Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Getting Past the ‘Protein Myth’ That Keeps People from Quitting Meat and Dairy

Posted in veganism, vegetarian by allisonkilkenny on June 3, 2008

Source: Kathy Freston, Huffington Post

The way Americans obsess about protein, you’d think protein deficiency was the number one health problem in America. Of course it’s not.When I tell people that I’m a vegan, the most popular question, by far, inevitably follows: “But, how do you get enough protein?”

There it is again, I think, the meat industry’s most potent weapon against vegetarianism — the protein myth. And it is just that — a myth.

In fact, humans need only 10 percent of the calories we consume to be from protein. Athletes and pregnant women need a little more, but if you’re eating enough calories from a varied plant based diet, it’s close to impossible to not to get enough.

The way Americans obsess about protein, you’d think protein deficiency was the number one health problem in America. Of course it’s not — it’s not even on the list of the ailments that doctors are worried about in America or any other countries where basic caloric needs are being met.

What is on the list? Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity — diseases of affluence. Diseases linked to eating animal products. According to the American Dietetic Association, which looked at all of the science on vegetarian diets and found not just that they’re healthy, but that they “provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

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They continue: “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence … Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.”

Dr. Dean Ornish writes of his Eat More, Weigh Less vegetarian diet — the one diet that has passed peer-review for taking weight off and keeping it off for more than 5 years — that in addition to being the one scientifically proven weight loss plan that works long-term, it “may help to prevent a wide variety of other illnesses including breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, colon cancer, lung cancer, lymphoma, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and so on ….”

So when people ask me about protein, I explain that protein is not a problem on a vegan diet, that the real problems that are plaguing us in the West can be addressed in part with a vegetarian diet, and that I get my protein the same way everyone else does — I eat!

Beans, nuts, seeds, lentils, and whole grains are packed with protein. So are all vegetables as a caloric percentage, though they don’t have enough calories to sustain most people as a principal source of sustenance. And these protein sources have some excellent benefits that animal protein does not — they contain plenty of fiber and complex carbohydrates, where meat has none. That’s right: Meat has no complex carbs at all, and no fiber. Plant proteins are packed with these essential nutrients.

Plus, since plant-based protein sources don’t contain cholesterol or high amounts of saturated fat, they are much better for you than meat, eggs, and dairy products.

It is also worth noting the very strong link between animal protein and a few key diseases, including cancer and osteoporosis.

According to Dr. Ornish
(this may be the most interesting link in this article, by the way — it’s worth reading the entire entry), “high-protein foods, particularly excessive animal protein, dramatically increase the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, and many other illnesses. In the short run, they may also cause kidney problems, loss of calcium in the bones, and an unhealthy metabolic state called ketosis in many people.”

The cancer connection is spelled out at length in a fantastic book by Cornell scientist T. Colin Campbell, called The China Study. Basically, there is overwhelming scientific evidence to implicate that animal protein
consumption causes cancer.

And just a few quick anecdotal points:

  • Olympian Carl Lewis has said that his best year of track competition was the first year that he ate a vegan diet (he is still a strong proponent of vegan diets for athletes).
  • Strength trainer Mike Mahler says, “Becoming a vegan had a profound effect on my training. … [M]y bench press excelled past 315 pounds, and I noticed that I recovered much faster. My body fat also went down, and I put on 10 pounds of lean muscle in a few months.”
  • Bodybuilder Robert Cheeke advises, “The basics for nutrition are consuming large amounts of fresh green vegetables and a variety of fruits, to load yourself up with vibrant vitamins and minerals.”

A few other vegans, all of whom sing the praises of the diet for their athletic performance: Ultimate fighter Mac Danzig, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, Minnesota Twins pitcher Pat Neshek, Atlanta Hawks Guard Salim Stoudamire, and Kansas City Chiefs tight-end Tony Gonzalez.

And let’s not forget about tennis star Martina Navratilova, six-time Ironman winner Dave Scott, four-time Mr. Universe Bill Pearl, or Stan Price, the world-record holder in bench press. They are just a few of the successful vegetarian athletes.

Basically, vegans and vegetarians needn’t fret about protein, but many Americans do need to worry about their weight, heart disease, cancer, and other ailments — many of which can be addressed by healthier eating, including a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Vegetarians and vegans get all the nutrients our bodies need from plants, and will thus, according to the science, be more likely to maintain a healthy weight and stave off a variety of ailments, from heart disease to cancer.

For answers to other popular questions about conscious eating, please check out my previous post on the topic here.

Happy eating!

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4 Responses

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  1. LISE said, on June 3, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    Great post. It’s good to know others that are as passionate about eating properly, and abolishing the myths U.S. corporate food producers have “fed” this country for too long.

    To add to your point, along with a vegan or vegetarian diet, eating properly also means eating locally, e.g., no picking food unripe to make 1,500-mile truck trips and endure warehouse stays. It means eating clean, e.g., no pesticides, no preservatives like nitrites/nitrates (found in hot dogs and lunch meats), no growth hormones (used to quick-grow livestock and poultry to get it to market faster, ), no antibiotics (used to offset the deplorably filthy conditions of factory farms), or no fillers like gluten and casein that many are allergic to (if one must eat meat, I advise Applegate Farms brand that purposely produces it’s meats to address all the above concerns); and it means eating to ‘nutrify’, not just satiate hunger or a “taste for something”. And it means eating ‘whole’ food as well as local and clean food. Every time food is processed it loses food value, and is usually full of added toxins on top of it. And there are many nutrients like bioflavonoids and phytonutrients found in parts of vegetables that need to be eaten in concert with the vitamins and minerals also found in those same vegetables in order for all to do their thing.

    The biggest problem with vegetarianism is that many Veggies wrongly think that they can just live on nothing but salads every day. Wrong. Vegetarians have to ensure they get the full list of amino acids to create a complete protein chain (at least within the day). These complete chains are obviously found in meats, poultry, and fish, but they’re also complete in soy and complete or nearly so in other underutilized high-protein grains like amaranth and quinoa (which can now be found in regular grocery stores. Bob’s Redmill brand is what I buy. It also offers a great selection of high protein flours, flax seed, and other healthy cereal mixes.)

    Finally, a long-term vegetarian diet *can* cause brittle bones from lack of calcium (in the case of vegans who swear off all animal products), or anemia from iron deficiency. Plant iron is for some reason less absorbable, and hence usable, than heme iron (iron from ‘blood’ or animal sources). And zinc is another critical mineral used for immune system and tissue building found more readily in meat. But these concerns are just small challenges, and can easily be addressed by eating soy (which again, is also a complete protein) and other high-calcium vegetables like broccoli, and high iron foods like grapes, chocolate (unsweetened, of course), nuts, chickpeas and other legumes (which also contain lots of amino acids for protein-building), spinach, red wine, and even parsley has a wopping 70+ grams (per 200 calories). For zinc, grains, legumes, and nuts are great veggie sources (which again, also supply protein), with a very high source being pumpkin seeds!

  2. JP said, on June 3, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    exactly! as a vegan, i feel like i have to answer to the protein myth everyday… it’s very hard to get through to people.

    sweet blog!


  3. Anna Matsen said, on June 5, 2008 at 4:40 am

    Really great article. Healthy living, particularly by eating less meat and more organic (and local) fruits and vegetables is something I’m pursuing lately, and the more info I can get, the better. It’s fascinating how intimately our personal health is connected to the environment’s health.

    I have to say, when you’re trying to live healthier, using your own body as a mad science experiment is fun! ;-D

  4. Anna Matsen said, on June 5, 2008 at 4:42 am

    Oh, and thank you to Lise for her(?) informative comment. I’m still very much in the dark, though, about the health and environmental impact of going vegan compared with vegetarian. If anybody has info or a good link on this topic, I’d really appreciate hearing about it.

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