The article that sparked this response can be seen here: https://medium.com/@richroll/slaying-the-protein-myth-edf53585e778 The author, Rich Roll – a late convert to a plant based diet and ultramarathons, can also be found at http://www.richroll.com/ should you be interested. At the start of his article he explains that what he writes is just his version of the story, I respect this and won’t, as many veggie advocates do, resort to character assassination to prove a point. I don’t need to as science should do nicely (Ok I have a couple of digs but he was asking for it).
Roll raises a few key points in his piece which I shall address here before adding some notes of my own:
- High protein diets are killing us due to hormone and antibiotic fed livestock –whilst saying such meat is killing us is a little extreme it is certainly not the healthiest option. That’s why those of us that are conscious of our food choices choose grass fed/free range meat. Roll doesn’t seem to be concerned about pesticides or fertilisers used in producing vegetables on a large scale which is essentially the same issue.
- Saturated fat is the biggest driver of heart disease and sickness in westernised societies – Roll says this is his opinion. Whilst opinions are ok science is generally better and the science shows that he is wrong. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1846638&utm_content=bufferf0af7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=plus.google.com&utm_campaign=buffer ‘Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats’
- X amount of athletes have a plant based diet – Using athletes to try and prove a point is a terrible idea. The highest level athletes are genetic freaks and are usually successful in spite of their training/nutrition not because of it. I’ve played with international level sportsmen that eat dairylea lunchables before games, should I therefore recommend these? No! It’s correlation not causation.
- Eating a plant based diet has improved my performance without any issues with muscle mass – With the greatest respect ultramarathoning isn’t the peak of muscular activity. I’ve never seen a long distance runner and thought ‘Wow what a physique’, runners, Roll included, typically display the emaciated physique of one that could do with a hearty meal, preferably one that contains protein. It should also be noted that Roll, prior to his plant based ‘awakening’ was 50lbs overweight and had struggles with drugs and alcohol. You could throw any dietary regime you’d care to invent at a person in this position and I’d wager their athletic performance would improve. It is no basis for supporting such a regime however it is merely better than the existing regime.
- No study has shown that increasing protein requirements above a 10% RDA is beneficial for athletes – I spent 2 minutes on PubMed and found this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22150425 ‘..there is a good rationale for supporting a protein intake above RDA…’
- Excess protein is stored in fat cells - Yes the pathways exist to convert protein into stored fat, however this is much less likely to happen than with fat or carbohydrate metabolism. Where Roll may get confused is by looking at body weight as opposed to body composition when reading the literature (if he even does that?). Take the following metabolic ward study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22215165 Here participants were fed a calorie excess with 3 groups varying only on protein intake. The low protein group gained the least weight which many veggies would take as a win, however, all groups gained the same amount of fat mass. The low protein group actually lost muscle mass, which accounts for the reduced weight gain. The higher protein groups gained muscle. Muscle is good. What’s more protein is incredibly satiating so if you are looking to lose weight then including plenty of protein will be beneficial, your body has powerful mechanisms to prevent overconsumption of protein, I would be very surprised if you could over ride these!
- Excess protein contributes to onset of several diseases such as impaired kidney function , osteoporosis, cancer & heart disease – Roll doesn’t explain any mechanisms here but I’m going to guess at what he will be thinking based on the thoughts of similar commentators. With heart disease the proposed mechanism is likely cholesterol from eating saturated fat with the protein source. The cholesterol story has been disproven endlessly now, as Dr Kendrick comments here: http://drmalcolmkendrick.org/2014/03/19/although-now-dead-the-cholesterolosaurus-will-march-on/ It is merely a theory that is propagated to sell statins.
With Osteoporosis the theory is that dietary protein promotes calcium loss through urine and therefore weakens bones. Not only is this wrong it is actually completely wrong as a higher protein intake produces a hormonal shift that encourages bone density, add in some weight training and you have very strong bones. If you actually want to reduce the chance of osteoporosis then heal the gut lining so you absorb calcium properly, you can start that by removing grains! Here’s a little more on this: http://robbwolf.com/2009/03/19/paleo-vs-osteoporosis/
For cancer the proposed mechanism is the increase in IGF-1, this is a hormone that promotes cell growth in all cells of the body, if you therefore develop cancer it is proposed that IGF-1 could support cancer cell growth. Whilst this mechanism does potentially exist, even if the majority of work has been in mouse models, new evidence shows that maintaining a healthy methionine- glycine ration can mitigate any negative effects. This is easily done by eating nose to tail, so incorporating organ meats and bone broths as I advise all clients do.
For kidney function the story is simpler, there is no negative effect of high protein intake in healthy individuals. If you have a pre existing kidney condition then a lower protein intake may be beneficial but a high protein intake is not a cause. A higher protein intake increases filtration rates – this is an adaptive response and isn’t pathological. This is shown in those who donate a kidney – the one remaining kidney increases filtration to match demand yet disease rates don’t increase down the line. Chris Kresser explains these latter two points in more detail here: http://chriskresser.com/do-high-protein-diets-cause-kidney-disease-and-cancer
- Some of the world fiercest animals are plant powered herbivores such as the rhino, hippo and gorilla – This statement makes me want to throw my laptop at the wall. It doesn’t bring anything remotely sensible into the debate so I will leave it only saying that I would rather be a top of the food chain human than a hippo.
To summarise from my perspective I will say definitively that whether you are a top of the food chain athlete or someone wanting to maintain health into old age then you need animal protein in your diet. Animal protein is much more useable than plant forms and comes with positive additions unlike plants which tend to bring unwelcome friends to the table. Consuming protein triggers muscle protein synthesis which allows us to build muscle. Building muscle should be a goal for us all, it supports high level performance as well as health and longevity. There is no arguing with those facts.
People tend to fall into vegetarianism for two reasons; they believe it is a healthier way of eating and/or they have ethical concerns with eating meat. If you are one of the former then hopefully the content of this article so far has gone some way to convincing you otherwise. If not consider some of the other wonderful side effects of meat free living:
- B12 deficiency – animal products are the only source of B12, plants don’t have it and our body can’t synthesise it. Therefore if you are vegetarian then you will have to supplement. Does that not give you a clue that this diet might be flawed? Please google B12 deficiency to see some of the unpleasant consequences of this issue. One of these consequences is raised homocysteine levels in the blood – have a google and see what effect this can have. If you can’t be bothered then take your pick from heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, dementia, parkinsons, alzheimers, depression, infertility etc etc. If you are pregnant then you need to change your diet to include some B12 very quickly as the effects on the fetus can be devastating.
- Zinc deficiency – whilst you may think that your veggie diet has adequate zinc unfortunately much of the plant based zinc is bound to phytate and is therefore unable to be absorbed. Zinc deficiency is particularly bad news for men as it lowers sperm count, sperm health and testosterone levels. In both sexes a deficiency can also impair immune functioning which leads to more illnesses that last longer as well as slower wound healing.
- Iron deficiency – As with zinc, high phytate veggie diets regularly cause iron deficiencies. This is once again terrible news for pregnant mothers as low iron levels are correlated with low birth weights, and impaired mental development as well as, sadly, an increased risk of dying during childbirth. For the rest of us low iron levels make us tired and make us fatigue more readily in physical tasks. Healthy iron levels are therefore essential for athletes.
- Vitamin D deficiency – Whilst called a vitamin Vit-D acts as a hormone and affects virtually every cell in our body on some level. Vit D deficiency is linked to pretty much every major disease in some way.
- Omega 3 deficiency – We all know the importance of omega 3 fatty acids for our health. There are 3 forms and 2, EPA & DHA, aren’t found in plant foods. As with Vit D, Omega 3s are linked to vast amounts of disease states. Part of this is the role these fatty acids play in inflammation. It is important to maintain as close to a 1:1 ratio of Omega 3: Omega 6 as possible to minimise inflammation. If you don’t eat animal forms of omega 3 but instead consume plenty of veg derived omega 6 then that spells trouble
- There are many other potential deficiencies involved in a vegetarian diet but hopefully you have the idea by now. Interestingly Roll sells nutritional supplements through his website. Is this an admission of the fact that his dietary philosophy is nutritionally incomplete? I can’t help but notice that he also sells protein powder through his site. A very expensive protein powder at that. Read into that what you will..
If you have approached this way of life from an ethical standpoint then ask yourself this – is every animal life equal? Or is it just the fluffy ones with a face? It may be an inconvenient truth but if you consider what goes into producing grains and vegetables then there are many, many more animal lives lost than there are for the equivalent amount of meat. Pesticides are commonly used, these kill insects, no insects = no birds and so the ecosystems are affected on and on. What’s more consider the environmental damage of producing your favourite crops such as soy. Nitrogen fertiliser is hugely polluting as is shipping the products around the world. I can’t see how sourcing meat from your local butcher, where you can be assured of quality product from a healthy, happy animal, can be ethically worse than buying a packet of tasteless crop, from a faceless corporation, that has killed thousands of less fluffy animals along its way.
Congratulations if you have stuck with me this far. If you are already a meat eater then hopefully you will sleep easier tonight, do not be put off by vegetarian friends, they are probably suffering a B12 deficiency that prevents them thinking straight. If you are a vegetarian/vegan then I hope the article has given you some protein rich food for thought. As ever I respect others beliefs, all I can do is present the facts as I find them to allow you all to make informed choices. In this instance the informed choice is an omnivorous, whole food diet containing animal fats and proteins and leafy green veggies and tubers. Enjoy!