Our major causes of illness and death in the United States are linked to a diet heavy in animal-source foods and refined food.
Animal-source foods provide too much fat and cholesterol and too much animal protein. Refined foods provide too much fat and sugar and too little fiber.
To solve these problems, we need to switch to a low-fat, high carbohydrate, plant-based diet.
Animal Protein: The Culprit
Our main cause of death in the United States is really “lack-o’-protein-o-phobia.”
We are so worried about the imaginary problem of protein deficiency that we gorge ourselves on meat and dairy products and eggs and fish.
In turn, this rich, fatty diet results in our major causes of death and disability: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and so on.
Nowadays, many people are aware of some of the dangers of fat and cholesterol in the diet, but they are still unaware of the risks posed by eating too much protein, especially too much protein that comes from animals.
The ancient Greeks had a concept called the Golden Mean. Like Goldilocks from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, they understood that too much of something could be just as bad as too little.
You want things to be just right.
However, Americans find it hard to grasp the concept of too much protein. We think that if something is good, then more is better and too much is just right.
The idea of protein overload just makes no sense to us. But it is important to understand what happens when people eat too much food that comes from animals, including too much protein.
We human beings obviously do need some dietary protein to provide the amino acid building blocks for making our own proteins.
So we need to eat some protein in order to build or repair tissue and to make other proteins, including some hormones and our digestive enzymes.
However, if you eat any more protein than you need for those purposes, your body just burns the excess protein for fuel, as it would any other source of calories.
Unfortunately, protein doesn’t burn “clean.” To use an amino acid from protein for fuel, your body must first convert it into a form of sugar.
This conversion involves removal of the amine group (-NH2), which is a waste product that gets turned into ammonia and then urea.
The breakdown of some of the amino acids produces other waste products, including sulfuric acid. That’s why some people say that excess protein in the diet is just “dirty sugar.” The load of waste products from this “dirty sugar” can put a strain on your liver and kidneys and is bad for your bones.
Your body can convert some protein to sugar, to be used as fuel. That is why people do not die of low blood sugar even when they are eating no carbohydrates (sugars and starches).
However, your body cannot convert enough protein to sugar to meet all of your body’s energy needs. In fact, when people have tried to survive on nothing but extremely lean meats, they ended up with a problem called protein poisoning.
It has also been called fat starvation or rabbit starvation. Thus, it is not surprising that people who live on practically nothing but meat prefer the fattiest meats. They are trying to avoid protein poisoning.
Isn’t Plant Protein Overload Bad As Well?
An overload of animal protein is worse than an overload of protein from plants, for several reasons. The proteins from animals contain a particularly large amount of the sulfur-containing amino acids, so they are a particularly dirty source of sugar.
Also, animal proteins come along with cholesterol and too much fat and salt. Furthermore, animal proteins look similar to the proteins from the human body. As a result, they could trigger autoimmune diseases.
A diet rich in animal foods increases your risk of heart and kidney disease, and a diet that eliminates animal foods has long been known to help in managing those diseases.
Back in the 1930s, there were no effective drug treatments for high blood pressure or adult-onset diabetes. To help patients who were at death’s door because of those diseases, Dr. Walter Kempner from Duke University decided to try a dietary intervention.
Kempner realized that high blood pressure and diabetes were rare in populations that eat rice as a staple food. So he started recommending a diet consisting of rice, fruit, and juices, plus some vitamin and mineral supplements, but no added salt.
If patients lost too much weight on this low-fat diet, or if he wanted them to restrict their protein intake even further, he told them to add more sugar.
Although Kempner’s diet was boring, it produced dramatic improvements in his patients’ health.
Their high blood pressure came down. Hearts that were enlarged because of severely high blood pressure went back to normal size.
The blood vessels in his patients’ eyes improved. The results were so dramatic that some of Kempner’s critics thought at first that he was faking his results.
Kempner’s patients also lost weight and had less trouble with diabetes. They also had less trouble with a host of other diseases, such as psoriasis and arthritis.
The good news, of course, is that people don’t have to limit themselves to a diet of rice and fruit. Since many of the world’s traditional cuisines are largely plant-based, people who want to switch to a health optimizing diet have an enormous variety of delicious foods to choose from.
Since the 1920s, we have heard lots of propaganda about the “high quality” of protein in animal-based foods, such as meat, dairy products, eggs, and fish.
Yet this “quality” simply means that it helps fast growing species, such as rats, pigs, and chickens, grow really fast. For a slow-growing species like human beings, the high “quality” of animal-based proteins provides no advantage. Instead, it can create problems.
Plant foods don’t overload you with the sulfur-containing amino acids. That’s why people who are on a plant-based diet are less prone to bad breath and body odor.
They are also much less likely to get osteoporosis, because plant proteins generate less of an acid load. While animal-based foods provide a heavy net acid load on the system, fruits and vegetables tend to be mildly alkalinizing.
That’s the major reason why fruits and vegetables help to prevent osteoporosis.
Another worrisome effect of too much animal protein is its possible effect on cancer cells. Like rats, cancer cells can grow and multiply really fast.
On a high-protein diet, they can grow and multiply even faster. They might even multiply so fast that your immune system cannot keep them under control.
In fact, one of the effects of eating the standard American diet, with its heavy emphasis on animal protein, is an increased risk of many forms of cancer.
One of the main culprits in cancer promotion seems to be the amino acid methionine. Many kinds of cancer cells seem to need a lot of methionine in order to grow.
A low-methionine diet seems to be helpful in the treatment of cancer.
Methionine is one of the essential amino acids. You need to get some methionine from your food. But even sweet potatoes provide as much methionine as a person needs.
Broccoli and asparagus provide a lot of methionine, relative to their calorie content, but they are low-calorie foods. You’d have to eat half a pound of broccoli to get the amount of methionine in one egg.
In other words, if people are getting too much methionine in their diet, they’re not getting it from pigging out on broccoli or asparagus. Besides, if they ate a lot of broccoli, they would get a big dose of cancersuppressing phytonutrients along with the methionine.
In short, the low methionine content of a plantbased diet may help explain why people are so much less likely to get many kinds of cancer if they eat plants than if they eat the methionine-rich standard American diet.
Cancer is not the only kind of serious disease that has been linked specifically to eating animal proteins.
So have the autoimmune diseases, a class of diseases that result when the body’s immune system attacks the body itself.
Examples include type 1 diabetes, in which the immune system destroys the insulinproducing cells in the pancreas, and arthritis, in which the immune system attacks the joints.
Some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, attack tissues throughout the body. Nobody really knows why these diseases strike some people but not others. Unfortunately, the role of diet in causing these diseases is frequently overlooked.
Many cases of autoimmune disease are triggered by something that the person is eating. The likely suspects are proteins.
Ideally, the proteins in our food should be broken down completely to their individual amino acids inside the intestine. Then, the individual amino acids get absorbed into the bloodstream. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen in real life.
Sometimes, the protein is only partly broken down before it makes its way into the bloodstream.
This problem is especially likely to happen if the person does not produce enough stomach acid to help break the proteins down quickly or if the person has a “leaky” intestine, which allows abnormally large bits of protein to make their way into the bloodstream.
The immune system then treats these foreign proteins as it would treat a dangerous germ, such as a virus or bacterium: it makes antibodies to attack the foreign protein.
Unfortunately, if that foreign protein looks too much like one of our body’s own proteins, those antibodies can then end up attacking the body’s own tissue. The results can be devastating.
Since we human beings are mammals, our body’s proteins are similar to those of other mammals.
The resemblance is stronger between species of mammals than it would be between a mammal and a chicken
or a mammal and a fish.
In contrast, the proteins from plants have far less resemblance to human proteins.
The similarity between human proteins and the proteins from other mammals explains why people who eat red meat and dairy foods are at particularly high risk for autoimmune disease.
They are eating proteins that are similar to, but not exactly like, the proteins in their own bodies. These foreign proteins are different enough that the immune system recognizes them as foreign.
However, they are similar enough that the antibodies that the immune system makes against them can sometimes attack the body’s own tissue.
This problem explains why people who eat a lot of red meat have a high risk of arthritis.4 Children who drink cow’s milk have a higher risk of type 1 diabetes, probably because one of the proteins in cow’s milk looks a lot like one of the proteins that is normally found in the human pancreas.
To learn more about the role of dairy foods in causing type 1 diabetes, see my book Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes:
Prevent Type 1, Cure Type 2.
Although the proteins that are most likely to trigger autoimmune disease come from animals, there are a few plant proteins that can cause problems for some people.
For example, in about 1% of the American population, the protein in wheat, barley, and rye causes the immune system to attack the small intestine.
This causes a problem called celiac disease.
The “cure” for celiac disease is simply to stop eating anything with wheat, rye, or barley in it. Likewise, a simple elimination diet also holds a great deal of promise for treating other devastating autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. If something is making you sick, stop eating it.
The take-home message is simple. If you want to reduce your risk of many common health problems, ranging from sudden death to chronic pain, switch to a plant-based diet.
If you are still having problems such as joint pain or other mysterious symptoms, ask a dietitian for advice about an elimination diet, so you can exclude the possibility that some plant-based food is causing trouble for you.
Simply eliminating a few troublesome foods from your diet is a cheap and often surprisingly effective way to improve your health.
The results can be so fast and powerful that you may need to reduce or eliminate your dosage of prescription medications.
If you are taking prescription medications, talk to your doctor as well as a registered dietitian before you make a major change in diet.