Americans are worried about getting enough protein from their diet.
Yet it is practically impossible to avoid getting enough protein if you are eating enough real food to get enough calories.
Meanwhile, the high-protein foods that many Americans think are nutritious are really our main causes of death and disability.
To live a longer, healthier life, Americans need to stop worrying about protein!
When I was in sixth grade, my classmates and I were taught about the Basic Four Food Groups.
We were told that a balanced diet would include at least two servings a day from the meat group, three servings a
day from the dairy group, four servings from the fruit and vegetable group, and four servings from the bread and grain group.
We were told that the meat group and the dairy group are crucial sources of protein. If we did not get enough protein, our growth would be stunted.
We would not be able to grow proper hair or fingernails. The meat and dairy group were also supposedly important sources of minerals.
If we did not eat red meat, we would end up anemic from lack of iron. If we did not drink our milk, we would not grow healthy bones and teeth.
Like everyone else in the class, I accepted that lesson at face value.
However, I started to have doubts about the need for all four of the Basic Four Food Groups after a family from India moved into our neighborhood.
Because of their Hindu religion, none of them had ever eaten any meat whatsoever. They even drank far less milk and ate far less cheese and fewer eggs than we did.
Yet their growth was not stunted. They were of normal height. They also had normal hair and fingernails.
Later on, I met some Seventh Day Adventists who had never eaten any meat. They, too, looked perfectly normal.
Eventually, I even met some vegetarians who were athletes and some who were blood donors, even though they never ate any red meat.
My doubts about the need for meat and dairy foods grew even stronger after I learned something about gorillas.
Wild gorillas eat nothing but salad, without dressing. About 85% of their diet is leafy green vegetables.
They also eat bark, roots, flowers, and fruit.
The only “meat” they normally eat comes from termites and other creepy crawlies, which make up about one tenth of one percent of their food intake.
In other words, their diet is 99.9% plants. Nevertheless, an adult male gorilla can weigh 500 pounds and is probably ten times as strong as a man.
So even though wild gorillas eat foods from only one of the Basic Four Food Groups, their growth is not stunted.
They even grow plenty of hair. In other words, gorillas are big, strong, hairy proof that a plant-based diet can easily provide plenty of protein, calcium, and iron.
If human beings try to eat a gorilla-style diet, protein would be the least of their worries.
Their real struggle would be in eating enough leaves to get enough calories! Our bodies are simply not built to digest that much salad!
I learned even more about nutrition and health after I got a job with a publisher of medical and veterinary textbooks.
In the late 1980s, I had the good luck to work on some books on nutrition and dietetics. I had to check all the grammar and spelling, which means that I had to read the manuscripts word for word.
From those books, I learned that it is practically impossible to design a diet that would provide enough calories from plants without providing enough protein for a human being.
To get a protein deficiency, you would have to eat so little food that you would not get enough calories, either.
On the other hand, you would starve to death if practically all of your calories came in the form of protein.
This problem is called fat starvation or rabbit starvation because it usually happened when people were eating nothing but very lean meat, such as rabbit meat or the meat from horses that had died of starvation.
Your body can burn some protein for energy. However, your body cannot burn enough protein to fulfill all of your body’s energy needs.
For years, many people suspected that a form of starvation called kwashiorkor resulted from eating a diet that provided plenty of calories in the form of carbohydrate but not enough protein.
But if you look at actual cases of kwashiorkor, you generally find that the children were not getting enough calories, either.
If you do not get enough calories, you will burn up your dietary protein for energy, instead of using it to build and repair tissue.
For that reason, nutrition scientists often talk about protein-energy malnutrition. To this day, nobody really knows why a few starving children get kwashiorkor, whereas most starving children get a condition called marasmus instead.
Kwashiorkor does not occur in people who are getting enough to eat, even if their diet is high in carbohydrates.
To find people who are suffering from protein deficiency, as opposed to a general lack of calories, you would have to look at some extreme situations as we shall in the next article…