The Protein Question—Part Two

Frances Moore Lappé first published her book Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971. The book was about the impact of meat production on the environment and global food scarcity. The author recommended a plant-based diet in order to feed the planet’s population in a sustainable way. Lappé is a sociologist, not a medical doctor or a nutrition expert of any kind. Her primary concern was for the people of the Third World, for whom food scarcity has a devastating impact.

In order to ensure that plant based meals included an amino acid profile that mimicked that of meat, she recommended “food combinations.” For example, she recommended combining cornmeal with beans, or soy with rice. Her reasoning was that the lower levels of the amino acids lysine and tryptophan in the cornmeal and rice would be supplied by the legumes, and the legumes lower levels of the amino acids methionine and cystine would be made up by the cornmeal and rice. Shortly after the book was published, several nutritionists denounced Lappé’s system of food combining as completely unnecessary. They protested that in spite of Lappé’s desire to convert people to a vegetarian lifestyle, she had made it seem impossibly difficult to do so.

In her 1981 version of the book, Lappé retracted her words. She wrote:

“In 1971, I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein … was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.

“With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on [1] fruit or on [2] some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on [3] junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein. [Emphasis mine.]”

Lappé did what she could to retract her words as soon as it was possible. However, the damage had been done. the American Dietetic Association began to caution vegetarians to combine  their proteins for “better nutritional quality.” This left it open to the meat industry to begin calling their products the only “complete” protein, in spite of the fact that there are no incomplete proteins in whole foods. All proteins, including all plant based proteins, contain all of the essential amino acids necessary for our health. The meat industry promotes their products as “high quality” protein, implying that plant-based protein is low quality.

There is nothing inferior about plant protein. Every plant contains all of the amino acids our bodies need. If you are eating enough calories to sustain life on a plant based diet, you are getting enough protein. As Lappé pointed out, the only exception would be diets consisting largely of refined plant foods, like white flour, sugar, white rice and extracted oils (olive oil, canola oil and so forth). A whole food plant based diet eliminates these refined foods, and ensures that you will receive all of the protein and other nutrients that you need.

Another part of the protein issue is that the current recommendations for protein consumption are too high. I do not pretend to be an expert in nutrition, only an enlightened amateur, however I am taking this from the highest authority on the subject—not doctors, not nutritionists, not even some other variety of scientist, but from Mother Nature herself. The perfect human food was designed for humans to consume for our first few years of life. Breast milk is without a doubt the perfect human diet. It has every requirement for human health during the stage of our life when the greatest demands are made on our body for growth and energy consumption.

If there is ever a time when we need to eat the maximum amount of protein, it is in this early growing period, when our body doubles, triples and quadruples in size. Yet, human milk does not contain the recommended minimum “requirement” of ten percent of the calories from protein, yet the maximum of thirty-five percent. The perfect human food has about five percent protein content. That’s right, five percent!

That being said, it is extremely difficult to get beneath that five percent threshold in a diet that has adequate calories to sustain life. You would have to limit your food consumption to the very lowest protein foods, primarily sweet fruits like dates (2% protein), apples (2% protein) and pears (2.5% protein). Even then the primary problem would not be inadequate protein, it would be inadequate calories. It is difficult to consume enough calories to maintain a body while limiting intake to these kinds of fruits. Yet, as soon as you broaden the types of fruits and vegetables you consume, and add more variety in the form of whole grains, nuts and seeds, you will begin to exceed that minimum of five percent of calories from protein very quickly.

Eating a variety of whole (unrefined) plant foods will give you all of the protein that your body needs. Indeed, the so called “higher quality” of meat is completely indefensible given that meat comes with a great many dangerous elements, not least of all the high saturated fat and cholesterol content. If you factor in the endotoxins, hormones and “superbugs” as well, you have a destructive mass that should not even be considered food!

You can gauge which is the overriding health concern quite easily. Just ask yourself, how many people do you know who are suffering from heart disease, type II diabetes or high blood pressure? These have all been directly linked to the consumption of animal protein, fat and cholesterol. Now, ask yourself how many people do you know who are suffering from kwashiorkor?

Most people haven’t even heard of the word kwashiorkor. Yet, you most assuredly would be familiar with it if there were a health problem that need concern us. Kwashiorkor is the name of the disease caused by protein deficiency. There has not been a single case of kwashiorkor reported in the United States for several decades, except in a few rare cases of malnutrition caused by child abuse or neglect. That is in spite of the fact that plant based diets have been on the rise for the past couple of decades.

The bottom line is that you needn’t be concerned about protein intake if you are eating a healthy whole food plant-based diet. Just ask the numerous vegan triathletes (like Brendan BrazierHillary Biscay, or Dr. Heather Shenkman) who are thriving under a plant based diet!

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