“Where Do You Get Your Protein?”

That question has become a joke in the plant-based community.

Comic YouTube songs, Instagram memes of gorillas and weightlifters, and scathing cartoons showing the question asked by obese people stuffing their faces with McDonalds.

When you’re initiated into the plant-based world, part of your catechism is a bunch of snappy replies:

  • “Spinach has more protein per calorie than beef.”
  • “Plants have protein too.”
  • “The strongest and biggest land animals are all vegetarian.”
  • “The same place animals get it from: plants.”

And so on.

My favorite flippant reply, from a lecture by TrueNorth Health Center psychologist Doug Lisle, was based on the notion that our bodies are really good at recycling amino acids. “When I get the question,” he told us, a wicked grin on his face, “I simply reply, ‘From human flesh.’”

We also get schooled on longer, more serious answers. We rattle off half a dozen high-protein plant foods, from tofu and tempeh and lentils and black beans to hemp seeds and chickpeas and pea powder. We explain that food combining, popularized in a popular but misguided 1970s vegetarian handbook, isn’t necessary.

It’s definitely annoying that our culture has become so indoctrinated with the protein myth that plant-based eaters have to become ninjas at debunking it.

But there’s a bigger problem that is harder to see and admit: by our answers and our assumptions, the plant-based community perpetuates the myth.

Plant-based Peccancy in Protein Perpetuation

While the science is clear that nobody eating enough calories from real food needs to worry about protein in the slightest, a lot of plant-based cookbook and lifestyle authors don’t seem to have gotten this message.

Rather than assuring readers and followers and fans that protein consumption is a non-issue, they accept the dominant culture’s framing and go out of their way to highlight all the ways a vegan diet can provide plenty of protein.

The problem with this reassurance is that it does the opposite. Rather than convince plant-based eaters (and by that, I don’t mean vegan, but people who get upwards of 90% of their calories from plant foods) that their diets are perfectly sufficient, the emphasis on protein in the plant-based community reinforces the dominant culture’s assertion that protein is a nutrient that we need to worry about.

Changing the Conversation

We do need to worry about protein, but not in the way most people think.

We need to worry about getting too much protein.

A few facts to reframe the protein debate:

Protein, as you may remember from high school biology, is composed of amino acids. Amino acids, like stomach acids and sulfuric and hydrochloric acids, are acidic.

So too much protein puts an acid load on our bodies. That leads to mineral leaching from muscles and bones (hello, osteoporosis) to buffer our blood, damage to cells that leads to insulin resistance and diabetes, inflammation that leads to cardiovascular disease, and cell mutations that lead to cancer.

Protein: Think Bricks, Not Money

Our culture thinks of protein like money. There’s a huge problem with not having enough, and no upper limit that represents “too much.” This leads to a “better safe than sorry” mentality when it comes to menu planning and consumption.

A better protein metaphor is bricks in a house. Protein is the bricks, and the house is your body. When you first build the house, you need lots of bricks. When you add wings and rooms, you need more bricks. But when the house is built to its full size, you need new bricks only to maintain the integrity of the structure.

Every so often, old bricks dislodge or crumble and need to be replaced. So you keep a pile of new bricks under a tarp in the yard, or on a pallet in the shed, or in a corner of the basement.

That pile of bricks is useful, and as long as it’s small enough, it’s not doing anyone any harm. But if the pile grows too big, and you start tripping over it, or it crashes down and destroys furniture and flooring, then that pile of bricks is more of a hazard than a help.

When we bombard our bodies with excess protein, we’re dumping piles of bricks on the driveway, on the kitchen floor, on the bed. And then telling the house to deal with it.

A Nation of Proteinaholics

My friend and colleague Dr. Garth Davis is a weight loss surgeon in Houston. He went plant-based about seven years ago, after a series of health scares. Now he prescribes a plant-based diet to all his patients.

He meets with a lot of resistance. But not the kind you’d think.

His patients don’t object to the information. They nod yes, that makes sense that their adherence to an unhealthy western diet has gotten them to their current weight.

His patients don’t object to the new ingredients, dishes, or flavors. Sure, there’s a learning curve, and addictions take time to break, but they’re mostly willing, if not able at first, to give it a try.

The big resistance shows up when they return for a follow up visit and bring their food journals. And there’s nary a vegetable or piece of fruit or whole grain on the page.

Garth will ask them about this, since he was very clear about what they needed to add to their diets.

Turns out they’re all terrified of getting full before they consume their protein. So their journals are full of skinless chicken breasts and salmon and fat-free yogurt, and tragically devoid of apples and bananas and greens and potatoes and rice.

Weary of giving the same explanation multiple times to every patient who had been brainwashed by their failed stint on Atkins or some other protein-worshipping weight loss diet, Garth decided to write a book.

Proteinaholic the Book

Proteinaholic-cover-3D-transIt took him three years, researching and writing at night and on weekends, to tell the story of protein. The whole story, including the history of our love affair with the nutrient, as well as the most current science.

In December 2014, I joined the project as contributing author, and worked with Garth until we finalized the manuscript at the end of July.

It’s really good, if I say so myself.

Not just because it lays out the science in a comprehensive and logical way, but because it reframes the way we think about protein.

Anyone who reads this book will lose their subconscious protein anxiety. They will no longer obsess over protein grams or nutrient tables.

They will free themselves from one of our culture’s most pervasive and invisible addictions, proteinaholism.

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept

The book gets released on October 6, 2015. I’m hoping for a huge first day for the book, online and in book stores. I’d like it to hit the top 10 on amazon, and make the New York Times bestseller list.

That’s the way a book makes an impact in this world in which Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump and Barack Obama and Amy Duggar and Ben Affleck’s ex-nanny are all competing with our Facebook walls and Instagram feeds and Twitter accounts for our limited attention spans.

The best way to achieve a spike like that is through pre-orders. So I’d love your help in spreading the word.

If you’re an amazon shopper, you can pre-order your copy (copies?) here.

And you can share the book’s website – Proteinaholic.com – on social media, in emails, and in conversation.




5 Responses to ““Where Do You Get Your Protein?””

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  1. Noël E. says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading this book! It will be helpful to use in conversations with family, friends and clients who are concerned about protein when making dietary changes. Thanks Howard for meaningful work you do. I look forward to every Plant Yourself Podcast.

  2. pickyvegan says:

    I am a long time vegan, and I’m currently struggling with health issues related to insulin sensitivity (very little white rice and white pasta enters my mouth, I cut way down on the sweets, I don’t drink sugary beverages, I’m totally down with “slow carbs” I eat plenty of leafy greens and fruit and whole grains, etc, my body just doesn’t agree). In recent blood work, my serum protein/albumin level was low. Not terribly so, but in combination with other issues, definitely something to look at. So, I start tracking my intake, and low and behold, unless I’m really making an effort to eat more beans/legumes/seitan/mock meats, I tend to be on the very low side for protein, at about 30-35g/day. Using the formula in the book Vegan for Life, my intake should be about 48g (they recommend slightly higher for vegans; using a the more standard 0.8 * IBW kg, I come out at 42). When asking for some ideas on getting more vegan protein in my diet in an online community, someone used this post to food shame me, quoting that “the science is clear that nobody eating enough calories from real food needs to worry about protein in the slightest.”

    I’m eating ~1600 calories a day, and I assure you that’s appropriate for my situation (will actually need to be reduced at some point) and I’m not eating all-Oreo and vegan Doritos diet.

    I see that when read your blog, you are using the term “plant-based” rather than vegan, and I’m wondering if in reference to this post like in most studies that are “plant-based,” what you are talking about is diets that are primarily composed of plants, but contain small amount of animal protein. Would you agree that vegans (eating absolutely no animal protein) on lower calorie (but appropriate to health) diets may have to be conscious of protein consumption, or that there is a limit to how low you should go?

    • Howard says:

      Hi Picky,

      I’m sorry you’re struggling right now.

      I certainly don’t mean to shame anyone. If your labs suggest that you aren’t getting enough protein on a “picture perfect” plant-based diet, then you are a living refutation of a global statement about the impossibility of protein deficiency.

      By plant-based, I do mean 90-95% of calories coming from whole plant-based foods (and elimination of horrible processed stuff like artificial colors and flavors and preservatives – junk that has no calories but still doesn’t belong in our bodies). There’s certainly room for animal foods in there, as far as I’m concerned.

      I’d be more interested in the root cause of the problem. Clinical issues can be informed by evidence based on population studies and clinical trials, but at the end of the day all that information is a best-odds recommendation to someone representative of the population under study.

      If you’d like a private consultation with me, I’m happy to schedule time to talk with you to explore the possibility of working together. Email me at hj@ AT plantyourself DOT com and we can set up a complimentary session to see if it’s a good fit.

  3. AnnieG says:

    Reading pickyvegan’s comment made me feel happy that someone had brought this up. My husband and I are pescatarians, although fish is pretty rare (probably 2 to 3 times per month). We have both tested low for protein in the past. We eat extremely healthy diets – best described as a cross between DASH and Mediterranean. I think in our case, the problem actually stems from the amount of exercise we do. I actually have to very aware of the protein content of our meals to keep us able to repair sore or injured muscles. I have taken to making my own faux meats, which is healthier than the ones available commercially.

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