Protein: The Latest “It” Nutrient
By now everyone’s heard about the latest “it” nutrient. It’s protein, and everyone wants a piece of it — food manufacturers, marketers and consumers alike. It’s one nutrient you can count on, one that hasn’t yet been linked to diet-related diseases like heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. A diet rich in protein, moreover, can aid weight loss by making you feel fuller longer. Protein also happens to be an important building block of every cell, tissue and organ in our bodies. What’s not to like about protein?
Meat as Protein Source
As protein surges in popularity, meat has actually been on the decline. U.S. meat consumption is projected to fall by more than 12% from 2007 to the end of 2012. As Care2′s Jaelithe Judy reported, the reasons for the decline can be explained by economic forces (beef prices were at a record high in December 2011), public awareness of the environmental damage done in producing meat on an industrial scale and public concern about the health risks associated with eating it. Dr. Robert Lawrence, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future and one of the founding partners of the Meatless Monday campaign, told FoodNavigator-USA.com that “health remains the number one reason that people are changing their habits.”
Yet meat has one thing going for it. It’s a solid source of protein, and thanks to the meat industry’s crafty marketing and messaging strategies, Americans now equate protein with meat, meat with protein. Many Americans, moreover, believe that complete protein nutrition and the “highest quality” protein can only be obtained from meat.
One way to make people forget about the overwhelming scientific evidence against eating meat, writes food activist and public health lawyer Michele Simon, “is to conflate the idea of meat with a nutrient that we do in fact need: protein. And all signs indicate that this spin has worked. If you ask Americans why they eat meat, one of the top answers (if not the No. 1 answer) would likely be, for the protein.”
Plant Foods As Protein Powerhouses
The good news is that you can get your protein elsewhere, and it’s just as good as any protein from meat. “Calorie for calorie, green veggies — such as romaine lettuce, broccoli, and kale — have twice as much protein as steak,” says Janice Stanger, author of “The Perfect Formula Diet,” as cited on the Good Food Project website. As vegans and vegetarians have known all along, a whole foods, plant-based diet provides more than adequate amounts of protein.
But what about the argument that protein from plants is incomplete and that a plant-based diet can place you at risk for deficiency in one or more of the “essential” amino acids — amino acids that our bodies cannot synthesize on their own and that have to be obtained from the foods we eat?
In a 2009 position paper on vegetarian diets, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) said: “Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids… thus, complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal.”
“The difference between animal and vegetable proteins,” NYU professor of nutrition Marion Nestle explains, “is in the content of certain amino acids. If vegetable proteins are mixed, the differences get made up. Even if they aren’t mixed, all you need to do to get the right amount of low amino acids is to eat more of that food.” A combination of vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains can and do easily provide for our protein requirements, so as Nestle says, “there is no ‘need’ for animal proteins at all.”
No Need for Animal Proteins At All
The meat industry, of course, would beg to differ, especially because “meat as protein” appears to be the only remaining argument it can make in favor of eating meat for health. And on this premise it will continue to use the considerable funds and resources it has at its disposal to convince Americans that they cannot possibly get by without meat. The ADA, on the other hand, says that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
So protein is not a reason to eat meat. You can get plenty of it and the best kind from a plant-based diet. This holiday weekend, you might try grilling up some eggplant, summer squash and corn instead of hot dogs, burgers and chicken. Follow it up with some grilled fruit, and you’ll have a remarkably simple and tasty dessert, too.
Photo Credit: SweetOnVeg