Last week I started a series called Nutrition Myth Busters, and this post tackles another nutrition myth that I battle whenever I tell someone that I eat a plant-based diet. The most common question I get in response is “where do you get your protein?” We have been conditioned to believe that animal protein is the gold standard of nutrition, but this is a fallacy that has continually been promoted to Americans.
Myth: We need animal protein
We have been led to believe that a healthy diet must include animal protein. However, Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s research has shown that “animal protein intake determined cancer development.” His research is detailed in his book The China Study including his main project in China that showed the higher the consumption of animal products in different regions of China, the greater the incidence of and mortality from a host of diseases, including various types of cancer, heart disease and many others. His research in the Philippines showed that the children who ate the most animal-based protein had the most cancer. There were similar findings in studies in India. Conversely plants proved to have the ideal level of protein that the body can process.
Part of the myth is that animal protein is required for strength. However, there are many athletes who eat plant-based diets, and not only has the diet not negatively impacted their performance, but rather enhanced it. For example, Tony Gonzalez an NFL football player eats a mostly whole food, plant-based diet (WFPB). His performance improved when it should have been on the decline. As Campbell describes in his book Whole, the fact that “chimps and gorillas have strong bones and muscles while eating WFPB undercuts the notion that humans need lots of animal protein to grow and maintain muscle mass…the largest land animals in the world, elephants and hippos, whose 100 percent plant-based diets don’t seem to render them weak or scrawny.”
There are many more doctors and researchers who have shown links between a WFPB diet and the prevention, and in some cases reversal, of disease. In Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s study of patients with advanced heart disease, he was able to show that a WFPB diet stopped and reversed heart disease in the group. As I’ve mentioned previously, Dean Ornish’s program includes a vegan diet. Dr. Neal Barnard of Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine has stated, “Eating meat should be a risk factor for diabetes.” There is other research that shows a link between dairy and prostate cancer due to the stimulation of the growth of cancer cells. Medical costs attributable to meat consumption are comparable to those attributable to tobacco.
There is hope for America. While the USDA reported the average number of pounds of meat Americans ate per year increased substantially from the early 1900’s to 2004, it stabilized at 201.5 lbs./year and has been dropping by about 1% each year since. The results of insurance company Geiko’s efforts to support its employees to go vegetarian (by offering classes and vegetarian options in the cafeteria) showed that employees who took advantage of the program experienced less depression, anxiety, weight issues and absenteeism. Give it a try yourself and see what changes you experience by shifting to a more WFPB diet.