Nothing in the human diet has been as misunderstood and as misrepresented as protein

By Catherine Orda |Photo by Elijah O’Donell/Unsplash

While eyeing fishes in the Berlin aquarium, the writer Franz Kafka said: “Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.”He had just turned strictly vegetarian and he would remain one until he died at 40 due to poor health. Although some people might see a sort of connection (however far-fetched) between Kafka’s failing health and the ostensible lack of protein in his diet, it should be pointed out that his death had nothing to do with protein deficiency and was, in fact, brought on by complications related to tuberculosis. Like most vegans and vegetarians, Kafka got all the protein he needed. And he got it from the best source.

Meat Is Actually an Unhealthy Protein Source

According to emergency medicine and vegan doctor Holly Wilson, when it comes to protein sources, meat is in fact inferior to plants. The protein you get from meat, although adequate, is associated with a wide range of diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and cancer. This is because in meat-based sources, the protein is surrounded by saturated fats, sodium, and cholesterol. And because the protein in plant-based sources is surrounded by phytonutrients and fiber, relying on plant-based protein sources will not only leave you with more choices but with really healthy ones, too—so much so that even most of the animals we eat, lest we forget, were themselves strict herbivores.

The protein you get from meat, although adequate, is associated with a wide range of diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and cancer. This is because in meat-based sources, the protein is surrounded by saturated fats, sodium, and cholesterol

These pieces of information are not isolated cases. The American Dietetic Association, the USA’s definitive authority on the research and dissemination of public nutritional knowledge, has always maintained that “vegetarian and vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” But maybe what is even more striking is this statement: “vegetarians and vegans (including athletes) ‘meet and exceed requirements’ for protein.” Most people aren’t aware of this—it seems that the ADA has been treating this piece of information more as a well-kept national secret, and less as a crucial piece of knowledge that can prevent diseases. Jonathan Safran Foer puts it best in his book, Eating Animals: Despite some persistent confusion, it is clear that vegetarians and vegans tend to have more optimal protein consumption than omnivores.”

The Protein Myth Is False—Just Ask These Legendary Athletes

But perhaps the best way to render the protein myth diet completely false is to talk about vegan and vegetarian athletes—ones whose sheer athletic prowess and Grand Slam titles instantly negate the superiority of meat-based protein sources. The tennis player Martina Navratilova, considered one of the best female tennis players of all time, is a strict vegan. The legendary boxer Mike Tyson decided to become a vegan after suffering health complications; he lost about a hundred pounds after becoming vegan. Lastly, there’s Venus Williams (who probably needs no introduction) who sticks to a raw vegan diet. Her sources of protein? Lots of wheat grass shots and fresh fruit juices and smoothies.

But maybe what is even more striking is this statement: “vegetarians and vegans (including athletes) ‘meet and exceed requirements’ for protein.” Most people aren’t aware of this

So How Much Protein Should We Consume?

So what accounts for this persistent confusion, this criticism perennially leveled against vegan and vegetarian diets? The answer may have something to do with the nutritional information we are fed. We aren’t always told the truth. It is a testament to the fundamental falsity of some pieces of public nutritional knowledge (which have sadly been perpetuated in order to advance the capitalistic interests of factory farms) that we automatically turn to meat—and for some, only meat—for protein. Around the world, agricultural industries, health and nutrition authorities, and supermarkets conspire to propagate the protein myth so they can increase their profits.

But what exactly is protein? Why do we so painstakingly seek it out in what we eat? While it’s true that it is of the utmost importance in terms of building and repairing tissues, according to Wilson, the fact is that most people consume more protein than is necessary. So the next time you stress yourself over not getting enough protein and where to get it (as well as haranguing your vegan/vegetarian friends about their protein intake), remember to first calm down, question popular dietary notions, and read up.