“Where do get your protein from?” is probably the most frequent question a vegan gets asked. Interestingly, we never discuss the appropriate amount of daily protein-intake, nor health issues associated with hyper-protein-diets. Protein is still the key nutrient we worry about.The Atkins diet, paleo regimen… they all advocate high amounts of protein (hence, animal protein, as with plant protein you won’t easily reach such considerable levels).Certainly, we require daily intake of amino acids (the brick stones to form protein chains); at the same time, we also need carbohydrates, fats and micronutrients. Who is ever worrying about those other nutrients? Hardly ever… We are infatuated with protein. (Note: One key to health, vitally and appropriate personal weight is a) the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fates and micronutrients and b) the provenance, quality and absorbability of nutrients).
This article, however, will investigate our obsession with protein through the history and milestones of protein research that still guide our today’s beliefs and myths about nutrition. Our intellectual fascination with meat, eggs and dairy started more than 150 years ago (not to mention human evolution and our food consumption patterns that started millions of yours ago). Alternative and less biased views always existed in parallel, and yet, these voices had (and still have) difficulties to be heard. As often, history teaches us a lot…
“The history of excessive importance given to protein”:
1839: Protein is first chemically described by Gerhard Johannes Mulder (Dutch chemist). He uses the word “protein” for the first time in a French article “Sur la composition de quelques substances animales” (“On the composition of certain animal substances”).
“Protein” comes for the Greek word proteios (“primary”). So, right from the start, this nutrient – through its name – was given a primordial rank in human nutrition…
1843: Justus von Liebig (German chemist) states (without research or testing) that “humans need above all protein for muscular activities, and not fats or carbs”. Later, Adolf Fick and Johannes Wislicenus oppose this declaration by simply measure the change in urinary nitrogen (a by-product of protein metabolism) during mountain climbing. They conclude that the limited amount of metabolised protein cannot be sufficient as energy source for mountain climbing.
Around 1870 : Dr. Carl von Voit (German physiologist) establishes the ”Voit Standard”, based on the observation of workers. Even though he derives a daily need of only 52 grams for an average man, he suggests a daily protein intake of 118 grams (in line with American and European standards of 100 – 189 grams at that time). His believes that a person that can afford the buy meat, would instinctively choose a high protein source. He research is incomplete, he simply considers animal protein “the best of the best”.
1904: Russell Henry Chittenden (Yale University) jeopardizes the Voit Standard. 100 years ago already, he points out health concerns for kidneys and the liver as a result of high protein consumption. In a small experiment (with Yale staff and athletes over a period of nine months) he proves that with only 1/3 proteins of the Voit Standard participants remained healthy. After three studies he determines a daily protein intake of approx. 35-50 grams as adequate for an average adult. (in line with today’s EAR and RDA)
1914: Lafayette Benedict Mendel and Thomas Burr Osborne (they discovered Vitamin A) stipulate that animal protein (meat, eggs, dairy) is superior (source A) to plant-based protein (source B, inferior). They base their convictions on tests with rats and conclude that “plants contain too little essential amino acids to ensure normal growth of rats”. As if we can compare human nutrition to that of rats 🙂
1940: Dr William Cumming Rose (University of Illinois) discovers 10 essential amino acids necessary for good health of rats. Hence, due to their composition of essential amino acids, animal protein is declared the “Golden Standard”. Later studies have perfectly revealed that the dietary needs of rats are very different from those of humans. For example, baby rats double their size in 4-5 days, human babies in 6 months. Rats become adults in 6 months, whereas humans in about 17 years…). In 1942 he discovers the 8 essential amino acids ( a 9th added much later) for humans. He reckons that they can be perfectly sourced through non-animal food.
1971: Frances Morre Lappé publishes the book “Diet for a Small Planet”, advocating a vegetarian lifestyle as a solution for worldwide famine. To reassure a sceptic audience she introduces the – erroneous – concept of “protein combination” (“you have to combine vegetables in a certain ways to simulate the protein combination of meat”). This concept is incorrect, however, reinforced the idea of the inferiority of plant-based protein.
1979: Nathan Pritikin (American nutritionist) proposer the “Pritikin Diet”, inspired by indigenous peoples’ regimens (mostly vegetarian, few cardiovascular diseases). The idea: limit protein and fats, rich in non-processed carbo-hydrates (vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes). A step the right direction…
2001 : The Nutritional Committee of the American Heart Association publishes a report mentioning the health risk of high-protein-diets (such as the Atkins Diet). Unfortunately, the report also states: “Although plant proteins form a large part of the human diet, most are deficient in one or more essential amino acids and are therefore regarded as incomplete protein”, thence, reinforcing the erroneous idea that a planed-based lifestyle cannot provide a healthy and complete supply of all nutrients. The cherry on the top: Among the scientific references (!) the report states the non-scientific book “Diet for a Small Planet”… 😦
By the way, 40% of the Indian population is vegetarian, in Gujarat it is even 80% (Source: Wikipedia). They are not all malnourished, weak, or in lack of protein, are they? It is largely time to jeopardize old beliefs, convictions and habits.
Maybe, what we have been told, what we are being told, has to be questioned? Maybe, by changing the way we eat, we can improve our health, our wellbeing, our vitality?
Other questions to be asked: How can I obtain necessary protein from plant sources (including seeds, nuts, grains)? What are the harmful consequences of the consumption of animal protein? (Zero dietary fiber, cardiovascular issues, zero phytochemicals (a micro nutrient), limited amount of minerals and vitamins, potential risks of lifestyle illnesses…)
It always boils down to taking responsibility for our own choices: Everybody shall decide freely and individually what to eat… and also take full ownership for these choices. Therefore, also take ownership for resulting concerns (weight issues, cardiovascular concerns, lifestyle illnesses, lack of vitality, skin issues…). Health concerns are not as given destiny, but most of the times the outcome of personal lifestyle (obviously nutrition, but also emotional, environmental and stress-related concerns in the broader sense). Our health, the strength of our body and the quality of our life are literally in our hands. Each transformation starts with one single step (and one more, and one more…)!
©The Vibrant Factory
About Stefan Lehner: Executive coach, Life coach, as well as nutrition coach & educator based in Paris, available worldwide. He previously worked in management in an international corporation. Advocates the tremendous impact of food and lifestyle choices on our health, wellbeing and our life. Durable transformation and challenging the quick-fix-ideal is one of his focus.
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