Protein Myth, Vegan Athletes and Plantbased Diet For Weight Loss


GNN #04

This week my top 5 nutrition news items focus on that perennial source of controversy with vegetarian or vegan diets – protein.

We have the current high-protein vs high-carb diet dichotomy, then there’s animal vs plant protein, and there’s the inevitable question that arises when people don’t eat meat or animal products: “where do you get your protein?”

Hopefully these articles will help to answer these questions. Not to mention the fact that, as a 190cm / 6ft 3” male, I have easily obtained enough dietary protein from plant sources since I went vegetarian (and later vegan) in 1982!

Slaying The Protein Myth

In 2014 Forks Over Knives published an article by vegan ultra-athlete, author and speaker Rich Roll titled ‘Slaying the Protein Myth’. In this article Rich Roll identifies the relentless marketing messages from the wealthy and powerful animal food industry that, naturally, would have us all believe that their products are necessary for protein intake.

Speaking as a plant-based athlete, Rich Roll can confidently say that not only is consumption of animal protein unnecessary, “it’s killing us, luring us to feast on a rotunda of factory-farmed, hormone- and pesticide-laden, low-fiber foods extremely high in saturated fat.” Rich then poses the questions; does it matter if we get our protein from plants, and how much do we need?

As Rich notes, the nine essential amino acids our body needs can readily be synthesized by a variety of plant foods, which, after all, is where herbivorous animals get it from. The danger lies not in getting too little protein, but in consuming too much animal protein. Not only is there evidence that excess protein intake is often stored in fat cells, Rich Roll writes, it contributes to the onset of a variety of diseases, such as osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function, and heart disease.

Compare this to the plant-based lifestyle, which Rich Roll says repaired his health and “revitalized” his “middle-aged self” to teenage proportions.

If you’re not convinced, Rich Roll invites you to consider all the well-known, plant-based athletes (see below), and the huge, powerful animals which build their muscular bulk on raw plant foods, such as elephants, rhinos and gorillas.

Do Vegetarians and Vegans Eat Enough Protein?

The fact is adults require about 42 grams of protein intake each day, and vegetarians/vegans consume, on average, 70% more protein than the recommended intake (over 70 grams).

Another article on the Forks Over Knives website, based on Dr Michael Greger’s Nutrition Facts research, answers the question that many ask, or think of; do vegetarians/vegans get enough protein?

The real dietary deficiency in the US and other wealthy western countries (including Australia) is not protein, but fibre, which is found only in whole plant foods like beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

A lack of adequate dietary fibre intake has been associated with a higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and various cancers, as well as higher cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Short answer is yes. As long as they eat enough calories to meet their dietary intake, vegetarians and vegans get enough protein.

Dr. Ornish On The Hazards Of The High-Protein Trend

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, physician, author, researcher, and plant-based diet guru Dr. Dean Ornish challenges current notions about the importance of dietary animal protein and fats.

As Dr. Ornish observes, many people have claimed that obesity is linked to the high consumption of sugar and starch, and not enough meat, fat and eggs. Recently the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee lifted recommendations that restricted dietary cholesterol (only found in animal foods), citing research showing that dietary cholesterol doesn’t have a major impact on cholesterol levels.

Contrary to popular claims that people have abandoned meat and fat for sugary processed foods, Americans consumed 67% more added fat, 39% more sugar, and 41% more meat in 2000 than that they did in 1950, and nearly 25% more calories than they had in 1970.

The Australian Health Survey found that Aussies are eating 30 per cent less fruit and vegetables than 15 years ago, with one in four adults eating no vegetables on an average day and only 7 per cent eating the daily recommended five servings. Meanwhile, we have also decreased our grain consumption, with Australians consuming 29 per cent fewer core grain foods in 2014 than in 2011, while six per cent did not eat any at all. Instead, we are filling up more on take away food high in saturated fat, animal products, and sugar. Meat consumption in Australia has increased from 103 kg in 1962 to 111 kg per person in 2011, with chicken and pork significantly increasing their market share, and Australians allocating about 40 percent of their food expenditure on meat. As Dr Ornish notes, it’s no wonder people are fatter and unhealthier.

According to Dr. Ornish, research shows that “animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.” He makes the point that low-carb, high-animal protein diets promote heart disease in ways other than just their effects on cholesterol levels.

The problem with meat and egg yolks is that their increased production of TMAO – trimethylamine N-oxide significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, animal protein increases IGF-1, an insulin-like growth hormone, and chronic inflammation, an underlying factor in many chronic diseases.

Dr. Ornish has proven in randomized, controlled trials that a whole-foods, plant-based lifestyle can reverse the progression of severe coronary heart disease. After a few weeks of these trials, episodes of chest pain reduced by 91%. After 5 years, there were 2.5 times fewer cardiac events, and blood flow to the heart improved by 300%.

It is possible, writes Dr. Ornish, that these diet and lifestyle changes can alter your genes, turning on the ones that keep you healthy, and turning off genes that promote disease; and even lengthen telomeres – the ends of our chromosones that control aging.

Dr. Ornish found in his research that the more people followed a whole food plant based lifestyle, controlled stress, did regular exercise, and reduced the amount of fat and cholesterol they consumed, the more improvement in their health was measured. As Dr. Ornish puts it, “what you gain is so much more than what you give up.”

10 Male Athletes You Didn’t Know Were Vegan

As legendary US gridiron quarterback Joe Namath once said of his transition to vegetarianism, “It shows that you don’t need meat to play football.”

This list of famous vegan male athletes surely slam-dunks the archaic notion that plant based athletes don’t get enough protein, particularly animal protein, to build serious muscle strength and power.

Some of the names listed may be well known to you, such as healthy vegan diet athletes, authors and plant based advocates Rich Roll and Brendan Brazier, but some, like Mike Tyson, might raise a few eyebrows. It’s good to see an Aussie make the list too: one of our celebrated Olympic swimming champions, the ‘Seaweed Streak’, Murray Rose.

Bodybuilders, Mixed Martial Arts fighters, super-strong men; this roll call of male vegan athletic superstars demonstrates emphatically that strength and endurance can be easily developed on a fully plant based diet.

Plant-Based: Officially The Best Diet For Weight Loss

Plantbased for weightloss

You’ll always find us banging on at Little Green Habits about how a whole food plant based diet is best for long-term health and sustained weight loss. Well, now it’s official!

As recently widely reported, including the New Daily, you can save the planet, your health and your waistline by simply going veggo.

Despite the oft-repeated claims that vegetarians and vegans will waste away due to lack of animal protein, and that scarfing loads of animal protein is best to fill you up and trim off the kilos, a study recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that, on average, vegetarian dieters lost an extra 2 kilos (and vegans an extra 2.5 kilos) than those who ate animal products.

Lead author Dr. Ru-Yi Huang stated:

“Vegetarian diets are more effective than non-vegetarian diets for weight loss.”

Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia) Associate Professor Tim Crowe, who reviewed the study, said that:

Even if you do it for the short term, [going vegetarian] can be an effective way to lose a small amount of weight.

Associate Professor and nutrition expert Tim Crowe encouraged people to follow a mostly plant based diet, low in sugar, and with regular exercise. “Those are the keys to long term health,” Associate Professor Crowe said. For the sake of your health, weight loss, animals and the environment, I heartily agree!

Tom Perry

2 replies
  1. amandaattard
    amandaattard says:

    A great article. It’s always handy to have lots of good information for that inevitable question of ‘Where do you get your protein?’ We have become so fixated on protein that we forget the other dietary considerations.

  2. Tom Perry
    Tom Perry says:

    Thanks for your comment Amanda! You’re right, protein IS important, but in balance with other vital nutrients. I certainly have no problem getting enough protein from a variety of healthy plant foods.

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