17 April 2013

About Protein...


Vegetarians and vegans are often asked where they get their protein from. For vegetarians the answer is a bit easier as they consume dairy products and eggs. In vegans case, it is a bit harder to understand that even vegetable sources contain proteins, and here is an example from Young and Raw: Everything you need to know about protein.

  • 1 head of lettuce - 7 grams
  • 1 beet - 1.3 grams
  • 1 carrot - 0.6 grams
  • 1 rib of celery - 0.4 grams
  • ½ cucumber - 1 gram 
Dressing of:
  • 1 tbsp Tahini - 3 grams
  • 1 lemon juiced - 0.2 grams
This would give us 13.5 grams of protein in one little salad!

I am sure that we can get protein from different kind of vegetables and grains as well. But, to me the issue about plant based food or animal based food is not this simple. It does not come down to getting enough proteins from a certain diet (and I agree that we do not need much protein).

The question is if a high protein diet (a diet high in animal products) contributes to the rise of chronic diseases. My opinion (after many years of reading and research) is that the amount of animal products in a traditional diet did not really matter (actually it matters a bit, I come back to this later). If you go through my posts about Diseases of Civilization and Hungry Planet, you can see that there are populations free of chronic diseases consuming higher protein diets. There are also populations who eat mainly whole grains and vegetables and are doing just fine.

I have read John Robbins book (twice) Healthy at 100 (I have not read the book mentioned on the website: Diet For A New America), where he blames the obesity epidemic in the United States on higher and higher beef or other meat consumption. It might be true that meat consumption increased over the last decade, but it is also true that sugar consumption increased as well. When there are two variables increasing at the same time in a population, it is very important to test (in clinical trials) which one is really causing all these ill effects. Until now, I have not found one population with high sugar consumption and low levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease.

When observing populations and their diets, it is very important to see counter-examples: the Inuit, or the Masai, who were healthy and had a very high protein and especially fat intake compared to other populations. What about these people? I think they should be included when forming theories about diet.

This post mentions Kwashiorkor as a disease of nutrient deficiency and not animal protein deficiency. According to Wikipedia the disease is due to "insufficient protein consumption, but with sufficient calorie intake".
"The term kwashiorkor is a Ghanian word that describes the 'evil spirit which infects the first child when the second child is born'. In many cultures, babies are breastfed until the next baby comes along. When it does, the first baby is weaned from nutritious breast milk and placed on a watered-down version of the family's diet [usually based on grains and some vegetables]. In areas of poverty, this diet is often low in protein, or the protein is not absorbed easily."
                                                          - Discovering Nutrition - P. Insel, R. E. Turner, D Ross                                                             
This means that these babies usually get sick when they start to eat a diet high in cereal grains, and not getting the nutritious protein and fat from mother's milk. Of course, this deficiency disease comes along with other deficiencies as well: vitamin A, D, B12, iron zinc, etc. found in abundance in meat and animal fat and not necessarily in plant based foods.

The cure for kwashiorkor is to give these babies more meat and fat, and not more grains and vegetables. So it is not simply a problem of low calories. By feeding them more cereals and vegetables, these babies would end up with even more deficiencies and an even worse fatty liver (condition associated with high alcohol consumption and obesity).

All deficiency diseases are associated with high grain consumption. Somehow, populations consuming high meat and fat diets, did not display the symptoms of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Animal protein contains all the amino acids and minerals necessary for health. It is true that wheat also contains all these amino acids.
"But to get enough of the ones that are in scarse supply, a man weighing 80 kilos would have to stuff himself with 1.5 kilos of whole wheat bread a day. To reach the same level of protein, we would need only 340 grams of meat."
                                                - Marvin Harris, Columbia University nutritional anthropologist
The goal is to consume foods with the highest nutrient concentration. To see the highest nutrient density foods, I refer you to my earlier post: Nutrient Density.

When we eat foods low or diluted in nutrients (salads), we tend to eat more, until we satisfy our physiological needs for nutrients. If we eat a high nutrient density food (organ meat, for example liver), we tend to eat less, we stop eating as soon as our needs are met. You can try it yourself. How much salad or liver pate can you eat? Do you feel hungry one hour after eating a big salad or after a meal of animal protein and fat? All animals choose high nutrient density foods, which satisfy their needs readily. It is useless to stuff ourselves with huge amounts of salads (until our stomach stretches), when a bite of high fat high, and protein food will suffice. I am not against vegetables, but I don't think that an only-vegetables meal (even in high amounts) will satisfy our needs.

So, how much meat should we eat? There is no one definitive answer. I think that animal products should be part of our diet, in order to avoid deficiency diseases. But high protein diets can also be dangerous (High Protein Diets - Health Hazards), we need to add carbohydrates or fat when we consume meat. In fact, the Inuits consumed their meat with a lot of fat, as plant food was not available in their area. Other populations, in more temperate climates consumed their meat or fish with plant foods. In both cases, chronic diseases did not appear.

The best is to follow our body's need (and our taste buds are a good guide for this) when eating real food from nature. Children, with all kind of natural foods available in front of them, will choose more of the foods which will satisfy their physiological needs. If something tastes good to them, they will eat more, meaning that nutrient absorption is easier from those foods. Usually, they go for foods higher in fat and protein, they will not choose raw broccoli.

I was very happy to see that in Canada, they changed the dietary guidelines for babies transitioning to solid foods. Instead of diluted cereals, the first food should be egg yolk and meat. More, in this article: Hold the pablum: Give that baby some meat, new Canadian guidelines advise.

In conclusion, I would like to repeat the same points, at the risk of being judged as boring:
  • Isolated populations did not consume sugar, refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils (except for coconut and olive oil). Chronic diseases appeared with the introduction of sugar and refined carbohydrates in a traditional diet.
  • Animal protein and fat were part of traditional diets. When isolated populations could afford, they ate more foods from animal origins, and fatty foods (butter, organ meat, fish head, etc.) were given to children.
  • Deficiency diseases are associated with high grain consumption and not with diets high in animal foods.


  1. I haven't felt better both in body and mind since I stopped sugar and wheat consumption. Proof is in the pudding (pun intended)

    1. Same for me! I feel much better without sugars.