What’s more important than protein?
by Patrick Merrithew
The conversation on diets in Western culture always seems to revolve around one macronutrient: protein. Why are we so obsessed with protein and why is it considered the healthiest part of the diet by many? Not only has protein not yet been subject to the same scrutiny as the other macronutrients but it probably doesn’t deserve its lofty place on the pedestal.
What about other macronutrients? i.e. carbs, fat, alcohol and water
Macronutrients are the kilocalorie-containing elements of edible substances we call foods. There are three essential macronutrients: carbohydrates (or sugars and starches) fats and proteins as well as one non-essential macronutrient called alcohol (ethanol, although some would argue to its essentiality). Water and fibre are also sometimes considered macronutrients since they should make up relatively large proportions of the diet, but more on that later.
Out of the three essential macronutrients (alcohol likely having been the first to be accused of being unhealthy) both carbs and fats have been scrutinized, praised and feared since the study of nutrition became scientific. In the 1950s it was discovered that saturated fats in the diet were associated with cardiovascular disease and cancer (and diabetes, which is often overlooked). Fat was labelled unhealthy and to this day evidence-based diet pyramids recommend limiting fat. Although as most people now know, fats have recently been re-labelled as healthy and so confusion once again abounds.
Carbs have followed a similar trend, with evidence pointing to a link between simple sugars in the diet and a host of chronic diseases. This no doubt seems confusing since scientists appear to be unsure what diet to recommend; should it be low fat or low carb?
What people forget is that no real scientist outside of doctor’s Oz and Phil (and the like) has ever recommended either a high fat diet or a high simple sugar diet. We certainly didn’t mean that saturated fats could be replaced with simple sugar.
With all this confusion about fat (healthy and unsaturated and/or unhealthy and saturated) and carbohydrates (sugar or fibre or just energy and what about gluten?) it seems protein has been spared the media frenzy. Although it won’t be for long, I am sure of it.
Protein seems healthy for a few more reasons. We definitely need it (along with the other macronutrients, don’t forget) and marketers have done an excellent job of convincing people that what it’s good for is your muscles. This is true, muscles are made of protein. So are bones and eyeballs, yet no health magazine or guru has yet recommended that for healthy bones and eyeballs we should eat bones and eyeballs.
They have convinced us that the only source of protein to keep our muscles healthy is in animal muscles, milks and embryos and that in order to keep us healthy we should be eating muscles, milks and embryos. It reminds me of a branch of pseudoscience that asserts like is good for like, such as a walnut being healthy for the brain because it looks like a brain (walnuts likely are healthy for brains, but so are many, many other foods, including literally apples and oranges).
“Where do you get your protein?” is likely the main question someone inquiring about a diet will ask. This can come alongside vitamins, minerals and water but it remains most important.
What about fibre?
Most people consuming a typical Western diet receive about twice as much protein as they need and about half as much fibre. The obsession with protein has perhaps led us to over-consume foods shown to be rich in protein (as well as other constituents) and deficient in fibre.
What switch can you make?
Nearly all whole foods contain protein in sufficient quantities for humans. Many other animals relying nearly exclusively on plant sources of protein grow much larger than humans using these building-blocks. Animal foods do not exclusively contain high levels of protein and it is of no better quality. In fact, nitrogen in plant sources is often bound to fibre, slowing release of the amino acids into the body and allowing for longer windows during which protein is being absorbed. As another example, human breast milk: the perfect food for people growing much more than any athlete, contains around one percent proteins. This is an important observation to consider as we worry about our 30-40% protein (AKA meat) diets.
To be a good Climatarian though, you don’t even need to switch from a high protein diet. High-protein can still be your friend. The problem is that many traditional “protein-rich” foods aren’t currently made in low-impact ways.
Many climate friendly protein sources are also affordable and genuinely healthy. Whole, climate-friendly, while still high-protein plant foods are often bound to fibre, low in fat and high in vitamins and minerals and usually low kilocalorie, high in water and low in simple sugars. Pulses, grains, seeds, nuts as well as climate friendly meats and non-dairy milks can all satisfy our dietary needs without harming our environment.
Next time you feel that classic anxiety about wanting to eat a low-saturated fat, low simple sugar, high protein diet, remember that you can absolutely satisfy that strong (if unnecessary) urge with our simple list of plant based proteins or even indulge in a climate friendly meat source. And please don’t ask anyone else where they get their protein.