Magical, Mythical Protein?

From the May 2003 edition of Dr. Fuhrman’s Healthy Times:

My patients tell me that the question most frequently asked by their friends or family members about the Eat to Live diet is “How do you get enough protein, without eating lots of animal products?”

Many people are still tied to the myth that a diet needs to include animal products in order to be nutritionally sound. Adding to this confusion are the many diet books and magazine articles that promulgate the myth that increasing the percentage of protein in your diet helps lead to weight loss, while increasing the percentage of carbohydrates leads to weight gain.

Macronutrient juggling

Regarding weight loss, some diet book gurus argue that to lose weight you need to balance the precise ratio of fat, carbohydrate, and protein with a calculator, with the exact ratio to be determined by your heritage or blood type. Clearly, these trendy viewpoints are not scientifically valid and might just as well base the ratios on your eye color or shoe size. A sound perspective on human nutrition must include an understanding of the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients.

Protein, fat, and carbohydrate are macronutrients. In fact, they are the only macronutrients that exist. Macronutrients are the nutrients that contain calories; calories supply us with energy. Vitamins, minerals, and fiber are a few of the many micronutrients. Micronutrients do not contain calories; they have other essential roles to play. When it comes to designing a healthful, weight loss diet, micronutrients should be the focus of your attention, not macronutrients. Here’s why.

If you are overweight, you have consumed more calories than you have utilized. Tinkering with the percentages of fat, protein, or carbohydrate in your diet isn’t going to change the caloric density very much. What you need to do is consume fewer calories, which means fewer macronutrients—less protein, less fat, and less carbohydrate. And for goodness sake, don’t worry about not consuming enough of any one of the macronutrients. With the exception of individuals who are anorexic, it is almost impossible to find an American who is deficient in fat, protein or carbohydrate intake. If anything, most Americans (along with most people living in modern Western societies) consume more macronutrients than needed.

Impossible deficiency
Protein deficiency is not a concern for anyone in the developed world. It is almost impossible to consume too little protein, no matter what you eat, unless your diet is significantly deficient in calories. Part of the reason is that protein is contained in all foods, not just animal products. If there is a valid concern about protein consumption in America, it is that too many Americans are trying to eat more of it when they are already eating too much of it.

Study after study has shown that as protein consumption goes up, so does the incidence of chronic diseases. Similar studies show that the incidence of chronic diseases also goes up when carbohydrate and fat consumption go up. This is because if the consumption of any of the macronutrients exceeds our basic requirements, the excess hurts us. Americans already get too much protein (and fat and carbohydrates), and this is reflected in soaring increases in the diseases of excess—heart disease, high-blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and numerous others.

Micronutrient deficiencies
Most Americans eat diets that are deficient in micronutrients, not in macronutrients. Rather than worrying about macronutrient percentages in your diet, focus your attention on meeting all of your micronutrient needs. For example, fat intake on a healthful diet could vary from 10 to 25 percent depending on the percentage of higher-fat fare such as avocados and raw nuts and seeds as a percent of total calories. Eating more of these higher calorie, fattier foods may be necessary in an active thin athlete or a growing child. Any concern you might have about not eating excess fat should be focused on the fact that fatty foods are more calorically-dense foods, and generally lower in micronutrients than vegetables and other less calorically-dense foods.

The focus of my book, Eat To Live, is on micronutrients. Simply put, the goal of a healthful diet is to get the highest amounts of micronutrients—both in quantity and diversity—from the fewest calories. Micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fibers, bioflavonoids, antioxidants and other phytochemicals, are the key to superior health and ideal weight.

When you eat to maximize micronutrients in relation to calories, your body function will normalize, chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol will resolve, and you should be able to maintain your youthful vigor into old age.

Heart disease and cancer—the major killers in modern societies—would fade away and become exceedingly rare occurrences if the population adopted an Eat To Live lifestyle. The current epidemic of obesity also would fade away because when your diet is high enough in micronutrients, excess weight drops off at a relatively fast rate. When your diet is high in micronutrients, it’s as if you had your stomach stapled; you simply don’t crave to overeat anymore. It is actually very difficult to overeat when you eat your fill of high micronutrient food.

Incomplete protein myth
The commercially-promoted myth that high animal protein consumption is necessary for good health is something we urgently need to dispel if we want to halt the heart disease and cancer epidemic. One aspect of the animal protein mythology is the notion that plant proteins are “incomplete” and need to be “complemented” for adequate protein.1 In fact, fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds are all rich sources of protein.

All vegetables and grains contain all eight of the essential amino acids, as well as the twelve other “non-essential” ones. While some vegetables have higher or lower proportions of certain amino acids than others, when eaten in amounts necessary to satisfy your caloric needs, a sufficient amount of all essential amino acids is available. Because digestive secretions and sloughed off mucosal cells are constantly recycled and reabsorbed, the amino acid composition of post-prandial (after meal) blood is remarkably complete in spite of any short-term irregularities in the dietary supply of amino acids.

Inessential nutrients
In North America, about 70 percent of dietary protein comes from animal foods. Worldwide, plant foods provide 84 percent of calories. The first scientific studies to determine human protein requirements were conducted in the 1950s.These studies demonstrated that adults require 20-35 grams of protein per day.2 Today, the average American consumes 100-120 grams of protein per day, mostly in the form of animal products. People who eat a vegetable-based diet (vegan) have been found to consume 60-80 grams of protein per day, well above the minimum requirement.3 More importantly, eating more plant protein is the key to increasing our micronutrient intake.

It is interesting to note that foods such as peas, green vegetables, and beans have more protein per calorie than meat. But what is not generally considered is that the foods richest in plant protein also are the foods richest in micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, fibers, bioflavonoids, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals. By eating more of these high-nutrient, low-calorie foods, you get plenty of protein and your body gets flooded with protective micronutrients at the same time. Animal protein does not contain antioxidants or phytochemicals and is filled with saturated fat—the most dangerous type of fat.

Even a professional bodybuilder desiring to build half a pound of extra muscle per week only needs about seven extra grams of protein per day over normal intake. No complicated formulas or protein supplements are needed to get sufficient protein for growth, even in the serious athlete. Since exercise results in increased hunger, athletes consume more food (calories), which provides the extra protein naturally.

Benefits of plant proteins
There are many benefits to meeting your protein needs with plant foods. For example, when you reduce body fat, your cholesterol levels tend to lower somewhat. But when you reduce or eliminate animal protein intake and increase vegetable protein intake along the lines I recommend in Eat To Live, you will lower your cholesterol dramatically. Why? Because vegetables are rich in protein, but also have no saturated fat or cholesterol, and they are higher in micronutrients than any other food. When study subjects are fed a vegetable- based diet, cholesterol levels drop radically, much more than when using the most powerful cholesterol- lowering drugs.4

In addition to the cholesterol lowering effects of vegetables and beans (high-protein) foods, these plant foods contain an assortment of heart-disease-fighting nutrients. They fight cancer, too.

The food plan described in Eat To Live serves the most powerful anticancer, disease-fighting foods on the planet, tastes great, and also provides tremendous potential health benefits. If more people ate this way, the health results would be astounding. Most people are simply not aware that a new approach to food and eating can be our biggest success in fighting obesity and the major illnesses that plague Americans.

1. Am J Clin Nutr 1994;59(suppl):1203S-1212S.

2. Rose W. The amino acid requirements of man. Nutritional Abstracts and Reviews 1957;27:631.

3. Hardage M. Nutritional studies of vegetarians. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 1966;48:25.

4. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Popovich, Effects of a very-high-fiber vegetable, fruit, and diet on serum lipids and colonic function. Metabolism 2001:50(4);494-503.
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