Protein from Animals or Plants

March 8, 2016 in Foodland, General, Health Claims by Joyce Bunderson

On Saturday evening I sat next to one of my sons-in-law at a primary school fundraiser. He has been reading about The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD. There are quite a few take away lessons from The China Study; but the overarching message is for a plant-based diet. Certainly, I’ve written extensively regarding a plant-based diet; but it seems that it will take more than a few messages regarding the good news of consuming a plant-based diet, to move people in that direction. Of course, a big part of the issue is motivation and developing new tastes and new habits.

Former President Bill Clinton provides a prominent example of what works. He had cardiac (quadruple bypass) surgery in 2004; and two stents in 2010. Clinton wanted to live to be a grandfather and that spelled motivation for him. Of course, what is motivating for each individual varies greatly. Since 2010, Clinton has mostly adopted a plant-based diet as recommended by Campbell, Esselstyn and Ornish. These eating plans are not exactly the same; but they all are primarily plant-based. Have you noticed that Clinton has kept thin and is doing well? He got the message that his heart could no longer manage the gigantic cheeseburgers, etc. that were his standbys.

Clinton has made it as simple as possible. Most of the time for breakfast he has an almond-milk smoothie, blended with fresh berries, nondairy protein powder and a chunk of ice. For lunch, he has a green salad and beans. Snacks of nuts or hummus with raw vegetables are his frequent afternoon snacks. Dinner is often quinoa and vegetables and sometimes a veggie burger. Fruit is regularly chosen for dessert.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for years, you probably know that I’m fairly pragmatic. I know that many men, like my darling son-in-law, Chris, are relying on their wives to plan menus, shop, prepare and do all things with food for the family. So jumping straight to veganism may be a little more than is practical. But let’s not stumble at the first obstacle. I recommend that learning the benefits of plant-based eating are truly worth the effort. Then taking steps – making incremental progress, is a practical way to implement a challenging goal, like moving toward a plant-based diet.

First, on the learning front, let me review the basics. Our bodies are primarily made of minerals, protein and water. So protein is important. Amino acids are the building blocks of both the proteins in our food and in our bodies. The amino acids are the same building blocks if they come from vegetables, grains or legumes (beans) or from animal protein. The snag is that sometimes certain plants do not have some of the necessary amino acids. So if a person is not eating animal protein, but is eating beans like soybeans (tofu) or garbanzo beans (hummus), they need a grain that day to go with it. The grain with the bean product will provide the full array of essential amino acids. There are about 22 amino acids, but there are only 9 that the human body cannot make by modifying other amino acids. The 9 amino acids that cannot be made by the human body are called essential – that means that they must be supplied in the diet. If not, it can lead to malnutrition.

Many of you have learned that it’s fairly easy to get all the essential amino acids by having a grain and a bean in the same day. If a person has peanut butter and bread; rice and beans; greens, beans and rice or a hundred other combinations – it provides a complete array of amino acids. Voilà! All the essential amino acids are there. Another way to accomplish this is if a person has a mostly plant-based diet and a little animal protein. This is very common in China. Tiny bits of fish, chicken or egg are added to grain (noodles or rice) and vegetables. The bottom line is that we absolutely do not need the large servings of animal products to be healthy. Actually we court the large risk of damage to our cardiovascular health (and other problems) as the result of eating too much animal protein. Our bodies do not need it. Our established preferences and habits keep us coming back to it, but it’s not what our bodies really need.

Let me just mention one little outlier; quinoa is different than most grains in that it has all the essential amino acids. That may be why Clinton chooses quinoa frequently. Or maybe he just enjoys that nutty taste – we sure enjoy it. We especially enjoy it mixed with vegetables and olive oil fried tofu crumbles in lettuce wraps.

When the information about the essential amino acids was discovered, it made people really diligent at seeking complete protein. Of course, as economies become richer, people often choose animal protein more frequently. Unfortunately, choosing animal protein too frequently or too much has some major problems. There is overwhelming evidence that high meat consumption has been linked to increased risk of cancer, obesity, kidney problems, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, too name a few.

The problem of consuming too much animal protein is especially challenging with men in America. Men tend to believe that they need meat; it’s been shown to be a masculinity issue for many men. And this close association of masculinity and meat is literally making men sick. Remember back to the first of this year, when I wrote about the New Dietary Guidelines – Between the Lines of the New Guidelines? Look at the first paragraph under Protein, you will see that I wrote; “Teenage boys and men have been singled out as eating too much protein; they are being encouraged to eat less meat, poultry and eggs.” In the popular press, I’ve not read much about this issue. It might be partially because the caution for men to eat less meat is buried deep in the many pages of the dense federal document. The meat lobbyists did their work well. That obscurely placed recommendation also includes encouraging men to increase the amounts of vegetables.

American men average about 110 grams of protein, which is roughly double the 56 grams the government is currently recommending. Women are also taking more protein than necessary; they’re taking in about 75.5 grams and only need about 46 grams. On the surface it may seem harmless; but the fact is that this habit is correlated with less than optimal health. It’s probably going to be a long haul of educating the public, but hopefully, people will begin by moving toward a plant-based diet.

Of course, you’ll hear from the meat industry – besides protein you get B12 and iron from meat, but there is B12 in vegetables, beans, eggs, and dairy. Iron is in many vegetable products. So when a person is eating more whole grains, vegetables and beans they will get more iron from the plant products and B12 too.

The following are a few ideas to begin moving toward consuming animal products less frequently and in smaller servings.

  • Eat meals that lend themselves to reducing the amount of meat and cheese and increasing vegetables; try stir-fries; casseroles; soups; curries; and stews.
  • Make long time family favorites a different way – consider substituting tofu for meat. Recently, I made tacos with crumbled extra firm organic tofu, fried in extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with taco spices. Dr. Grandpa, Vic, thought the chicken was great in the tacos.
  • Count the number of meals per week that you presently include animal protein and then make a goal to have a certain number of meals a week without animal protein. Incrementally keep increasing the non-animal protein meals. This works great because you keep learning new meals that work for you and your family.
  • Pick a certain day or two each week and make it meatless. The Meatless Monday program has been catching on for quite a while.
  • Start at the grocery store stocking the items that will support your choice of meatless meals. Dean Ornish’s website has a little grocery store tour video that may give you some ideas.
  • Become familiar with some of the vegetarian recipes available for free online.

Do know that you and the environment can actually become healthier by eating less meat and animal protein. Give it a try; you may discover that meals with little or no animal protein can be very delicious and satisfying. Before long you may discover that vegetarian meals have become some of your favorites.