Category: Diet

The Protein Quality Myth

The very first question every new vegan asks is, “What about protein?!” I always answer, “All plants have protein,” which is then met with, “But they don’t have all the amino acids I need, do they?” I recently put that question to Garth Davis, MD when I interviewed him for an article about the protein needs of older adults. His surprising answer was that not only do plants have all the essential amino acids we need, but that plants are the ideal source for those amino acids because consuming certain ones in high quantities may be harmful to our health.

It turns out that all whole foods contain some amount of every single dietary amino acid humans need, the only difference is that some foods contain them in larger quantities, and others contain them in very tiny amounts. Forty-five years ago, vegetarian author Frances Lappé addressed the amino acid issue in her book, Diet For a Small Planet. In it, she suggested that vegetarians should combine different plant foods at each meal in order to get enough of each essential amino acid. The book became a bestseller, and as a result, the complicated and unnecessary practice of food combining became widespread among vegans and vegetarians. 10 years later, Lappé updated the book and tried to undo the damage. “In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth,” she wrote. But it was too late – the myth of protein combining persists to this day.

While it is certainly true that we need to consume adequate protein and adequate amounts of the nine essential amino acids in our diet, the idea that we either have to consume animal proteins or pair different plant foods with one another at every meal is a simply not true. Since 1971 a great deal of research has been done on protein, and here are the key findings:

  • Healthy adult women need 46 grams of protein per day and healthy adult men need 56 grams (see 2015 US Dietary Guidelines)
  • Our bodies continually recycle and reuse amino acids in the gut, and the ability of the liver and other tissues to store amino acids over the short term makes protein combining at every meal unnecessary.
  • John McDougall, MD stated it best in a published response to the American Heart Association: “…it is impossible to design an amino acid–deficient diet based on the amounts of unprocessed starches and vegetables sufficient to meet the calorie needs of humans.” In other words, if you’re getting enough calories, then you’re getting enough protein and amino acids.

So we don’t need to worry about getting enough protein and amino acids, but what about too much? Research suggests that intakes of certain amino acids once considered “optimal” may be anything but. In his book, Proteinaholic, Dr. Davis cites a number of recent animal and human studies which have shown that by restricting methionine and leucine intakes we might lower our risk of developing certain cancers and slow the aging process. While plant-based foods have optimally low to moderate amounts of both amino acids, eggs, fish, meat and poultry all contain them in high levels. This is just one more way that our society’s “more is better” attitude toward protein might be proving harmful.

Upon considering the totality of the research on protein and amino acids, it appears that we need to shift our focus away from the myth of “complete” protein sources, and start considering “optimal” sources instead.

Newsflash: Everything You Know About Protein is Wrong

Proteinaholic I’ve been a personal trainer for eight years and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of diet and exercise trends come and go. While most trends catch fire for a few months and then enjoy maybe a year or two of waning popularity, there’s one trend that’s been around much longer than I’ve been a fitness professional, and that trend is protein.

A quick scan of blogpost titles, best seller lists, and packaged food boxes will confirm protein’s unrivaled celebrity. Indeed, protein is considered by many to be the most important nutrient in our diet. I used to be one of the people who believed that.

In my book, Reboot Your Body, I advocated for a higher protein diet as one of several healthy alternatives for people who want to lose weight. Paradoxically, at the same time I was writing that section of my book, I was telling other clients to load up on protein if they wanted to bulk up.

The irony of that never hit me until I read Proteinaholic, by Garth Davis, MD and Howard Jacobson, PhD.

I’ve read many books and studies and seen several great documentaries all saying that our societal love of protein has been misplaced, but this book was different. This book really changed my mind.

Protein Does Not Lead to Weight Loss

For starters, Dr. Davis is a prominent weight loss surgeon. If there’s any one “fact” about protein that is universally accepted above all others, it’s that high-protein diets lead to weight loss, yet here was an expert in the field telling us otherwise. That got my attention right away, but it was Davis’ personal story that finally made me question what I had thought of as indisputable truths about protein.

In the first few chapters of the book, Davis recounts his personal struggles with keeping weight off in his 30’s, which culminated in a health scare when his optometrist told him she could see cholesterol in the capillaries of his eyeballs during a routine eye exam. Dr. Davis was also unhappy about the number of boomerang patients he was seeing – ones who had initially lost weight after surgery, but had gained back most or all of the weight over time. This prompted him to learn everything he could about diet and weight loss (surprisingly, not something most weight loss doctors are taught in medical school), so he began reading any bit of research he could find.

A few months in, Davis started to see a pattern emerge, so he decided to test a theory out on himself – he switched to a plant-based diet, just to see what would happen. He lost weight, felt amazing and his health markers improved dramatically. But he wasn’t convinced that this was something that would work for everyone, so before he started advocating a plant-based diet to his patients, he did more research. The further he dug, the more convinced he became, until the evidence was so overwhelming, he changed the basis of his medical practice and began writing Proteinaholic. While he still performs surgery on patients who have no other option, he now works very hard to intervene long before they get to that point. His intervention strategy is based on the strong recommendation that patients adopt a plant-based diet.

But What About…?

Everything Davis and Jacobson wrote made perfect sense to me, but there was still that voice in the back of my head, the one that said, “But what about…?”

But I’m very active, so what about getting enough protein to build muscle?
But I’m getting older, so aren’t my protein needs higher?
But I’m already vegan, so don’t I need to worry about getting enough protein?

Dr. Davis addressed all of those questions in his book. His answer? “You’re already getting more than you need.”

I was shocked to learn that the US RDA for protein is only 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men, regardless of age. Active individuals may need to bump those levels up a bit, but results from scientific studies on that subject are actually mixed.

At the very most, it appears that athletes and adults over 65 may benefit from getting somewhere around 1.0 – 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. If I could call myself an athlete, that would put my own daily requirement somewhere around 65 grams of protein per day, while a 200-pound bodybuilder would need no more than 110 grams per day. That number – 110 grams – is right around the average amount of protein most American men consume every single day. How many of them are 200-pound body builders, I wonder?

Every Food Manufacturer’s Best Friend

A quick google search yielded dozens of articles, many published by and for the food industry, all confirming one thing: Americans are crazy about protein. Manufacturers know they can get a significant boost in product sales by changing nothing other than putting the word “protein” somewhere on the product label. Most consumers do, in fact, seek out foods with higher protein content, whether it’s good for them or not.

As it turns out, it’s not.

Too Much Protein Is Bad For Your Health

In their book, Davis and Jacobson cite nearly 700 sources backing the assertion that consuming too much protein leads to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Davis in an interview I conducted for NextAvenue. What struck me most was the honest conviction with which he spoke. Here was a doctor who stood to lose business if people followed his advice, and yet he was eager to answer any question I put to him. He genuinely wanted to help me understand the truth behind our widespread, misguided beliefs.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll follow up with a few posts elaborating on some of the specific topics Dr. Davis and I talked about, but for now, I will say this: Three years ago, I switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons, and nearly every day I worried about whether I was getting enough protein. After reading Proteinaholic, I don’t worry about myself any more. Now I worry about everyone else.

Lessons Learned From My Elimination Diet Trial

Diet Last week I wrote a post updating my progress on the elimination diet, and then I promptly stopped following it. Seriously, within an hour or two I brought back the last of the foods I had been keeping out. I had a glass of wine with dinner and some devilish chocolate-covered caramels for dessert. In fact, the only thing I managed to stick to for the entire length of the trial was no caffeine.

On the surface, it would seem as though the diet failed, or rather,  I failed the diet, but this past week something amazing happened: I got my energy back! Honestly, I can’t even say that I got it “back,” because I can’t remember ever feeling this good in my life. While I can’t attribute this remarkable turnaround entirely to the elimination diet, I do feel that it played a very key role for three reasons. Those reasons are alcohol, caffeine and sugar.

I brought back nightshades and soy very early in the trial, gluten and citrus somewhere around the middle, but I kept out caffeine the entire time, consumed sugar very sparingly (the chocolate caramels were a short-lived reprieve), and I had a total of 10 ounces of red wine, spread over three or four different occasions during the whole four-week trial. Toward the end of week three, I noticed that I was generally sleeping better and my energy levels were more consistent throughout the day. I attribute the better sleep to no caffeine or alcohol, and the constant energy levels to no sugar. I was feeling pretty good, but still not great. What led to that was something else entirely.

A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded the Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen app. It helps me track servings of healthy whole foods throughout the day. I’ve been using it every single day since I downloaded it. For the first week and a half, I was averaging a score of around 80 – 85% each day. But a few days ago, I announced at bedtime that the next day I was going to hit the recommended servings for each food group. I stuck to my promise the next day and achieved 100% for the first time. The next day, I felt amazing. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. feeling actually awake despite a short and broken night’s sleep. I had incredible energy levels throughout the entire day, right up until 10:00 p.m. But the really amazing thing is that I had the best workout I’ve had in months. I did 30 pull-ups (not all in one set!) and followed them up with a tough, 5 mile run. It was the furthest and fastest I’d run since last summer. I thought I’d need a nap later in the day, but to my surprise, I had so much energy, I was pacing around all afternoon. The next day, same thing – great energy levels, amazing workout intensity, happiness levels through the roof.

It just goes to show that when you really treat your body right, it appreciates it and returns the favor.

Winding Down My Crazy Diet Experiment

It’s only been two solid weeks on the elimination diet, but already I’ve let a lot of things back in. The only things that have stayed resolutely out have been caffeine, alcohol, gluten and oranges. I’ve also only had soy on one occasion, and haven’t had any added sugar except what’s in the chocolate I’ve been eating after dinner. Generally, I’ve been sleeping better and my workouts have been more energized, but I still feel that afternoon lag nearly every day.

Ever the experimenter, I’ll continue tweaking things until I hit upon a diet and sleep routine that makes me feel like I’m 25 again (actually, I hope to feel a lot better than I did when I was 25, because I certainly didn’t eat very healthfully back then). I know it’s possible, because I’ve been close before. Interestingly, the best I’ve felt in a few years was when I did a 3-day liquid diet consisting of vegetable blends and soups. I’m toying with the idea now of going raw for a week or so, just to see what that does.

It’s important to note that I don’t intend for any of this to be permanent. Rather, I’ll use what I learn to make small adjustments going forward. That’s the goal of every “crazy” experimental diet I ever do. What I’ve learned so far on this one is that there are dozens or hundreds of delicious meals that can be made with absolutely no processed ingredients and no added sugar of any kind. We’ve even come up with a delicious dessert made entirely of Medjool dates, almonds and coconut oil.

I’m giving the experiment one more full week and then I’ll relax it a little or change it up. I’ll let you know at the end what new healthy habits I take away from it. Bon appetit!

The Most Important Book I’ve Ever Read

HowNotToDie This is one of those days when I wish my blog had a lot more followers, because I have something important to share. Important isn’t really even the right word. Given the health crises our world is facing today, terms like “critical,” “crucial,” “essential,” and “absolutely necessary” might be more appropriate.

Dr. Michael Greger is the creator and producer of the indispensable website, where he has posted thousands of short, informative articles and videos on all topics relating to health and nutrition. He works tirelessly day after day reviewing the latest medical and scientific research, then he expertly turns those long, boring, technical papers into easy-to-understand information that anyone can access anytime for free. Whenever I have a question about nutrition and health, is the first place I go to find answers.

Now Dr. Greger has summarized much of that research into a book, How Not to Die. After a flabbergasting introduction where he recounts the story of his grandmother’s struggle with heart disease, he goes on to talk about the 15 leading causes of death in the US and exactly what you can do to avoid them. Then it gets even better: in Part 2, he lays out specific and simple diet and exercise guidelines for everyone.

Shortly after the release of the book, Dr. Greger’s team developed an app designed to help you follow those diet and exercise guidelines. I’ve been using the app for about two weeks, and I can honestly say they have been the healthiest two weeks of my life. The app is free and available for both Android and iPhone.

If you care at all about your health, if you want to learn how to stop and reverse disease, if you want to live a long, healthy, productive life, then buy this book and do what it says.


Elimination Diet Update

Diet It’s been a full week since I started the elimination diet, and I’ve had my ups and downs. On the one hand, I’ve been surprised at how well I’ve been eating and how seldom I’ve experienced any cravings, but on the other hand, I’m looking forward to bringing a few things back into my diet sooner rather than later.

While I’ve been fine without alcohol and gluten and even soy, I miss tomatoes, peppers and oranges. Caffeine, I’ve found has been hard to give up in a different way.

Prior to starting the diet, I was only drinking about 12 ounces of caffeinated coffee each day. I would occasionally have a cup of black, green or white tea in the early afternoon, but that would have amounted to a “high-caffeine” day for me. Yet I suffered from serious withdrawal headaches for the first three days on the diet, and milder, more short-lived headaches through day five. It surprised me that caffeine would have such an effect on me. It makes me wonder if I’ll go back to it at all after the diet trial is over.

Sugar has been tough to leave out, not so much for the cravings, as for the role it plays as an ingredient in things like salad dressings and sauces. I have been eating lots of fresh fruit for dessert, and more dried fruit than usual (which I’m not even sure is strictly allowed on the diet, but I couldn’t find anything saying one way or the other).

The most disappointing thing is that so far, I haven’t noticed any big changes. I feel well enough, but my energy levels are pretty much the same. I still experience an afternoon lag and my workouts have been mediocre. I have noticed a slight improvement to the quality of my sleep. I’ve slept for five hours straight without waking up the past two nights in a row, which is about 90 minutes longer than usual. So far, that extra sleep hasn’t translated to extra daytime energy, but it’s a positive sign, so I’ll stick with the elimination phase of the diet a bit longer to see if that turns around.

I should mention that a few days before I started the diet I also started the first run streak I’ve ever attempted – running every single day for a stretch of days. I’m supposed to tough it out for the month of January, and I suppose I will. Perhaps starting these two unusual challenges at the same time wasn’t the wisest decision, but I’m keeping the runs short and easy, so hopefully that isn’t interfering too much with the diet experiment.

I’ll check in again in a week or so, when I may or may not be eating tomatoes, peppers and oranges again. So far, I’d have to say that embarking on an elimination diet without having a specific list of foods to exclude, provided by medical testing, feels a bit haphazard, and I don’t know that it’s worth the bother. Then again, my “symptoms” are not really symptoms at all. Those experiencing real health concerns should probably feel very differently. After all, this is a completely risk-free way to determine potential dietary triggers for a variety of symptoms. How great would it be if you could just stop eating or drinking something and experience relief, rather than have to take prescription medication for the rest of your life?