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Healthy Living March Issue
THE GREAT MEAT AND PROTEIN MYTH


Plant Versus Animal Sources of Protein

This brings us back to the basic question: do animal sources of nutrition provide better "quality" protein than plant sources? If you look at the diet as a whole, the answer is no. This is exactly what Hardinge and Stare found in their classic research in the 1960s.11 They looked at the complete diets of three groups: meat-eating Americans, pure vegetarians (those who excluded all animal products from their diet), and lacto-ovo vegetarians (those who excluded all animal products except for dairy products and eggs). The researchers measured the actual amount of each amino acid consumed by each of these groups from their whole diets. They then compared that intake with the ideal balance of amino acids needed by man according to two standards: (1) the standard determined by Dr. Rose in the 1940s and 50s and still used by the World Health Organization to this day, and (2) human breast milk. The only food specifically designed to meet all the amino acid needs of a human is human breast milk. Amazingly, the best quality protein among the three complete diets was the pure vegetarian diet. The mix of amino acids in the total vegetarian diet most closely resembled the mix in Rose’s recommendations and in human breast milk, as illustrated in Figure 1: Total Vegetarian Diet Provides the Best Protein Quality.

The message from this classic research is simple. If you look at a single food, animal products have the upper hand in providing protein quality. However, when you look at the entire diet, then the pure vegetarian diet emerges as superior in protein quality. The non-vegetarian diet departs from both standards almost twice as far as the pure vegetarian diet.



Comparisons of Protein in Milk of Different Species

The protein content of milk is an indication of the protein requirement of a new-born, whether that new-born is human or animal. Let us examine the differences in amount of protein in milk in the different mammalian species. They are tabulated in Figure 2: Protein Comparisons in Milk of Different Species.12

This comparison demonstrates that humans actually need less protein than the animals o n the list. Notice that the relative growth rate is greater in those that have greater amounts of protein in the milk, as would be expected, because of the greater protein requirement to build body tissue. If a human consumed a rat’s milk from birth, would that baby be able to double its birth weight in days instead of months? The answer is obviously no, since the rate of growth is largely genetically determined. The excess protein would not be utilized and, as we will later see, could actually harm the developing child.



Is the "Complementary" Theory Valid?

At this point some may counter: "what Hardinge and Stare did was unfair-you must eat a perfect balance of amino acids at a given meal to utilize them properly." This argument is based on an old theory that argued you must "complement" plant proteins at a given meal to get the proper protein balance. This would require an impractical task of weighing each serving that makes up a meal, calculating the amino acid content of each, and then adding them up. Elaborate charts were drawn up that listed what foods vegetarians needed to combine at a given meal to get the same "quality" protein that a meat-eater was getting. This dogma went by the wayside long ago. Historically, the American Dietetic Association (the professional association for dietitians in the United States) has not been known for advocating a vegetarian diet. However, in 1988, they came out solidly in support of vegetarian diets. They stated: "It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that vegetarian diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate when appropriately planned."13 They addressed the issue of complementing proteins in their paper. "…it is not necessary that complementation of amino acid profiles be precise and at exactly the same meal, as the recently popular ‘combined proteins theory’ suggested." The reality is that a vegetarian diet that contains fruits, grains, nuts, and vegetables is fully adequate in protein.

Whether you are a total vegetarian or meat eater, you should "appropriately plan" your diet beyond the narrow scope of amino acids. Other nutrients need to be included in the planning. No one without some thought into his regular eating practices can simply expect to be getting a nutritionally balanced diet-regardless of whether or not meat is included in the fare. There is no evidence that vegetarians must be more knowledgeable than meat eaters in order to be on a healthful diet. In fact, the evidence leans solidly in the opposite direction. If you know nothing about nutrition, you will likely be healthier by leaving meat out of your diet rather than including it. The information in this chapter establishes that you can get all the essential amino acids even with what may look like a very "unbalanced" vegetarian diet, as we will see.



Can Plant Proteins Furnish All of the Essential Amino Acids?

Let us take some examples of the ultimate in "unbalanced" vegetarian diets-namely, single plant foods-and see how they measure up to the amino acid requirements. We have already made reference to Dr. Rose’s work in determining amino acid requirements in humans. A number of other researchers have each offered their own version of amino acid requirements not only for adult men, but also for adult women, and for infants and children.14 Munro and Crim have published a comparison of Rose’s requirements with those of two other experts.15 For the sake of assessing how plant products fare in their protein content, I have chosen to compare them to the highest (most strict) adult daily requirement for each of the essential amino acids as compiled by Munro and Crim.16 Since we are looking at the wildly hypothetical example of a person eating only a single food all day long, the comparisons must be based on a sufficient total daily caloric intake. I have chosen to use a level of 2,500 calories, which is the basis of the Percent Daily Values (as seen on the food label) for many American men and active women. I chose eleven foods commonly eaten by non-vegetarians and vegetarians alike. The quantity of each of the eight essential amino acids for these eleven foods is tabulated in Figure 3: Eight Essential Amino Acid Contents of Common Plant Foods.

The essential amino acid color codes are shown on the extreme right of the figure. The recommended daily amounts of these amino acids are represented by the cluster of short bars on the lower right. The content of the amino acids in each of 11 plant foods is represented by the taller bars in the main body of the figure. Note that these bars are much taller for all 11 foods than the bars representing the recommended amounts, signifying that plant foods supply much more protein than is needed. This is true for every amino acid of every food. In fact, if you chose virtually any vegetable or whole grain you would find that they have more than adequate quantities of all eight essential amino acids. The recommended daily quantities are the strictest requirements of Munro and Crim, (higher recommended quantities than others recommend) which are similar to those of the World Health Organization.

Thus, there is no shortage of protein here. Any one of them alone furnishes more than sufficient amounts of each of the eight essential amino acids. It follows that a diet consisting of a variety of plant foods will have a greater content of all essential amino acids than is needed.

Notice that there is no fruit on this list. Fruit contains a lower amount of protein, and some varieties may not contain an adequate amount of each individual essential amino acid when eaten alone. There may be other plant foods that are similar to fruit. However, when you think about it, much of the world’s population for centuries has survived primarily on plant proteins. They have been able to do this simply because vegetable protein provides all the amino acids needed for good health.

Once when I was lecturing on the subject of protein, a woman raised her hand and said, "For the first time I understand why our family survived the Great Depression." I asked what she meant. She replied, "Our family was very poor at the time of the Great Depression. My parents had many children and the only thing we had available to eat during those years were potatoes. That was all. I never could understand how all of us not only survived on such a diet, but also grew up healthy. Now I understand how we did so well." She went on to say, "However, after the Depression, I was so tired of potatoes that I did not have another one for 15 years." It may have been a monotonous diet, but it was nutritionally sound in all the essential amino acids.

I do not recommend that you eat only one vegetable throughout the day and nothing else. Such a diet would lack a balance of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, even though the protein intake would be adequate. Such a balance does come easily, however, by eating a variety of vegetables, grains, nuts, and fruits.

We see that we do not need a college degree in nutrition to get "quality protein" on a vegetarian diet. Remember, Drs. Hardinge and Stare found that even pure vegetarians living in the 1960s without all the benefits of knowledge that we have today were doing just fine regarding their intake of essential amino acids. The data on amino acid content of foods helps us to appreciate why this was the case. Perhaps one of the best summary statements on this whole topic is provided by a respected nutrition scientist, Dr. Mark Messina. Dr. Messina holds a Ph.D. in Nutrition Science from Michigan State University and has worked in the National Cancer Institute’s Diet and Cancer Branch. After speaking in detail about the balance of amino acids in plant products, he made the following summary statement: "…when people eat several servings of grains, beans, and vegetables throughout the day, and get enough calories, it is virtually impossible to be deficient in protein."17



Can We Get Too Much Protein?

Most Americans are well aware that it is possible to get too much fat in their diet. They also know that eating too much sugar can be harmful. However, many do not realize that there is much evidence that shows the serious consequences from eating too much protein.



Why Does Meat in the Diet Cause Bone Loss?

What is it about meat eating and diets high in protein that causes bone loss and an increase in osteoporosis risk? One explanation is that meat tends to be rich in amino acids that contain sulfur, such as methionine. When consumed in excess, these amino acids lead to a buildup of sulfur ions. Some believe that this increase in sulfate alone may cause the kidneys to excrete more calcium in the urine.32 Others provide a more complicated explanation for the relationship. They argue that the excess sulfur makes the blood more acidic. The body then uses bone constituents to neutralize this acid load, thus causing a loss of bone tissue. Increased calcium in the urine then provides a telltale sign of this bone loss.33

Another explanation is still more complicated. It hinges on a well-known physiologic fact: essential amino acids are needed in fairly precise amounts. When intake of these essential amino acids exceeds the body’s needs, liver enzymes are turned on to break down these amino acids. Some of the classic experiments in this regard were done by Elwyn.34 He fed dogs excessive amounts of meat and traced the path traveled by the amino acids. The protein was broken down in the stomach and intestines and then the amino acids were taken up into the blood vessels surrounding the intestine. From there, they were carried to the liver. At this point, because of the excessive amounts, a large portion of the amino acids was immediately broken down when they passed through the liver. Over half of them were converted to a breakdown product called urea, while only 23 percent of the amino acids passed from the liver into the general circulation where they could be used by other body tissues. What happens to this excessive urea? It acts as a diuretic.35 A diuretic causes elimination of water, but in the process it eliminates not only water, but also useful minerals. A similar effect occurs when a person takes diuretic medications. That individual often must take potassium because certain diuretics can eliminate potassium along with water. Excess urea causes calcium loss with the water loss.

All of these mechanisms may be partial explanations. Whatever the case, it is well established that a meat and high protein fare increases the risk of osteoporosis.

This line of evidence may prove very disconcerting to many readers. What are we to do with the revered mineral, calcium? One of the most comprehensive studies on osteoporosis helps to put the role of calcium in perspective. This study was not restricted to the lone effect of calcium intake, but looked at many additional lifestyle factors in relation to hip fractures. Four major research centers worked together to analyze the risk of hip fracture in nearly 10,000 white women over 65.36 They found that a low calcium intake-even below 400 mg per day - did not cause hip fractures in this extensive study. This result agrees with the study shown previously in Figure 5: Relationship Between Calcium Intake and Hip Fracture Rate. Beyond calcium, they found many other factors that were damaging. They are listed in Figure 6: Lifestyle Factors and Hip Fracture Risk.

Notice that those whose mothers had had hip fractures experienced double the risk of hip fracture. Those who did not exercise regularly were at higher risk. Caffeine consumption equivalent to 1-1/2 cups of coffee per day was also clearly associated with an increased risk, as was taking anti-anxiety (benzodiazepines) or anti-seizure medications. Numerous additional studies have shown that the higher the animal protein intake, the lower the density of the body’s bones and the greater the risk for hip fracture.37 Interestingly, higher consumption of vegetable protein does not appear to be related to osteoporosis or bone fractures.38 Although calcium intake and hip fractures are unrelated in many studies, some studies have shown that an increase in calcium intake can prevent osteoporosis, particularly when the calcium consumption is adequate and the protein intake is relatively low before the age of 30.39 Other known risk factors that additional studies have identified for osteoporosis include inadequate sunlight (or low Vitamin D levels), alcohol consumption, caffeine consumption, and lack of regular physical exercise.40 Many studies have shown that thin post-menopausal women who are not taking estrogen supplements are also at risk.41

A diet plentiful in calcium contained in plant foods is still recommended. Calcium is not only essential for strong bones; it is beneficial in other important body functions. For example, it may help to prevent high blood pressure. It also appears to assist the heart in beating with greater vitality.42

A number of foods that have goodly amounts of calcium are listed in Figure 7: Calcium in Common Foods.43

Soy beans and greens are a good natural source of calcium. Some green leafy vegetables-like collards and lamb’s-quarters-have even more calcium per serving than soybeans. Greens also have properties that help prevent cancer. Indeed, we can obtain adequate calcium from plant sources. Furthermore, these foods are lower in protein and therefore should not extract calcium from our bones. If we avoid an excess level of protein intake and eat a good variety of plant foods, our body calcium stores will likely be more than adequate.

Tables like that above fail to reveal one other important fact about calcium balance. Namely, it is not only the quantity of calcium in a given food that is important, but how well that calcium is absorbed. And calcium absorption is dependent to some degree on the composition of the whole diet, not merely on the nutritional characteristics of a given calcium-rich food.



Absorption of Calcium from Plant Foods vs. Milk

Although milk has a high calcium content, 60 to 80 percent of it is not absorbed through the human intestine.44 Dr. C.M. Weaver and associates at Purdue University have observed that, in general, humans absorb as much or more of the calcium in plant products than they do from milk.45, 46 (The main exceptions are plant foods that contain high concentrations of compounds that block calcium absorption. Examples include spinach with its oxalic acid and wheat bran cereal with its liberal amounts of phytic acid). Since it is now recognized that calcium can be assimilated as well or better from vegetarian sources than from milk, we must simply become aware of the rich sources of calcium in the vegetarian diet and choose to regularly consume these items.

One possible reason for the very favorable absorption of calcium from plant products like green leafy vegetables is their low phosphorus content. Dark green leaf vegetables can have three to five times as much calcium as phosphorus. By way of comparison, the typical U.S. diet is reversed: it has more than twice as much phosphorus as calcium. And diets with a phosphorus-to-calcium ratio over two have been linked to increased bone loss in animals.47 High levels of dietary phosphorus lead to increased losses of calcium in the stool. It is recommended that at least as much calcium as phosphorus is consumed in the diet if you want to optimize calcium absorption.48 The balance of calcium and phosphorus in a variety of foods is shown in Figure 8: Calcium/Phosphorus Ratio in Selected Foods.49

There is a problem with looking at ratios: they can be misleading. For example, some may conclude that catfish is equal to potatoes because their ratios are equal. Not so-the ratio and the total phosphorus are important. To keep your phosphorus load down, you would favor the potato, which has only two-thirds as much as catfish; and neither of them contribute much in the way of calcium.

Thus, in addition to looking at calcium-to-phosphorus ratios, we need to consider the phosphorus content itself in common food groups. The average American diet has been evaluated regarding the percentage of phosphorus in each of eight major food groups that provide our total phosphorus intake. Two food groups stand out with a high phosphorus content and they account for the major percentage of our total intake. The percentage in each of the eight groups is shown in Figure 9: Where do we get our Phosphorus?.

Note that two groups, meat and dairy products, account for 60 percent of our phosphorus intake. To lower the intake, the best strategy would be to limit or stop our consumption of foods in these two food groups.50



Other Advantages of Plant Protein

Other advantages of eating plant protein are just now surfacing in nutritional research studies. A recent study of women suffering from severe hot flashes was conducted. These uncomfortable episodes of intense heat sensation frequently accompany the dropping estrogen levels in menopausal women. It was demonstrated that eating 20 grams of soy protein a day (equivalent to a half-cup or 4.5 ounces of tofu) significantly reduced the severity of their hot flashes.80 The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Gregory Burke from Wake Forest University and the Bowman Gray School of Medicine in North Carolina, believes the improvement is due to plant estrogens in the soy protein which "may have the same beneficial effects of estrogen, but may not have some of the downside." These plant estrogens do not seem to increase the risk of uterine cancer like their human and pill form counterparts. All of the women eating the soy protein also experienced a beneficial "side effect" of a significant drop in the total and LDL cholesterol (10 and 11 percent respectively) with no drop in their good HDL cholesterol during the six week study.



Protein in Growth and Development

The average age of menarche, the age that girls begin to have menstrual periods, seems to be connected with the amount or type of protein that is consumed in childhood. For instance, several years ago when the Japanese were consuming a very low meat and animal product diet, the average age of menarche was 17.81 This compares with the average age of menarche in the U.S. of less than 12.8 years of age.82, 83 Many experts believe that an early age of menarche is a significant risk factor for the later development of breast and uterine cancer84 and may help explain why American women have over four times the risk of breast cancer compared to Japanese women.85 The only study I know of that has compared the growth of vegetarian children with meat-consuming children in the same geographic area showed that the meat-eating children were slightly taller than the vegetarians until age ten. However, when both groups had reached the age of 18, the vegetarians had caught up with and then surpassed their meat eating counterparts, being at least an inch taller as adults.86



U.S. Government Switches to Lower Protein Recommendation

Why did the American four food groups differ so much from those of the Chinese? The USDA recommendations were not based on health so much as on American cultural eating habits. It was not until very recently that our government undertook the task of producing new recommendations that shifted emphasis from nutrient deficiencies to chronic diseases. Their new recommendations reduced meat and diary consumption.

As expected, the dairy and meat industries were disturbed about this change and pressured the government so heavily that the new food guide was withdrawn for months while the special interest battle raged. In the end, the meat and dairy industries succeeded in having the wording changed from "decrease consumption of meat" to "have two or three (daily) servings [of meat]."87 Except for this unfortunate alteration, the new food guide, which is in the form of a pyramid, is an improvement over the older four-food groups. The chart is reproduced for you in Figure 23: USDA Food Guide Pyramid.

The foods shown at the base of the pyramid are to be eaten with the greatest frequency. This is based on health reasons, not cultural reasons. Grains are abundant in natural foods. Most Western countries have adopted the practice of refining many of their grains. However, we need to eat whole grain foods to receive the maximum benefits of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Fruits and vegetables are the next category. Today there are numerous studies, many of which are presented in this book, that clearly indicate the protective benefits of these foods. Those who eat the most fruits and vegetables have the least amount of cancer and heart disease. Unfortunately, the average American has failed to follow these practical recommendations. Latest surveys indicate that most Americans eat an average of only 3.4 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, far from the 5 to 9 the pyramid recommends.88

Meats, nuts, and eggs are now classified together in the protein group. However, we have seen that vegetable proteins (including legumes) are by far the safest forms of protein to consume. Dairy is also represented probably because of dairy association pressure. But soy milk, which is a substitute for cows milk, is now commonly available, and is cholesterol-free and low in fat; there are many flavors and varieties to choose from. At the top of the pyramid, fats, oils, and sweets are listed. We agree with the message of using these sparingly. In fact, the less the better. What would be the result if Americans followed the full recommendations of the bottom half of the food guide pyramid by eating 11 servings of grains, 5 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of fruit, and 3 servings of nuts each day? Obviously, there would not be much room left for the undesirable items listed at the top portion of the pyramid. And that is precisely the point.

What would happen to the level of protein intake if we followed the pyramid recommendations? It would drop dramatically to a safer level, because animal products would have a smaller part in our diet. To consume a given amount of calories each day by using a large amount of animal foods, a person would have a high intake of protein. This is simply because the number of grams of protein in animal foods is high in relation to the calories they contain. Conversely, consuming the same number of calories by eating a large amount of plant foods would result in a lower protein intake, because plant foods contain less grams of protein for a given number of calories. A comparison of plant and animal foods in this regard is tabulated in Figure 24: Grams of Protein Content per 100 Calories.89

We see that plant sources of food are generally much lower in protein for a given calorie content than animal sources. For those readers who desire to know the percent of calories from protein in the foods listed, multiply the values by four.



Basic Four Diet Based on Information from this Chapter

If we were to construct our own recommended food groups based on the information shared in this chapter, we could serve the cause of health well with a simple four food group plan. This basic four plan is shown in Figure 25: Ideal Basic Four Diet Plan.If we were to subsist wholly on these four food groups, we could prevent a whole host of diseases, improve both our quality and quantity of life, and make a huge difference in the health of the entire Western world.



Conclusion

It is high time we set aside the great meat and protein myth. Preoccupation with meat and its protein, rather than improving health, has contributed to many degenerative diseases such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, kidney failure, and kidney stones. Plant sources of nutrition are generally modest in protein and reasonable in fat content; furthermore, they never contain any cholesterol. With our growing understanding of protein physiology, a plant-ased diet has emerged as the optimal way to eat for those interested in maximizing longevity and the quality of living.



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