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