In this article series I’m answering your most frequently asked questions about protein. I’ve been sharing information that may dispel some of the most common misconceptions about proteins. In the last post I explained and debunked the “quality of protein” myth and explained that the terminology nutrition scientists use can be very misleading. As I explained, higher quality, when it comes to proteins, does not equal better health. In this post we’re going to look at how this translates into animal based proteins versus plant based proteins and which protein source is actually superior – when it comes to our health.
To recap: animal based proteins have been classified as “higher quality” because they come as a more complete amino acid ‘package’. They closely resemble the amino acid profile that your body needs, and your body utilizes them very quickly. This is common knowledge and is hard to refute. But what I outlined in the last post is that we actually don’t want such a rapid assimilation of amino acids – efficiency, in this case, doesn’t equate to better health.
According to T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study:
“There is a mountain of compelling research showing that:‘”low-quality” plant protein, which allows for slow but steady synthesis of new proteins, is the healthiest type of protein. Slow but steady wins the race.”[i]
Although the supposed ‘lower quality’ plant proteins may not come as such a ‘complete’ package in terms of matching our proteins, as a group, they do contain all of the proteins that we need to thrive. We ensure that we get all of them by eating a varied plant-based diet. Not only do we receive all the amino acids to keep us thriving, we also minimize the numerous health risks associated to eating meat.
We are seeing this myth slowly unravel before our eyes, but we have to be willing to at least be open to new information. Even such popular medical journal publications such as Lancet have reported this false discrepancy. Published in a Lancet editorial:
“Formerly, vegetable proteins were classified as second class, and regarded as inferior to first-class proteins of animal origin, but this distinction has now been generally discarded.”[ii]
Again, Dr. Campbell points out:
“We now know that through enormously complex metabolic systems, the human body can derive all the essential amino acids from the natural variety of plant proteins we encounter every day.”
The Discovery of Endogenous Proteins
One of the key discoveries that changed how we understand proteins was that of ‘recycled’ proteins also known as endogenous proteins. The human body efficiently recycles and reuses about 100 and 300 grams of our own protein every day.[iii] Before we discovered this, it was generally believed that in order to absorb and utilize the essential amino acids in the diet, the diet must contain all the amino acids in certain proportions and presented all at the same time.[iv] This mistaken belief dating as far back as 1914, is still a core concept that continues to influence many of our health care professionals and so-called nutritional experts to continue to promote animal based proteins as ‘complete’ proteins for better health – but this is simply not the case.
Studies conducted by Nasset show that regardless of the amino acid profile of the meal, the intestinal tract maintains a similar ratio of essential amino acids. The mixing of endogenous protein is how our bodies regulate the various concentrations of the amino acids available for absorption.[v]
Animal versus Plant Protein from a Health Perspective
Why eat animals when you can get everything you need to not only be healthy but to totally thrive from plants? There are some serious health consequences to eating excessive amounts of animal based proteins, shown to be above approximately 10% of total calories. Eating animal flesh is highly acidic, leaching alkaline minerals like calcium from bones. Meat is also extremely toxic with all of the antibiotics and artificial hormones fed to animals to make them grow faster and bigger (guess what they do to you when you eat them!) and can exhaust the liver and kidneys having to work overtime to detoxify the body of these toxic and harmful substances. It also takes quite a lot more energy from the body to digest and break down meat, sapping our bodies of our vital life force. In addition, contrary to popular belief, it’s consuming animal flesh that spikes an insulin response in the body leading to insulin resistance and atrophy of the pancreas setting the stage for type 2 diabetes. And regardless of how ‘lean’ the meat, eating animals contains high amounts of fat and cholesterol, leading to all sorts of cardiovascular problems including heart disease, atherosclerosis and stroke. This is totally aside from the incredibly clear and unmistakably conclusive research that Dr. Campbell discusses in his book, The China Study outlining the most comprehensive health study ever conducted, directly relating animal protein to cancer. Pretty interesting right?
All these health consequences don’t even touch on the tremendous abuse that millions of animals are enduring each day, or the environmental degradation that’s happening as a result of these industries. But I’m sure you’ve heard this all before. When we cause harm to the animals and to the environment, we directly cause harm to our own selves as well.
When we choose a plant-based diet, the sum of that single decision has extremely far reaching consequences and we can know that we are playing our part in contributing to the health of our own bodies, our families, communities and to the health of this Earth.
I would particularly like to clarify that it’s not impossible to thrive while consuming small amounts of animal proteins. It is, however, well worth considering keeping animal products to a very small portion of your diet, buying local, organic, grass-fed and GMO free, humanely raised animal products.
When it comes to quality of proteins, it’s also worth considering cooked versus raw protein and the affect that cooking can have on protein.
Aloha from the Big Island of Hawaii,
Laura Dawn, Registered Holistic Nutritionist
[i] T.Colin Campbell The China Study page 31
[ii] Editorial, Lancet, London, 2:956; 1959
[iii] Dr. Douglas Graham The 80/10/10 Diet page 103