times more the amount of waste, methane and require much more water, feed and resources. So even if meat eaters are better off going grass-fed, it’s simply not sustainable for our planet.

    • Archous

      The problem with grass-fed animals is we just do NOT have the room. #cowspiracy

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  • BeenThereDoneThat

    Great anecdotal editorial.

  • Kicker55

    I’m finding that very much of what is put out there today is a bunch of BS. First of all, the protein supplements sold by bodybuilders is just to mask the fact that they take steroids. If Arnold came clean, and people are getting bigger than Arnold and faster than Arnold, then they are probably taking steroids.

    Secondly, I almost eliminated everything except for fruits and veggies from my diet, and then all of a sudden I started having tremendous amounts of acne for no apparent reason. Then one day I ended up in the hospital with what I thought was a heart attack, well my heart was fine and to this day the docs could never figure out what was wrong with me.

    After months and months of fighting crazy symptoms and going from the biggest strongest guy in the gym to a crazy head case with phantom problems that no doctor could diagnose.

    I’ve slowly been getting better, and slowly been eliminating large quantities of fruits and veggies from my diet.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there is more to what combinations of foods are currently digesting and digestive issues than we currently understand. For example, eating 5 different types of foods for a meal may cause digestive issues just for the fact that the body may have a hard time breaking it all down at once.

    Ever since I started reading into food combing and following a few principles, I’ve been doing much better. Now I am back in the gmy tearing it up!

    • Ryan Hahn

      Your body was going through a detox.
      More messed up your system was, more extensive the detox. Your skin breaking out was your body’s way of getting rid of toxins through its pores.
      I see this kind of cases usually with people who’s been eating a lot of animal protein all their lives.
      You should have stuck to it. I’m guessing you’re young. Chances are you’ll start having problems when you get a little older.
      I’m a 50 year old vegan lifter who’s stronger than most kids on supplements. I’m mistaken for someone in his 30’s.

  • Ryan Hahn

    That wouldn’t happen in the first place if there’s no cholesterol in the body to begin with.
    Science has proven that human body has no need for eating animals. It’s only for their addiction to its taste. If you eat them, you’re saying that you value your selfish taste more than animal values its own life. 62 billion lives every year. I said to myself long ago “Enough is enough” and became a vegan.
    Because I’m a man of my words. I proclaim myself a compassionate man, and I don’t just give lip service like most people do.

  • nancy

    But, correlation SOMETIMES does equal causation. Are you with the meat/dairy lobby? I wonder sometimes when I read posts/replies such as yours Larry. Arguing louder or writing well doesn’t mean you are right.

  • Nedim Tokman

    I am enjoying this blog and so glad that I came across your website Rich.

    I found a plant based food that is very rich in protein content. “Spirulina” – search this magic word online. I am not scientist and also cant remember the source but animal protein is mostly large molecules compared to plant protein. In other words, any excess protein is stored as fat if it is animal sourced.

  • Leonard Branch

    Eating animate objects is unnecessary! It’s no different than cannibalism. In order to eat meat… you have to cook it, to avoid food born illness. And the reason “meat tastes good” is because it’s cooked, and cooked seasoned with plant based seasonings/herbs. Let’s understand, we’ve been conditioned to eat animals, as young children. The Food and Beverage Industry has hijacked our taste buds,and left us sspellbound. Denial and fallacious reasoning are always used in defense when it’s clear your wrong.

    • John Doe

      Cannibalism is the consumption of one’s own species. Even if you extrapolate that to mean mammal (which would still be wrong), eating fish or poultry would in no way constitute cannibalism.

    • http://19thCenturyAlpha.com Chris @ 19th Century Alpha

      I have been eating raw beef for years and have never been sick from it. I also eat half a dozen raw eggs daily in a shake. No food born illnesses there either. I only eat naturally raised beef to be clear. To me, raw beef tastes like pure, clean, nourishment. I was never conditioned. I was raised on over cooked, unseasoned meat. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned how tasty beef could be. While I respect your opinion that eating animals in unnecessary, I kindly disagree.