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Slaying The Protein Myth

 

NOTE: Below is an article I wrote that recently appeared on OneGreenPlanet.org.  I hope you enjoy it.

“But where do you get your protein?”

As a plant-based ultra-endurance athlete, if I had a dollar for every time I fielded this inquiry, I could put my four kids through college.  So let’s address the elephant in the room, once and for all.

We live in a society in which we have been mistakenly led to believe that, meat and dairy products are the only 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, train and race at your peak. The message is everywhere – from a recent high profile dairy lobby ad campaign pushing chocolate milk as the ultimate athletic recovery beverage 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 anathema. 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 meat and dairy lobbies that have spent countless marketing dollars to convince society that we absolutely need these products to live. 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 induced foods generally high in artery-clogging saturated fat, a significant contributing factor to our epidemic of heart disease and a number of many other congenital infirmities.

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. Admittedly, plant-based proteins are absorbed differently than animal proteins. 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. But in truth, a well-rounded whole food plant-based diet that includes a colorful rotation of foods like sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes will satisfy the demanding protein needs of even the hardest training athlete – without the saturated fat that gives us heart disease, the casein that has been linked to a variety of congenital diseases, or the whey – a low grade discard of cheese production.

Just ask MMA/UFC fighters like Mac DanzigJake Shields or James Wilks.  Cyclists like Dave Zabriskie and Ben Bostrom. Triathletes like Brendan BrazierHillary Biscay or Rip Esselstyn. Ultramarathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek. Or undefeated boxer Timothy Bradley, Jr. who is about to go toe to toe with Manny Pacquiao. They will all tell you the same thing:  rather than steak, milk, eggs and whey supplements, opt instead for healthy plant-based protein sources like black, kidney and pinto beans, almonds, lentils, hemp seeds, spirulina, quinoa, spinach and broccoli.

Provided your diet contains a rotating variety of the aforementioned high protein plants, I can absolutely guarantee that you will never suffer a protein deficiency – it’s 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 and properly recovering between workouts.  In fact, I can honestly say that at age 45, I am fitter than I have ever been, even when I was competing as a swimmer at a world-class level at Stanford in the late 1980’s.

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 10 percent of daily calories stimulates additional muscle growth or expedites physiological repair induced by exercise stress. In fact, and over the long-term, excessive animal protein intake can be harmful. Not only is there evidence that it is often stored in fat cells, it contributes to the onset of a variety of congenital diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function and heart disease.

Still not convinced?  Consider this: some of the fierceest animals in the world are plant powered. The elephant, rhino, hippo and gorilla share one thing in common – they all get 100% of their protein from plants. So ditch that steak and join me for a bowl of quinoa and lentils.

Rich’s inspirational memoir FINDING ULTRA (Crown / Random House) hits bookshelves May 22, 2012 and is currently available for pre-order. 

For more on how Rich fuels his family and training, check out his and his wife Julie’s plant-based e-cookbook JAI SEED – a beautiful coffee-table style cookbook for the digital iPad set that contains 77 glossy pages of plant-based nutrition information and easy to prepare recipes certain to satisfy even the most finicky family member.

  • 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! 

  • 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.

  • 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!!

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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

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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.