Diets Heart Disease

The Protein Combing Myth

An understanding that proteins play a part in our health has been available for over 100 years.  Unfortunately, much of the original work was based on growth rates for rats.  As you might suspect, a rat that grows twenty times as fast as a human has significantly different nutritional needs.

In the 1950s science took a major step forward when the spiral structure of proteins was discovered and ultimately led to an understanding of the DNA double helix.  From this research, more theories were advanced about the need for protein.  As often happens with nutrition science, reductionist analysis managed to obscure the fact that human biology is incredibly complex and adaptable.  As a result, many false assumptions about protein became part of the nutrition folklore.  As a spoiler alert, for most people, getting enough protein is not an important concern.  However, for most, getting an excessive amount of protein and too little fiber is a problem.

Not unlike nutrition research today, early findings were quickly published as fact, despite the lack of long term studies.  The 1950’s best seller, “Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit” by Adelle Davis described the importance of combining “incomplete” proteins to make “complete” proteins.  As perhaps the best-known nutritionist of the era, tens of millions followed her advice.  In her popular books and lectures, she advised that incomplete proteins not complemented within one hour would not be used by the body.  Understandably, with this potential nutritional deficiency ever present, getting the right proteins with every meal was essential.  Although she was wrong about protein, one of her more famous quotes still rings true.  She advised, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”  Assuming the king she had in mind, ate a plant-based whole food breakfast that spanned the colors of the rainbow, her advice is close to the intermittent fasting advice of Dr. Valter Longo in his book, “The Longevity Diet.”

Once a fad gains momentum, the ideas soon spread as fact via a wide range of books, magazines, talk shows, etc.  Not unlike fads today, the “fuzzy science” about protein crept into popular publications, diet books, school books, and Government nutrition guidelines.

The myth of complementary proteins reached Rock Star status with the publication of “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore Lappé in 1971.  The book became a bestseller that went through three editions that were read by millions in six languages.

Today, we have a better understanding of the need for protein.  The good news is that protein combining is usually an unnecessary and complicating factor in nutrition.  Aside from a “junk food” diet based on fats and sugars, there is little danger of protein deficiency from plant-based whole foods.  Anyone getting enough calories from nutritious plant-based whole foods should get enough protein without concern for combining different types of protein.

If you have been confused about the need to eat “high quality” protein, you can thank the Government, meat industry associations, and dairy industry associations for helping keep you confused.   Amazingly, in the face of overwhelming evidence, it took until 1988 for The American Dietetic Association to reverse its position on the need for complementary protein.

Dr. T. Colin Campbell explained what 50 years of reductionist science could not unravel. “…plant foods have plenty of protein and you do not have to be a nutritional scientist or dietitian to figure out what to eat and you don’t need to mix and match foods to achieve protein completeness. Almost any reasonable combination of natural foods will supply you with adequate protein, including all eight essential amino acids as well as many unessential amino acids.  We now know that through enormously complex metabolic systems, the human body can derive all the essential amino acids from the natural variety of plant proteins that we encounter every day. It doesn’t require eating higher quantities of plant protein or meticulously planning every meal.”

In 2009, the American Dietetic Association finally advised, “Plant protein can meet protein requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met.”  To paraphrase, if you aren’t wasting away from starvation you are getting all the protein you need.  Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus, complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal.”

If concerned about heart disease, a similar statement from the American Heart Association now advises, “You don’t need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet.  Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs. Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds, and nuts all contain both essential and non-essential amino acids. You don’t need to consciously combine these foods (‘complementary proteins’) within a given meal.”

Dr. Joel Fuhrman summarized the good news about protein even more succinctly with the advice, “…plant foods have plenty of protein and you do not have to be a nutritional scientist or dietitian to figure out what to eat and you don’t need to mix and match foods to achieve protein completeness. Any combination of natural foods will supply you with adequate protein, including all eight essential amino acids…”

If you have been confused about your protein need, you aren’t alone.  Most, get their nutrition information from magazine articles, TV programs or news that has been funded in total or in part by money from an agribusiness industry that spans meat production, dairy, and production of all the crops need to raise animal products.  The need to keep protein myths alive is essential to the prosperity of these industries.  The saying, “buyer beware” rings true, only in this case the buyer best beware of not only their pocketbook but also their health.

If concerned about backsliding into old protein myths, keep in mind that large herbivores like cows, elephants, gorillas, and horses get all of their protein needs from plants (mostly grass.)  In contrast, people can’t digest grass but can digest hundreds of other plants.  In essence, if the large herbivores can get all of the protein they need from grass, it should be even easier for humans that have access to hundreds of plants.

Still, old myths die slowly.  You can still find textbooks that teach the need to combine proteins.  Of course, almost all books published before 1994 have it wrong.  For anyone that still feels uneasy about not having something on their plate that looks like it came from something that was once walking around, then consider letting legumes into your life.  Should someone challenges plant-based whole foods as a source of superior protein, just tell them they don’t know beans about nutrition.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

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By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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