The Protein Problem

The number one rebuttal to the practice of vegetarianism is that it’s nearly impossible to get enough protein. This is the basic argument that scare-tactics a lot of people out of reducing the amount of meat they eat. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it’s based in years of propaganda and misused science.

There are a few fundamentals to work through before you can really understand the protein issue. I’m working hand-in-hand, literally, with a biologist to help me understand them.  Pot o' BeansHe’s sitting next to me to walk us through the protein quandary. “To start off, let’s get on the same page on protein,” he says. “Proteins are made up of twenty different component amino acids. The arrangement and quantities of each amino acid in a protein are what determine the job that that protein is capable of doing in your body. The sticking point is that your body can only make twelve of the twenty, and the remaining eight have to be supplied in some way.”

Society tells us that we need more protein, by and large because the meat industry would have us so believe.  In reality, except for the severely malnourished, people eat enough protein.  Protein is largely a source for nitrogen, and the amount of nitrogen one needs is well accounted for in a normal diet.  The other thing one needs to get out of their protein consumption is those eight stubborn amino acids the body doesn’t make.  The theoretical complications here are cumbersome.  The amino acids are used in different amounts by the human body, and furthermore, different organisms (like plants and animals) use different amounts of each than we do.  You can see where this could be easily misconstrued.  The story goes that plants use less of a few essential amino acids than we do, and thus people who eat vegetarian are depriving themselves of those nutrients.  This is then generalized to the argument that vegetarians don’t get enough protein.  See how quickly that escalated?

Unfortunately, this line of logic is similar to reading that a presidential candidate won Iowa, and then figuring that they must have won the election.  (Ironically, this logic works if all you eat is corn.)

This spawns a series of myths, like that the protein in beans doesn’t provide anything unless it’s matched with rice, creating a “complete protein.” According to Young and Pellett, “… an undue emphasis on amino acid balance at each meal is inappropriate in the context of usual diets in healthy populations.”  If you speak Science, read further about Plant Proteins in Relation to Human Protein and Amino Acid Nutrition. If not (and I don’t), the translation is essentially that the beans and rice theory, along with others, appears to be bull. If you’re eating a well rounded and nutrient-rich diet – meaning lots of kinds of plants – then there’s no need to worry about specific amino acid deficiencies at each meal. Things that are lacking from one meal will be compensated for in the next.

A Well Rounded Meal.

As Jonathan Safran Foer fiercely argues in his book Eating Animals (which I beg you to read), “If it’s sometimes hard to believe that eschewing animal products will make it easier to eat healthfully, there is a reason: we are constantly lied to about nutrition.  Let me be precise.  When I say we are being lied to, I’m not impugning the scientific literature, but relying upon it.  What the public learns of the scientific data on nutrition and health (especially from the government’s nutritional guidelines) comes to us by way of many hands. Since the rise of science itself, those who produce meat have made sure that they are among those who influence how nutritional data will be presented to the likes of you and me.”

Disclaimer: This is not a case against eating meat.  Merely a case against the rumors as to why you should.

Disclaimer Disclaimer: While this remains an uncredited blog, I insist on handing over some credit for this piece to the biologist in question. He had his fun.

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