Friday, December 21, 2012

Plant vs Animal Protein

What are some of the ‘truths’ we know about proteins?

???  Meat is a great source of high biological value and ‘complete’ protein???
???  Plant protein is ‘incomplete’ and can be complemented either with meat or dairy to make it complete???
???  We require lots of protein --the more protein the better???

These statements are only partially correct!

Here’s the whole story:

     It  started with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) coming out with dietary guidelines for individual nutrients. Back in the 1970s, they declared that upto 30% of all calories can be sourced from protein. Along with this they gave their opinion that meat and dairy products by far are the best sources of protein.

     In his eye - opening book, The China Study, Dr T Colin Campbell describes how the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – the major food regulatory bodies in the US – are peopled by scientists with known links to the Dairy and Meat industry. How, then, can we trust something that came from sources definitely motivated by commercial interests? The recommended dietary guidelines that they announced in the past were copied blindly by many other countries and our Indian guidelines have also been influenced by these. Our actual protein requirement is much less than these figures portray.

     The meat and dairy associations in the US are said to have links with politicians responsible for food related policy making and are a powerful lobby in Washington. These industries, perceiving vegetarianism to be a threat in the seventies, spread rumours and quoted fake studies purportedly showing that a vegetarian diet ‘lacked sufficient protein’, leading to protein deficiency.

     This misinformation campaign was so successful that even in India, meat eaters often ask their vegetarian friends how they manage to get their protein. In fact, especially in North India, there is still a common belief that only meat and dairy consumption ‘makes you strong and healthy’. Forget about public perception, this same lie was taught to us in our post graduate course in nutrition (some ten + years ago)!

     There is a scoring for protein called Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). Based on this, protein derived from animal sources scores higher than those from plants. This information has been so widely spread that it has added to the belief that the best protein comes from animals. THIS IS NOT TRUE.

     Protein from animal sources has been linked to increased risk of everything from obesity to osteoporosis to cancer so that theory is debunked. This doesn’t mean you need to stop eating meat, dairy or eggs. In India, most people don’t eat meat every day anyway (like they do in the west). But realize that you should cook meat healthily with less fat, choose white meat over red meat and leave out the yolk at least half the time when consuming eggs.

     There are 20 amino acids which are the building blocks of all human proteins. Of these, nine are essential which means that they cannot be derived as such by the body and need to be supplied through food. Most plant foods contain all essential amino acids in some quantity. However, proportions vary - some plant foods are deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids.

     Anyone eating whole and largely unprocessed vegetarian food, so long as he consumes a couple or more protein rich plant foods in a day, will get more than sufficient protein for his daily requirement. This holds good even for an athlete or bodybuilder.

     PLANT PROTEIN at last is now widely regarded in the scientific community as high quality protein. This awareness has come through reviewing recent as well as older studies and publicizing this information. We also have the ever increasing number of vegetarians and vegans worldwide, especially in the scientific community, to thank for this awareness.

     These are high protein vegetable foods –  dals, legumes, nuts, seeds and green leafy veggies like agathi, rajakeerai, kuppakeerai, sembu ilaigal (colocasia leaves), curry leaves, drumstick leaves and manthakkali keerai. Cereal grains like oats, whole wheat and whole rice are good sources too. 

     High protein sources which are now popular in India are Soy and it’s products (best bought organic) like tofu and last but not least Quinoa (originally from South America). Most vegetarians in India also consume dairy products like milk, curd, paneer and cheese. These add to the already abundant protein present in a plant - based diet.

     Lastly,  any nutritionist worth their salt will tell you that eating a good variety and quantity of whole, plant - based foods in a day not only takes care of your protein requirement but all your other nutrient requirements as well including fat, carbs, vitamins, minerals and that magical class of compounds called ‘phyto-nutrients’ which enhance current health and prevent disease. 

Note: ‘Whole’ refers to un-processed or minimally processed, natural foods and whole grains. Yup, a packet of chips or a veggie pizza is not going to cut it.

Suggested reading :
The China Study – by T Colin Campbell and son
Mad Cowboy – by Howard Lyman
Forks over Knives (book and movie of the same name) – Gene Stone, T Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn.

All books are in the American context but the science is valid for us as well.

This article was published in 'Life in Adyar', December 15th, 2012.

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