The Protein Myth- Do we need Meat to satisfy our Protein needs?

One of the most common arguments given by meat eaters to justify eating meat is that they will lack Protein unless they eat meat. So much so that people suffering from many meat-related diseases also do not want to give up meat fearing Protein deficiency.

The following article examines the facts vs fiction on the Protein myth.
Source: From the book The 80/10/10 Diet by Dr. Douglas N. Graham

1. How Much Protein do We Need?

I often respond to the question, “Where do you get your protein?” with several questions of my own: “How much protein do you think we need?”, “How much protein do you think you currently eat?”, “What exactly is the function of proteins?”, “Have you ever met anyone with a protein deficiency?”

Although I have met many people who have begun to eat or are considering vectoring their diets away from animal foods, I rarely meet anyone who has a reasonable response to these queries. Usually, they tell me that we need large quantities of protein for energy, or to keep us from getting sick. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Protein’s primary function is growth, which is negligible in adults, as well as repair from injury and replacement of worn-out cells.

2. Official Guidelines Recommend 10% Protein.

Sometimes I wonder whether the official nutritional guidelines for caloronutrient consumption are intentionally vague and confusing in order to better serve influential market forces. I mean, after 100+ years of testing we have a fairly good idea of which foods are most nutritious for us. Still, the U.S. government officially recommends that our protein intake should be somewhere between 10 and 35% of total calories consumed.

It is extremely difficult to consume more than 20% of total calories from protein, however, unless you are following a strict regimen of refined protein powder and egg whites. Currently, fewer than 5% of Americans eat more than 21% of their calories from protein, with the average ranging from 10 to 21%.

Despite the advertising hype of the meat and dairy industries, humans require an extraordinarily low amount of protein in their diets.

Many official groups, including the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Academies’ Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council suggest that eating a mere 10% of our total calories as protein is sufficient.

Mother’s milk provides on average approximately 6% of calories from protein for growing infants. This should be ample proof that adults do not need more protein per calorie than this, as infants, with their extremely rapid rate of growth, have the highest need for protein per calorie of all humans.

Proteins (or more accurately, amino acids) are the building blocks of living cells. Once we have done our growing, we have very little requirement for the raw materials of which we are made. Think of the analogy of building a brick house: you need truckloads of bricks during the construction stage. Once the house is built, however, if trucks continue to deliver bricks, you have a problem on your hands. The same is true of protein in the human diet: too much create emergency conditions and keeps the body in a constant state of toxicity.

For those accustomed to seeing your protein recommendations in terms of grams of calories per unit of body weight, the 2003 U.S. RDA for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, or 0.8 grams per kilogram (1 kilogram = 2.2 lbs.). The RDA calculates these numbers for a “typical” (sedentary) female and male who eat 1,600 and 2,200 calories per day, respectively, arriving at a suggested 44 grams of protein for a female and 55 grams for a male.

3. 10% Protein Includes a Wide Safety Margin.

The national and international organizations that set nutrient guidelines to build into their numbers a margin of safety that increases the recommendations substantially, often near double. The 1989 U.S. RDA for the protein of 0.8 g/kg/day, for example, was designed to meet the needs of 97.5% of a normally distributed population. It was calculated as follows:

» Conduct nitrogen balance studies to determine the mean amount of protein required to replace daily “obligatory losses” through sweat, urine, feces, and sloughed skin, hair, and nails.
» Add two standard deviations (25%) to this mean value.
» Add margins for digestibility and protein quality.

In his book The China Study, renowned Cornell University professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry T. Colin Campbell states that we require only 5-6% of our total calories to come from protein in order to replace the protein we routinely lose, and that “About 9-10% protein has been recommended for the past fifty years to be assured that most people at least get their 5-6% ‘requirement.’”

In addition to the safety margin, this recommendation assumes that people eat their protein cooked. Given that cooking substantially deranges protein and other nutrients, we can safely consume far less raw plant protein and still be assured of sufficient nourishment. Thus, you can see that 10% protein (maximum) is both sufficient and reasonable.
The fact that our protein needs actually run in the single digits (under 10%) often surprises people. Most all of us have unwittingly fallen prey to meat-industry propaganda that would lead us to believe otherwise. Truly, advertising has influenced our perception of reality so widely that the concept of “getting enough protein” is embedded in the culture.

4. Athletes and Bodybuilders: 10% Still Plenty.

Bodybuilders have long consumed extra protein and lowered carbohydrate intake in the mistaken belief that dietary protein builds muscle. In reality, only weight-bearing exercise builds muscle. When insufficient carbohydrates are supplied, it is true that 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 they desire.

5. All Plant Foods Contain Protein.

Consuming approximately 5% of calories from protein is difficult to avoid if you are eating enough food to meet your daily calorie needs. All plant foods contain protein, and even if you ate a diet of only white rice, (not recommended) you would still end up with 8% protein for the day! But would it be the “right kind” of protein?

Proteins are complicated molecules made by assembling simple building blocks (amino acids) together in a chain (polypeptide chain). Some 20 different amino acids are used to synthesize proteins, eight or nine of which are designated essential (depending upon whose information you read). The term “essential” in nutrition means that the nutrient in question must be eaten or otherwise consumed, as the body cannot synthesize it.

6. The Complete Protein Myth.

In the 1970s, people often concerned themselves with combining proteins so that all of the essential amino acids were available at each meal. Later research has determined that this is not necessary, and in fact, the author of the “incomplete protein theory,” Frances Moore Lappe, recanted 20 years later, saying that she was utterly mistaken. We do need all of the essential amino acids, but we do not have to eat them together, or even each day.

7. Sources of Protein.

Dietary protein is not the only source for building the proteins we need. Instead, our bodies efficiently recycle between 100 and 300 grams of our own protein every day. We have an amino acid pool from which to build new proteins. We add amino acids to the pool by breaking down the proteins we eat and the proteins in our bodies.

We can easily meet our protein requirements on a vegan diet, with no particular attention focused on combining proteins or selecting certain foods for each meal.

The table below shows the percentage of calories from protein in twenty-one common fruits and vegetables and in five animal foods, for comparison.

Protein Content of Common Foods
(percentage of calories)

Food Protein Food Protein
Apricots 10% Asparagus 27%
Bananas 4% Broccoli 20%
Cherries 6% Cabbage 15%
Cucumbers 11% Carrots 6%
Grapes, red 4% Corn 10%
Oranges, Valencia 7% Kale 16%
Peaches 8% Lettuce, green leaf 22%
Strawberries 7% Spinach 30%
Tomatoes, red 12% Cheese, cheddar 26%
Watermelon 7% Milk, whole 23%
Potatoes, baked 7% Egg, poached 37%
Rice, white 8% Ice, cream, choc. 8%
Spaghetti 14% Beef, ground (avg) 50%

Mainstream nutritional science defines protein quality in terms of how efficiently the protein promotes body growth, rather than whether it produces health. Thus, milk and egg protein are considered the highest quality. However, in the words of T. Colin Campbell, “There is a mountain of compelling research showing that ‘low-quality’ plant protein is the healthiest type of protein.”

Although many people are surprised to hear it, they understand the logic of this line of thought when they stop to consider what anthropoid primates in the wild eat: a diet that is made up primarily of fruits and vegetables. We have never heard that chimpanzees or orangutans –which are typically five times stronger than humans, pound for pound-need more protein than the amount they get from their plant-based diet.

 8. The Dangers of Eating More Than 10% Protein.

To listen to the proponents of the meat industry, one would think we are in imminent danger of disease and death if we fail to eat meat three times a day. The truth is that eating meat often causes the very conditions we’re taught to fear. This is a surprise to most people, who have been taught, incorrectly, that they need large amounts of protein to be healthy. Actually, the reverse is true: Most people suffer from an overdose of protein each day, and this accounts for a great deal of our ill-health.

Too much protein in our diets is associated with all manner of health impairments, including such symptoms as constipation and other digestive disorders that often lead to toxemia (toxic blood and tissues) and, eventually, cancer. Autoimmune dysfunction, arthritis, and all other autoimmune conditions, premature aging, impaired liver function, kidney failure, osteoporosis, and many other degenerative and pathogenic conditions result from eating more protein than we need.

In general, protein-based foods are highly acid-forming in the human body (even the high-protein plants, such as legumes). This is because their predominant minerals are the acidic minerals-chlorine, phosphorus, and sulfur. To maintain homeostasis, the body must counterbalance the acidity caused by excess protein consumption. Unfortunately, it does so in part by taking a precious alkaline mineral-calcium from our bloodstream. The body replaces calcium into the bloodstream, where calcium levels must remain relatively constant, by removing it from our bones and teeth, setting the stage for osteoporosis and tooth decay.

It is no coincidence that fruits and vegetables contain just the right amounts of protein to build and maintain the human body. Nor is it a coincidence that the minerals they supply are predominantly the alkaline ones: calcium, sodium, magnesium, and potassium.

9. Protein Deficiency Does Not Exist.

On a whole-food diet that provides sufficient calories, there is no such condition as a protein deficiency. A brochure from the Vegetarian Society of Colorado says, “Studies in which humans have been fed wheat bread alone, or potatoes alone, or corn alone, or rice alone, have all shown that these plant foods contain not only enough protein, but enough of all of the essential amino acids, to support growth and maintenance of healthy adults.”

A 1999 journal article entitled “Optimal Intakes of Protein in the Human Diet” confirms this fact, saying ”…the true minimal [protein] requirement is likely to be so much lower than the amounts provided by natural diets (which are providing sufficient energy and other nutrients) that its magnitude becomes to some extent an issue of scientific curiosity only.”

In developing countries where insufficient food is available and people are literally starving to death, protein/calorie malnutrition conditions known as marasmus and kwashiorkor do exist, but these do not occur in developed countries. The symptoms-extreme emaciation, lassitude, and muscle wasting-resolve equally as well by the introduction of high-carbohydrate or high-fat foods as they do from the consumption of concentrated protein, and usually better. Protein deficiency, it turns out, just is not the cause of these problems. It is simply a shortage of food, a chronic severe deficiency of calories, that caused people to literally digest their own muscle tissues for fuel.

It is much more likely, however, that a person would run into a huge host of other social, health, and nutritional problems long before developing the dreaded protein deficiency. Protein deficiency simply is not part of our reality. This is the main reason that this book focuses on just two of the three caloronutrients: only our fat and carbohydrate consumption rates tend to vary appreciably. As one goes up, the other, fairly reliably, goes down.


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