Protein Obsessed

by Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD

Protein is one of the most contentious issues of  plant-based diets, from flexitarians to raw vegans.  Much has been written on the subject and one can hardly mention veganism without the topic of protein entering the discussion.  I’ve no doubt added to these discussions over the years. In my professional life I’m often defending the protein-343x300_the-basic-four-food-groupsadequacy of vegan diets and ‘proving’ that it is possible to get all of the amino acids you need from plants. We know amino acids as the building blocks of protein: our bodies require the 9 essential amino acids to perform day-to-day functions in metabolism and muscle development. Protein is a nutrient and by definition a nutrient is a compound that our bodies require to survive. In other words, if we don’t get a nutrient and have a prolonged deficiency, we die. This is serious stuff.

Vegan nutrition expert and Registered Dietitian Jack Norris argues that we may not meet all of the amino acid needs easily and should be concerned about our lysine intake and vegan blogger and author of the Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide Sayward Rebhal recently wrote about a health issue that may have been related to inadequate protein intake.

So should we be concerned about protein or not? What’s the point here?

The point I’m trying to make is that this obsession over protein is dangerous – because it elevates one nutrient over the others. And there is a historical precedent for this. The first food recommendations in the United States, back when nutrition was a new science and the main function of the USDA was actually agriculture, protein was given superstar status with it’s own group. It makes sense, in some ways, because protein is the basis of all living things and one of the earliest studied nutrients. But over decades as the food square changed to a pyramid and then to a plate, the meat/protein group remains. It’s one of the few nutrients that gets its own group. What about choline? Why doesn’t choline have its own food group? It is a nutrient and as we’ve learned, if you don’t get enough of it you can die! But choline deficiency is extremely rare, you say. Well so is protein deficiency! I want my choline food group!

Wheat Germ has 202 mg Choline per cup. Get that pep, tired husband!

The difference is our national obsession over meat and animal products. We equate eating the flesh of an animal with power. It’s no coincidence that those who question our protein status also question our masculinity as vegans. Because it’s not really about protein, it’s about power and dominance. Protein is a meta-nutrient in that what it means and represents has become more important than what it actually does.

Protein is a meta-nutrient in that what it means and represents has become more important than what it actually does.

Discerning Brute Ed Bauer showing that he not only gets enough protein,

but all nutrients.

This over-concern with protein has penetrated the plant-based movement. In the year 2013 we have a huge number of vegan athletes to point to as examples of how one can get their protein from plants and still kick ass in a variety of disciplines. But have you noticed how many of those vegan athletes either have their own protein powders or are promoting one? If we can get enough protein from plants, why do we need supplements? Is replicating the historical obsessiveness over protein a good idea? Or to constantly feel the need to prove our masculinity? Is this the world we want?

As a nutrition professional, athlete and someone who grew up with punk-rock DIY ethos, I say no, it’s not. With very few exceptions, we can get all of the amino acids we need from eating a variety of plant foods. Not just ‘protein foods’ but whole foods.  Now this isn’t a green light to not think about getting enough protein or how healthy your diet is. I’m just saying that protein isn’t any more important than the other nutrients we need to eat on a daily basis. We need to be conscious of our diets, but this needs to extend beyond protein.

If you’d like to read more about the science of plant protein please see my post on No Meat Athlete or this Vegetarian Resource Group article by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD. if you are interested in learning more about the needs of vegetarian athletes I highly recommend the book Vegetarian Sports Nutrition by Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, RD or see my documentary series, A Day in the Life of Vegan Athletes.