The High-Protein Hype

Protein is important right? The more the better, right, especially if you are an athlete? The big food marketing machine has convinced all of us that we need more protein and that protein will solve almost every problem.

Not so fast! Perhaps no nutrient has so many misconceptions associated with it as protein. When we see big-bellied starving children on TV (thankfully a rare event, these days), we are convinced that these children need lots of protein to recover. What they really need are calories; if we feed these children rice or potatoes or grain, they soon thrive. As long as we are getting enough calories, we don’t have to give protein a second thought. Animal protein has long been considered superior to plant protein, because it is most like our own and contains all the amino acids (protein building blocks) that humans need, yet cannot make ourselves. Plant protein, which has lower amounts of certain amino acids, was long considered inferior; we believed it could not give us all the nutrients we needed. Animal protein also led to the most growth. But growth is not always good. Children need to grow, but as adults, we no longer need to grow. In adults, foods that cause growth can also cause cancer cells to grow. Francis Moore Lappé’s 1971 book “Diet for a Small Planet”, was the first to alert us to the heavy environmental impact of meat production. It put forth the idea that by combining certain foods, such as rice and beans, we could make up for the amino acid “deficiencies” in plant foods, and still get “complete” protein that was equivalent to animal protein in quality. We now know that this idea was incorrect, and that plant foods have more-than-adequate amounts of all the amino acids we need. We don’t need animal protein, no matter what stage of life we are in. Animal protein impacts the body very differently than plant protein does. Its digestion produces toxic substances that are much harder on the body, which likely explains the higher rates of disease in meat eaters. The Standard American Diet (SAD) contains twice as much protein as we need, and that is not good. Too much animal protein in our diet, regardless of whether it is lean or fatty, has been linked not only to cancer, but also to heart disease, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases. Just this week, CNN reported on a new study showing higher rates of heart failure in post-menopausal women eating high levels of animal protein. Those eating less animal protein or eating plant protein instead, were almost half as likely to suffer from heart failure. It’s just a single study, but numerous other studies show that eating less animal protein or eating plant protein instead, greatly benefits our health. We get more than enough protein from plant-based food. Let that be food for thought as you get ready to eat your holiday meal!

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