Putting to Rest the Great Protein Myth
Unfortunately we are never taught that broccoli, oats and carrots have protein, but just think for a moment about the largest, strongest, land animals on the planet: giraffes, elephants, bulls and bison. They’re all vegetarian animals, and they get plenty of protein – from the plants.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, 30 Day Vegan Challenge
Ah, protein! It seems laughable now, but I too had protein on my list of things to worry about when I went vegan. However Dr Gregor soon put me right with this short, very useful video. We are asking the wrong question. It is not, where do I get my protein? The much more important question should be, where do I get my fibre?
So long as I am getting enough calories from a variety of whole foods, I am getting more than enough protein (along with more dietary fibre). Protein deficiency is something that happens either through a rare genetic condition (Protein C and Protein S deficiency) or through not getting enough food. In an affluent, food rich country like New Zealand that basically narrows it down to people who aren’t eating enough – people with eating disorders, on calorie restricted diets, living with serious illnesses like cancer or AIDs or who are into endurance sports, but eating an inadequate diet.
The other issue people seem to get worked up about around protein is that of ‘whole’ proteins. We have to eat meat and/or eggs because they are ‘whole’ proteins, right?
Wrong. Unless you are living on lollies and potato chips, complementing proteins is not a problem. All plant foods have all the essential amino acids, it is just that certain plants have higher concentrations of some; but again, eat a variety of whole foods, and unless you fall into certain groups like athletes, protein is not going to be an issue.
Apparently we need about 0.36 grams of protein per day of body weight. When you look at a list plant foods and their protein it is easy to see that even a sort-of healthy vegan diet like mine has protein well covered.
Apparently, our obsession with protein stems form the work of Carl von Voit (1831 – 1908), the so called ‘father’ of nutritional science, who did some innovative and ground breaking studies on human physiology and metabolism.
“Through 11 years of intensive experimentation, they made the first accurate determination of human energy requirements (in terms of caloric intake), demonstrated the validity of the laws of conservation of energy in living animals, and did much to establish the concept that the basis of metabolism lies in the cells rather than in the blood. Voit also showed that an animal’s oxygen requirement is the result, not the cause, of metabolism, that carbon dioxide production is proportional to the rate of muscular activity, and that the body’s protein requirement is determined by the organized mass of the tissues, whereas its fat and carbohydrate requirements are determined by the amount of mechanical work performed.”
However, he also made some assumptions about protein, the first nutrient identified by modern science. He studied German men doing hard physical labour and eating around 3000 calories a day. From this he concluded that people should be eating 118 grams of protein a day. Unfortunately, he made some basic, and as it turned out, wrong assumptions about the causes of what he was observing. His basic premise was that if a person had the resources to choose the best available food nutrients then their biological instinct would be to do that. Yet, as McDonalds well knows this is not what our complex biological instincts and social dynamics cause us to do. Had he studied labourers in another country or time period he may have reached different conclusions.