Protein madness and special interests, aka the #1 thing I learned in plant-based nutrition school

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

I promised in Part 1 of the “Plant-based Nutrition Certification via Cornell University”  report to address the juiciest question of them all:

Q.  “Lani, what was the single biggest thing you learned from the Plant-based Nutrition course?


That you can’t trust any government agency to give you the straight skinny on what to eat for good health.

I knew all about the meat and dairy industry special interests and the 4 Food Lobbies going into this course.

Yet seeing the evidence of it all again and hearing new tales of health horror via government subsidies and run-with-it isolated-dietary-supplement interventions and marketing based on pure conjecture spin and private special interests only underscores my conviction that you have to look at all the evidence and take your health – and your food – into your own hands.

And how important it is that we look with a critical eye at what is ‘hot’ in the marketplace or what a gifted author or unqualified ‘Doctor’ may be telling us.

Show me the repeated, peer-reviewed research

Research not conducted by a pharmaceutical company (which much of it is) or a large food lobby (which apparently most of the rest of it is).

If a doctor pushes certain supplementation or pricey foodstuffs that they also market and sell, then let’s take a closer look at that, too.

It’s not new stuff, this critical eye at research.  And you, my smartness, have also seen it all.

Yet the experience of this Plant-based Nutrition Course has deepened my confidence in the doctors  whose shoulders upon which I stand with their correlating evidence of prevention and reversal of disease through implementation of a low-fat, plant-based diet. McDougall, Barnard, Esselstyn, Ornish, and Fuhrman, for starters.

Where did many of our RDA’s come from?

A walk through nutrition history reveals that many of the standards of modern RDAs – recommended dietary allowances by government agencies – are based on observations of the well-to-do.  In other words, if the rich could afford it, then we must all be aspiring to eat by the same nutritional standard, right?

But then those darn diseases of affluence (dare I call it DOA?) come in and mess that whole theory up.

Still, we abide by it and figure if the rich could afford lots of meat and fat, then by golly then it must be good for us.

Even though we have since discovered that the simpler diet based on starchy vegetables, whole grains, vegetables and fruits delivers far less disease, still we persist.  After all, that diet of the rich is so darn tasty and we love to be told that our bad eating habits are good for us.

To give you an illustration of how our present-day recommendations may be based in little if no fact, as a matter of fact quite possible on whim:

On the history of protein, we find some interesting ideas related to why we believe what we believe and why athletes tend to believe that the more protein they consume the better. I should first point out that for many years, ever since its discovery back in the 1800s, protein was equated with meat. So when people talked about getting more protein, they were really talking about getting more meat.

And I would like to mention one researcher of some note back in the 1800s, who became quite influential on the question of how much protein we should consume. He took up this story based on his predecessors, who argued that protein was the stuff of civilization itself, the stuff of life itself.

Accordingly, this German professor regarded protein as very important. His name was Carl Voit; he is often considered the father of nutrition, and he was the mentor of many subsequently famous nutrition researchers.

On one occasion, when asking how much protein a normal man needs, he determined that 52 grams a day was the requirement. He then turned around and became famous for recommending that people consume 120 grams a day, even though they only needed 52. I point this out because early scientists and other people tended to push protein as much as they could, because what it really meant was strength and large muscle mass and power, if you will.

One of Carl Voit’s students, Max Fruner, then took up the charge. He wrote a lot in those days, the late 1800s early 1900s, arguing that “protein interchange,” as he called it, is civilization itself.

© 2009 T. Colin Campbell Foundation and TILS

It is not clear how Voit came up with his numbers on recommended protein levels.

How do we measure protein requirements?

What we DO know is that protein requirements are based on the measure of  how much protein must be consumed to match the amount being lost in the urine. This is done by comparing how much nitrogen we consume to how much nitrogen we lose.

As nitrogen is unique to protein, we can measure nitrogen as an index of protein intake. According to these nitrogen balance experiments,the amount of protein required for a normal human being to meet the losses that normally occur) is called the minimum daily requirement.

The amount of protein we need is 5%–6% of our total calories

To assure that the larger population with its varying need for proteins will get enough, statistical adjustments are made and we arrive at the RDA, the recommended daily allowance.

8%,to 10%  is considered adequate protein intake – statistically speaking – for 98% of a larger population.

This means that  at 10%, most people are already getting enough protein

As it turns out, 10% to 11% calories from protein is about the minimum one gets on a whole-food, plant-based diet.

That, my friend, is it in a nutshell. Special interests and isolated factoids hijacked by clever marketers have driven so much of our food industry as well as government dietary recommendations that we have to be vigilant about filtering it all.

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  • Jennifer says:

    Lani, what an eye-opening experience. It can get so depressing can’t it? But you remind us that we can take things into our own hands, like our health, our diet.

    Thanks for the reinforce on the protein. It IS madness, isn’t it? Reminders are good and you’ve given me some great facts to share. I’ve already sent the link to this article in 5 different directions.



    • Lani says:

      Jennifer, you know how to put the positive spin on. Thanks so much for your comments, and sharing the article with others – brava right back!

  • Donna Hughes says:

    Love the DOA abbreviation! ;o)

    Yes we always equated protein with meat and cheese. That is what our parents would strive to put on the table – lots of animal-based foods. Fortunately my mother also liked lots of vegetables and fruit and I grew up not being too fussy about food at least, though there certainly are foods that I use now, living near a state college town that were foreign to those of us who grew up in a small rural community. We didn’t even know what fast-food was, even through most of the 1960’s unless we could get to a much larger place.

    As time went on the idea that if this much is good then even more would be better, so that portions became gigantic too, and all-you-can-eat buffets appeared, heavy on those rich dishes, with a salad bar that wasn’t much better. I find it all really repulsive now, but it is hard to get away from around here.

    I was walking through the grocery store the other day and it suddenly hit me, like Neo seeing in code in Matrix, how pervasive the animal products have become in everything, especially milk and eggs in so many mixes and packaged foods to make life more convenient. Agribusiness and other food corporations have been busy-busy-busy out there getting all of the components that can come from animal products and by-products incorporated into other things, and they have been very successful. I was surrounded – everything from soup to nuts.

    So much of the good stuff has had the life refined out of it too. If you don’t have a whole foods store of some sort you can’t even get things like cornmeal that hasn’t been degermed or WW pastry flour. Corn syrup is another of those ubiquitous ingredients in so many food products that can be so hard to escape. Agribusiness has promoted the kind of high-starch corn that produces the most corn syrup so that it comprises the majority of corn that is grown now. Big money rules everything.

    It is a tall order to make inroads on this state of affairs isn’t it? First we begin with ourselves. I would like to take Campbell’s course on Plant-based Nutrition from Cornell sometime.

    • Lani Muelrath says:

      Donna, it is amazing how we have to scrutinize labels to screen for what we DON’T want to eat. And then everything has multiple names!

      The agribusiness big money – as you put it – is unfortunately a major influence with what’s on our plates. And don’t get me started on subsidies.

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