This article takes a critical look at the advocacy of protein rich diets. The author takes us through what our real protein needs are and what are the best food sources to fulfil these, supporting all his claims with evidence and studies that have looked at protein consumption. The article shows us how even though well-intentioned, the focus on protein in modern diets is actually causing us serious harm. A comparison between animal and plant based sources of nutrition is also made.
Protein – Some commonly held perceptions
When it comes to diet and health, nowadays there is a lot of focus on Protein. Protein is considered an essential building block for a healthy body, and rightfully so. There is also a general apprehension that vegetarians in general and people on vegan/WFPB diet in particular, do not get enough protein. The source of this fear being an underlying assumption that the best sources of protein are animals products – meat, fish, eggs and milk and plant based foods do not have adequate protein. It is this apprehension that has led even many vegetarians to start consuming eggs and call themselves eggitarians.
So, in the case of vegan or WFPB practitioners, who consume neither eggs nor milk, it is widely held that they are protein deficient. It is the same apprehension that drives many people who adopt vegan/WFPB diets, to resort to protein supplements or continue to give milk to their kids, on the assumption that they, especially their kids, need lots of protein and plant-based foods do not provide enough of it.
Given such a widespread apprehension it’s important to dispassionately examine the scientific facts pertaining to protein in general, and plant – animal protein in particular, to arrive at an informed decision on this crucial matter. Let’s start by examining some undisputed facts pertaining to protein.
Protein: Some basic facts
Protein is one of the 3 macro nutrients (the other two being carbohydrates and fat) present in our food that comprise majority of the weight of the food.
In the naturally occurring plant based whole foods, by and large, protein does not exceed 8% to 10% of the calories, except in case of some nuts and seeds. Bulk of the calories i.e. around 80% or more will be carbohydrates and the rest being fat.
Fat and carbohydrates mainly provide the energy for our physical activity, keeping the body warm, and many other functions. So, fat and carbohydrate are the macronutrients that contain the energy in fairly concentrated forms.
Protein is the other macronutrient, a nitrogen-containing chemical, that is used to create body tissue as well as enzymes and hormones.
Protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, while fat is calorie dense and provides 9 calories per gram.
It is important to note that all these 3 macro nutrients along with micro nutrients and phytochemicals in our food work in tandem, in a wholistic manner, to meet the nutritional needs of our body and maintain health. The reductionist approach which focuses on each nutrient in isolation is fundamentally flawed and is doing a lot of harm to our health and wellbeing, only benefitting the multi-billion dollar supplement industry.
Need to demystify the protein cult
We are today constantly bombarded with messaging that we need to consume more and more protein. Carbs are considered as bad and responsible for weight gain and diseases (heart disease, diabetes, etc). A Protein cult has been created and its projected as the magical health promoter. There are protein-only diets floating around which are being followed by many well-intentioned people with the hope of losing weight and gaining health. With so much noise and hype on this topic its important for us dispassionately examine two important questions
Q1 – How much protein do we need?
Firstly lets examine what science says on how much protein is required to maintain good health.
EAR: Protein requirement per day, EAR (Estimated Average Requirement), also known as Minimum Daily Requirement (MDR), is 0.5g to 0.6g per kg of body weight i.e. 4% to 5% of calories as protein. Approx. 30g to 36g for a person of 60kg weight.
RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance), on the other hand, is arrived at after taking into account standard deviations from the average to ensure almost the entire population is covered by such recommendation. The RDA for protein is 0.8g per kg of body weight, which translates to 8% to 10% of total calories as protein. Approx. 48g for a person of 60kg weight.
Also just to put things in perspective, mother’s milk which is sole source of wholesome nutrition during a time we are doubling and tripling in size, rapidly building body tissue and bones, contains only 5% protein!
Q2 – Is excess protein beneficial?
Having established how much protein is required, lets examine whether excess protein is beneficial as is being promoted widely.
It’s a commonly held misconception that RDA is only the minimum and higher the protein you consume the better it is for your health.
A 1904 Yale study concluded that decreasing protein intake from 100g to 64 g a day increased athletic performance by 35%.
Several studies conclude that 10% of calories from protein is enough to put athletes and endurance runners into positive nitrogen balance, that is the optimum protein level for best athletic performance.
Studies also concluded that protein intake beyond 10% actually adversely impacts performance of endurance runners.
The excess protein needs to be broken down and eliminated and this process stresses our bones, kidney and liver.
Studies also show that excess protein, beyond the 10% threshold, especially the animal protein, is strongly linked to higher rates of cancer and several other chronic diseases.
The China Study (the most comprehensive mega study ever conducted globally on the link between diet and chronic diseases) as well as several other studies across the world (like the Blue Zone study), clearly establish the fact that excess protein, especially animal protein, promotes cancer.
Dr. Colin Campbell’s Rat Experiments
Here I would like to refer to a series of lab experiments involving rats conducted over 3 decades by Dr. Colin Campbell, highly respected veteran cancer researcher, leader of the team involved in The China Study and author of the book The China Study.
The experiments involved 2 sets of rats. Both sets were injected with aflatoxin a known class 1 carcinogen. Then one set was fed a diet consisting of 5% protein and the other set a diet of 20% protein. The protein used was casein, milk protein.
The result – 100% of the rats on 20% protein diet developed cancer vs ZERO rats on 5% protein diet.
In yet another experiment, when aflatoxin dosage was progressively increased from 200mcg/kg body weight/day to 350mcg, rats on 5% protein diet showed no cancer response at even the highest dosage of aflatoxin, whereas rats on 20% protein diet showed a rapidly increasing cancer growth.
When the experiment was run over a 100 week period, 100% of the rats on 20% protein diet were dead vs none of the rats on 5% protein diet!
When researchers tried switching diet at every 4-week intervals between 20% & 5% across the 2 groups, they observed that diet literally worked as a Switch, turning cancer ON-OFF-ON-OFF as the diet switched from 20%-5%-20%-5%
In another experiment when Hepatitis A & B were injected into the rat liver, to check response to viral induced cancer, the same results as with aflatoxin were observed. 20% protein diet causing liver cancer and 5% diet showing no signs of it
In another experiment when the percentage of casein was progressively increased from 4%, in steps of 2%, upto 20%, gradual increase in Foci response was observed upto 10%. But above 10% threshold a sharp and rapid increase in response was observed.
In The China Study the same result was observed vis-à-vis prevalence of lifestyle diseases amongst the Chinese population above 10% protein threshold!
However remarkably, in all the experiments, when Casein was replaced with plant protein (Gluten or Soy Protein) – even a 20% protein diet did not lead to cancer growth!
Hence based on tons of independent peer reviewed scientific research we can safely conclude that there is no benefit by consuming excess protein, but only potential harm.
Here its important to clarify that in plant based whole foods the ratio of protein is always maintained at a maximum of 10% by nature and its only through consumption of animals products or protein supplements that we can end up consuming excess protein.
Do plant-based whole foods provide enough protein?
This is the obvious next question. There are lots of myths floating around on this topic. So, lets examine the facts
Most plant based whole foods contain protein in the range of 4% to 10% of calories, except nuts which go upto 25%. Thus, a diverse whole food plant-based diet automatically meets our daily protein requirement without any detailed planning or calorie counting. Nature has designed it as such.
The chart here provides a nutrition comparison between a plant based and animal-based food blends
As you can observe from the chart the vegetable blend matches the meat-milk blend in terms of protein. But is way ahead, (no comparison almost), when it comes to other vital nutrients like beta-carotene, vitamin C, folate, vitamin E, Iron, magnesium and even calcium.
Vegetable blend is also fibre rich and contains very low fat and zero cholesterol.
So, plant-based foods lack in protein is a mere myth propagated by the vested interests, the powerful meat and dairy lobbies.
Having said that its important to note that only plant based whole foods provide the adequate protein and wholesome nutrition, and not the plant based refined/processed foods.
Hence refined/processed plant foods like polished rice, refined flour, white sugar, fruit juices, potato chips, white bread, etc., while being plant foods, are nutritionally depleted, as in the process of refining several nutrients are lost and we are left with primarily carbohydrates and sugars.
This article is written by Merwin Fernandes as a blog post for Savera Naturals and can be found here along with a wealth of information on plant-based diets as well as the author’s own journey with food and farming. We highly recommend that you check out the Savera Naturals website.