The old “protein myth” won’t go away quietly.
Many vegetarians continue to believe that they “need” to add some animal foods to their diets in order to make sure they get enough of all the essential nutrients. I do not believe that “any” animal products are necessary or desirable—and neither do my colleagues at the T. Colin Campbell Foundation.
In our 4Leaf approach, we try to give people a little “wiggle room” in the interest of a broader acceptance of a “mostly whole plants” dietary regimen. We simply encourage everyone to derive the vast majority of their calories from whole plants.
As for animal protein—we never recommend eating any of it but acknowledge that a near-opimal diet might (unintentionally) include a little from time to time. In my own case, I don’t buy it, I don’t order it, and I don’t plan to have any animal foods. That’s because I know that I don’t “need” it. But if I happen to have a morsel or two in someone else’s home, I don’t worry about it.
So how do we help the plant-based eaters who continue to believe that they need to eat some animal protein to be healthy? Send them this blogpost. Earlier this week, my friend Joanne Irwin made me aware of an article that she saw in VegHealth (See link below) entitled “Why Do Vegans Add Meat Back Into Their Diets?” She had reached out to the T. Colin Campbell Foundation and shared with me the response that she received.
The basic problem is the way nutritional science is studied. The entire food industry and virtually all of the scientists study one nutrient at a time. But not Dr. T. Colin Campbell. He has been writing and speaking for years about this misleading “reductionist” approach to science and asserts that the mainstream is missing the “big picture” when it comes to understanding what really happens in the body when we eat food.
Dr. Campbell does a great job of explaining that “big picture” in his new book, Whole, Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. Likewise, Katherine Lawrence, the Instructor Team Leader of the foundation’s eCornell Plant-Based Nutrition course, did a great job of responding to Joanne’s concerns.
She responds below to some of Dr. Michael Klaper’s statements in the article. As for Dr. Klaper, he is one of our nation’s most “plant-savvy” physicians and he is also featured on our MD Help page.
I am confident that he would totally agree with the foundation’s position once he discussed it in depth with Dr. Campbell. See Katherine’s remarks below:
Dr. Michael Klaper asserts that “without the right game plan (for combining foods), a plant-based diet has its pitfalls.” Fortunately, the biochemistry of plants and research suggests otherwise.
For example, he states that “only 10-20% of the iron in plant foods is absorbed by the body (vs. the “heme” iron available in meat and fish)”. To the layperson, this might ensue panic and worry. However, with a basic understanding of biochemistry, we can see that this is actually a benefit of eating plant foods. Plant foods contain iron in a different form, called “non-heme” iron. When eaten in this form, the body can determine how much it needs at that moment and only absorb this limited amount.(1) Additionally, the body can easily discard any excess iron of this form. In contrast, the “heme” iron found in animal products that Dr. Klaper suggests is superior (or somehow the bar to measure others against) is in a form that the body can not regulate.
The body ends up storing excess of this form of iron, which can be quite dangerous. We know that excess iron can encourage production of free radicals, which can lead to cause heart disease, cancer, advanced aging, etc… New research has shown that Iron is a major contributor to Alzheimer’s Disease; patients with the highest iron levels in their blood had the lowest cognitive function (2). Beans and leafy greens are the most healthful sources of iron.
Finally, fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, which also enhances iron absorption. So, consuming meals filled with whole, plant foods will provide all of the iron we need. One thing that’s interesting to note about heme iron from animal sources is that dairy products and eggs interfere with the absorption of iron in the digestive tract (3). Therefore, avoiding these foods altogether will give you adequate iron intake and allow your body to decide for itself how much to absorb.
Dr. Klaper also claims “The beta carotene in plant foods is only 1/12 as potent as animal-based Vitamin A.” Again, this is partially true, but is not the complete story. Vitamin A is only found in animals. Animals eat plants that contain beta-carotene and their bodies convert as much beta-carotene into Vitamin A as their body needs at the time. This is an important and valuable quality of eating whole plant foods; we allow our bodies to decide how much it needs at that moment in time. When we consume animal foods (or use that as a standard to measure from), we are receiving the amount of Vitamin A that that animal needed, not necessarily the amount that we need. Additionally, too much vitamin A has shown to be toxic and can increase cancer risk (4).
By now, you’re probably seeing a pattern. Dr. Klaper also mentions Vitamin D, Calcium and B12. I’ll list some additional resources for you to look into at the end of this article. Even the ADA (American Dietetic Association, now the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics) has concluded that food combining is not necessary when eating a whole, plant foods diet (5).
Most researchers agree that Vitamin B12 is necessary supplementation when eating a plant-based diet. Dr. Campbell describes this as a “separation from nature” problem, rather than a plant deficiency problem. In that, we live in a much more sterile environment than in centuries past and our soil is less nutrient-dense and contains less of these important microorganisms. (6)
In summary, we should approach nutrition from a wholistic perspective, recognizing that it is the symphony of thousands of nutrients in whole, plant foods working together to create health in the body. When we reduce nutrition to individual absorption of single nutrients, we lose sight of the overall effect on the body. A diet rich in whole, plant foods has proven our best medicine to prevent disease, time and time again, without any “magic” food combinations. I would encourage everyone to be cautious of gimmicks that proclaim health is more complicated that eating a simple, whole diet. After all, there is much money to be made in obfuscating the process.
- Dr. Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes (p 68)
- Power Foods For the Brain – Dr. Barnard
- The China Study – T. Colin Campbell, PhD
The Bottom Line. Once more, we have a case of “confusion over clarity” when it comes to our “need” for animal protein. But in her article, Katherine did a magnificent job of bringing some much-needed clarity to the murky animal protein debate.
In my opinion, this ongoing “protein myth” is the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of a widespread acceptance of a plant-based diet. The main problem is that it is still believed by the majority of physicians, scientists, professors and over 90% of the best-educated people in the world.
One more thing. Even if animal products were the healthiest foods for humans (which they definitely aren’t), the continued use of them by a growing population is grossly unsustainable. I have provided few more links below on this topic. Don’t miss the second one—it features a video of Katherine Lawrence.
- VegHealth article. “Why Do Vegans Add Meat Back Into Their Diets?
- Want to see Ms. Lawrence in action? Special Video Recipes from Katherine Lawrence
- Link to my special page on “Dispelling the protein myth.”
- Earlier blog. FOOD — World’s brightest are missing the main point.
Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from Amazon.com
- The movie that’s changing the lives of millions: Forks Over Knives DVD
- Healthy Eating, Healthy World, The “big picture” about food (our book)
- An essential scientific resource: The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell
- Dr. McDougall’s new book, The Starch Solution, with lots of great recipes.
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—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation