“Where do you get your protein?” It’s probably the No. 1 question vegetarians and vegans get about their diets.
But why? In the United States today, protein deficiency is virtually nonexistent. In fact, most Americans are actually getting twice the protein their bodies really need.
The protein myth is one of many topics that Marta Zaraska tackles in her book Meathooked—an exploration of our cultural addiction to meat. As Ms. Zaraska explains, “it’s extremely hard to succumb to [protein deficiency] in the West unless you are truly starving, an AIDS patient, or a drug addict.” Most of us, she explains, only need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day—that’s about 50 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds—which most people achieve easily.
But you wouldn’t know that if you get your nutrition advice from the headlines—which constantly push high-protein diets. In spite of the fact that we now eat more meat than ever—about 125 pounds per person every year—and collectively consume more than one million chickens per hour, we still strive for more protein. The more, the better.
But when it comes to protein, evidence shows that more isn’t actually better. A long-term study published in 2014 found that diets rich in animal protein are linked to a fivefold increase in risk of death from diabetes and a fourfold increase in risk of death from cancer—risk factors that are comparable to smoking. And for the first time, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans now urge certain groups of Americans—namely men and teenage boys—to reduce their overall consumption of high-protein foods, like meat and eggs, to improve their health.
So what makes high-protein diets so dangerous? Part of the reason may be that high-protein foods, like meat, dairy products, and eggs, are also rich in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
A healthful plant-based diet, on the other hand, easily provides all the protein our bodies need, without any of the health risks. All foods, including fruits and vegetables, contain protein, while certain plant-based foods, like whole grains, beans, nuts, lentils, tofu, and quinoa pack an extra protein punch.
So worrying about protein isn’t necessary—a recent study even found that 90 percent of the world’s countries and territories exceed protein requirements.
The real deficiencies in the standard American diet? Nine in 10 Americans don’t eat enough vegetables, while a whopping 97 percent of us fail to meet daily recommendations for fiber—a nutrient that can help control weight, lower cholesterol, and even fight off cancer. A recent study published in The Journal of Gerontology even found that fiber may be the key to successful aging.
Considering the current epidemics of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, we should stop counting grams of protein and start asking: Where do you get your fiber?
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst introduced legislation this week to ban “Meatless Mondays” from the military. Sen. Ernst—who represents the No. 2 meat-producing state—says that “our men and women in uniform should have the option to consume the protein they need, including meat, on a daily basis.” But banning Meatless Mondays and promoting the protein myth is a disservice to service members, increasing their risk for obesity, diabetes, and early death.
The military has seen a 61 percent rise in obesity since 2002, according to the nonprofit Mission: Readiness. Protein from meat is one of the causes. A recent study found that people who ate large quantities of protein and a small amount of carbohydrates were almost twice as likely to gain more than 10 percent of their body weight and experienced a 59 percent increase in all-cause mortality during the study.
Of course, protein is an important nutrient required for the building, maintenance, and repair of tissues in the body. But replacing protein from animal products with a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables can provide all of the essential amino acids our bodies require—without the risks associated with meat and dairy products.
In fact, switching from beef to beans can actually reduce diabetes risk. A recent study found that those who consumed the highest amount of animal protein increased their risk for type 2 diabetes by 13 percent, but found that participants who replaced 5 percent of their protein intake with vegetable protein, including potatoes, legumes, and grains, decreased their risk for diabetes by 23 percent.
Meatless meals can also mitigate the risk for early death. Another study found that people younger than 65 who ate the most animal protein had a 74 percent increased risk for death from any cause and a four-fold increase in death related to cancer. Risks for death were diminished or absent when protein sources were plant-derived.
If Sen. Joni Ernst really wanted what’s best for our military members, she’d mandate Meatless Mondays, instead of increasing their mortality risk with meat.
Our fight against obesity has become a war on sugar. Next week, Philadelphia’s city council will have a final vote to determine whether the city will become one of the first in the nation to adopt a soda tax. Meanwhile, tempers are flaring in Baltimore over a proposed bill that would require health warnings on advertisements for sugary beverages—a measure San Francisco is set to adopt next month.
When it comes to public health, these proposals are all a step in the right direction— there are no health benefits to drinking soda. But these regulations alone are not going to solve our ever-growing obesity epidemic.
Sugar has long taken the blame for our growing waistlines. But over the past two decades, sugar consumption has actually dropped by 14 percent, while sales of sugary, full-calorie sodas have dipped by 25 percent. Still, obesity rates continue to surge.
A study released this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more Americans than ever are now obese. By the end of 2014, obesity prevalence stood at 35 percent for men and an all-time high 40 percent for women.
It’s time to stop blaming sugar. When it comes to weight problems, sugar-sweetened beverages and other sweets distract from the main culprits fueling obesity: our appetite for meat and cheese.
In 2012, Americans collectively consumed 52.2 billion pounds of meat. And every year, the average American individually eats about 270 pounds. Compared to just a century ago, that’s nearly 150 more pounds per person each year. At the same time, cheese consumption has soared from just four pounds per person in 1909 to 36 pounds today, making it the No. 1 source of saturated fat in Americans’ diets. In addition to fat, meat and cheese are loaded with cholesterol and packed with calories.
Epidemiological studies consistently show that populations who base their diets on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are the healthiest and slimmest on the planet. Two major review studies released last year analyzed the diets of thousands of people and confirmed that vegetarian and vegan diets are best for weight control. Similarly, a 2015 clinical study found that participants assigned to completely meat-free diets lost more weight, compared with those following the pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, and omnivorous diets.
To truly turn the obesity epidemic around, we must move these high-fat foods from the center of our plates and start basing our diets on nutrient-dense plant-based foods.
It took five years. But Aaron Rodgers, who plays for the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers, finally got our message that Cheese Can Sack Your Health. In 2011, we posted this billboard near Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., where the Packers play.
This week Rodgers told ESPN that he has followed “more of a vegan diet” since his knee surgery in January. He told ESPN: “Through your eating, you can reduce inflammation because if you do research, you learn the different foods you eat can actually increase the inflammation in your body and especially in certain parts of your body.” You can find out more about the dangers of cheese and how to break your addiction here.
Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 male tennis player, just won the French Open with plant-powered diet! Djokovic is so committed to a plant-based diet that he opened a vegan restaurant in Monte Carlo earlier this year.
He’s joining a growing number of athletes—including the reigning No. 1 female tennis player Serena Williams and her sister Venus—who are using plant-based diets to fuel victories. Serena Williams has said that she saw a lot of benefits in her game from eating a vegetarian diet.
Djokovic and the Williams sisters are not alone. This past week, Griff Whalen, who plays for the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins, credited his vegan diet for his success.
“After a point, nutrition plays a huge part in how quickly you can recover, how hard you can push yourself the next day, back-to-back days and stuff like that. I feel like it’s helped me tremendously and given me a big edge in that regard,” he told ESPN.
He also described typical meals: “Breakfast is like an oatmeal, fruit, and whatever else I want to throw into it,” he said. “And then lunch and dinner, a rice-and-bean kind of dish is pretty typical. Lots of veggies. A salad. I make a lot of smoothies because I can just throw greens and fruit and stuff in there. But rice and beans or lentils, stuff like that is pretty common for me.”
NFL football player David Carter, who started a vegetarian diet in 2014, recently said that it could help prolong athletes’ lives.
Many other athletes have similar stories. They’ve all found that a vegetarian diet provides all of the fuel they need—from vitamins and minerals to carbohydrates and protein—for both endurance and recovery.
They fuel up on foods like broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, beans, and bananas. A vegetarian diet fueled Ultramarathoner Scott Jurek’s speed record for completing the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail last July. It was a feat of endurance at 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes.
Plentiful protein from vegetables, grains, and beans help in their recovery. Vegetarian bodybuilder Torre Washington recently told GQ magazine: “We live in the age of ‘How much protein are you getting?’ I’ve never, ever tracked my protein. We only need about 35 percent of our calories from protein. When we take in more, we’re eating it just because we feel like we need it.”
Congratulations Djokovic and the growing number of athletes who are demonstrating that fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes are power foods for athletes.
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