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 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."
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.
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