Thoughts on the Plant Based Diet: Protein

Where does a cow get its protein?

Everyone knows that Americans (in the United States) consume far too much meat, and not enough dark leafy greens, or plants in general. Books, documentaries, and news articles have been written in an effort to change your diet into something more environmentally sustainable, more economically sustainable, more resource efficient, and/or less prone to the #1 killer in America: heart disease.

It is well documented that atherosclerosis (hardened arteries) and arterial plaque are easily prevented and REVERSED by switching to a plant-based diet. It is well known that vegetarians live longer, have far fewer instances of osteoporosis, and are less prone to die from diet-related illness, which are the top leading causes of death in the United States.

The old notion that vegetarians are unhealthy and sickly is (thankfully) disappearing. The truth is that given the same athletic training, switching to a plant-based diet results in drastically improved athletic performance and overall health. So much so, that a recent study showed that “couch-potato” vegans have better arterial health than omnivorous marathon runners. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, famously said,

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates

From “Meatless Monday” to annual spring cleanses; it seems like most everyone has an innate sense that they should eat less meat, and more plants.  Maybe it’s out of big-picture guilt, or maybe it’s out of personal guilt. The short version is that we know better.

But why is change so hard?

The Stigmas of Modern Medicine

On one hand, everyone seems to know that eating less meat and more plants is necessary. Where a lot of people get stuck is culture and pressure from society. Thanks to the faulty food pyramid, short-sighted non-holistic views of the modern medical community, and an FDA that is controlled by heavily subsidized industrial agriculture, many people are confused.

This leads me to the #1 concern that most people have when it comes to cutting down on meat, eggs, and dairy.

Where Do you Get your Protein?

This is an excellent question. We are taught that protein is found in milk, eggs, fish, chicken, pork, and beef.  First, let’s start with proper perspective. We are taught that plants are good sources of vitamins and fiber. For instance, everyone knows that carrots are a good source of vitamin A (beta carotene), oranges are a good source of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and blueberries are an excellent source of anti-oxidants. We all learned that nuts, seeds, and oil should be used “sparingly” because they are sources of fat. However, this is one situation in which what you don’t know can (and will) hurt you.

Carrots are root vegetables, and are so much more than just beta carotene. Oranges grow on trees (how deep are their roots? why is this important?), and are so much more than just ascorbic acid. For example, a compound in oranges actually repairs your mitochondria, which are responsible for converting calories into energy. Blueberries are dark blue in color, which is a clear indication that they are full of anthocyanins (a type of antioxidant) and polyphenols that are anti-inflammatory. They are an excellent source of manganese, which also helps in mitochondria function.

So, where is the protein?

There is so much to share and only so many “topics” in which to share it, so please bear with me. In order to understand proteins and diet, it is important to understand what proteins actually are, and how the body uses them. A protein is simply a chain of amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids required for human health. (only 8 if you are over 4 months of age)

These are:

  1. Valine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Leucine
  4. Phenylalanine
  5. Threonine
  6. Tryptophan
  7. Methionine
  8. Lysine
  9. Histidine (essential for infants only)

The right ratio of these amino acids for human health is what is meant when nutritionists refer to a “complete protein”. It does not mean that a protein is literally a chain of all eight amino acids, but rather, that all eight are present in the correct ratio to each other.

What is lesser understood is that,

ALL Plant Foods contain ALL 8 Essential Amino Acids

Did you catch that? Let it sink in.

The other little known fact is that the most protein (amino acid) rich food in most grocery stores in found in the produce aisle. By ratio, kale is the king of amino acid density . (I’m not kidding when I say EAT MORE GREENS)


Protein and Bio-availability

Do you remember when I said that proteins are just chains of amino acids, and that the body actually needs amino acids? When long-chain proteins are consumed, they are broken down by the body into amino acids, which are reassembled into the protein chains required of the body at that time. Any time you have to break down and reassemble something, you are doing extra work. However, this is not the good, cardiovascular or muscle-building work. This is a tax on the immune system. A long-chain animal protein is considered invasive to the body, and the pancreas gets put to hard work. This happens every time you eat meat, eggs, or dairy. (consider this the next time you feel sleepy after a celebratory steak)

Furthermore, when proteins are cooked , a significant amount are deaminized, which renders them useless. The liver will also deamnize amino acids when too many are consumed. As early as 1912, the scientific community has known that the amount of protein needed in the human diet is over-emphasized and overstated.

In truth, all we really need ~ 8%. 8% of what? Your body weight? Good heavens, no! 8% of total food calories should be protein. (many reports claim at least 10% as a minimum. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll likely arrive at the conclusion of 7%) That’s it! Any more than that, and the liver is forced to work to deaminize it, and the body eliminates it through urine. Another phenomenon happens, as well. The body’s pH is lowered, making the body more acidic.  When the body is too acidic, minerals are used to alkalize the body. Just like adding limestone (calcium carbonate) to the garden will raise the ph of your soil, the body absorbs calcium (from your teeth and your bones) in effort to neutralize the acidity and raise the ph back to normal.

The net result? Yes, you have the protein your body needs, but you’ve now compromised the integrity of your dental and bone health. Is it any wonder that osteoporosis and dental cavities are so prevalent in western society? Think about that for a minute… Okay, let’s continue.

Less is More

In this case, the less work you expect your body to do, the more energy it has to accomplish necessary functions. When you are no longer consuming too much protein, your pancreas is allowed to rest, your liver is not asked to work more than is necessary, and your teeth and bones are not compromised in order to raise your pH(from acid to alkaline).

Does this mean I’m trying to tell you to give up all animal products entirely? While that would be fantastic, it is clearly unrealistic for most people. If you’re interested in taking a first step, try cutting down on the portion of animal protein, and increasing the portion of dark leafy greens. These dark leafy greens are richest in minerals and essential micro-nutrients, which will leave you feeling less heavy, and truly satisfied.

I will publish more posts on the plant-based diet in the future, but I thought this particular aspect was a good place to start.

If you have any thoughts or additions, I’d love to read them. Share your comment below!


One thought on “Thoughts on the Plant Based Diet: Protein

  1. Pingback: But where do you get your protein? – What We Learned This Week

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