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Slaying the Protein Myth

Slaying the Protein Myth

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  • RICH ROLL

“But where do you get your protein?”

As a plant-based ultra-endurance athlete, if I had a dollar for every time I fielded this inquiry, I could put my four kids through college. So let’s address the elephant in the room, once and for all.

We live in a society in which we have been misled to believe that meat and dairy products are the only source of dietary protein. “Without copious amounts of animal protein, it’s impossible to be healthy, let alone perform as an athlete, train and race at your peak.” This message is everywhere—from a recent high-profile dairy ad campaign pushing chocolate milk as the ultimate athletic beverage, to compelling food labels, to a dizzying array of fitness expert testimonials. Protein, protein, protein—generally reinforced with the adage that more is better.

Whether you are a professional athlete or a couch potato, this hardened notion is so deeply ingrained into our collective belief system that to challenge its propriety is nothing short of heresy. But through direct experience I have come to realize that this pervasive notion is not only false, but also fueled by a well-funded campaign of misinformation perpetuated by powerful meat and dairy lobbies that are focused on convincing us that we cannot survive without their products. The animal protein push is not only based on lies; it’s killing us. We are lured to feast on a banquet of factory-farmed, hormone- and pesticide-laden foods that are high in artery-clogging saturated fat, which is a significant contributing factor to our epidemic of heart disease and many other preventable diet-related infirmities. 

Without a doubt, protein is an essential nutrient; it is critical in building and repairing muscle tissue and maintaining a wide array of important bodily functions. But does it matter if our protein comes from plants rather than animals? And how much do we actually need? Proteins consist of twenty different amino acids, eleven of which can be synthesized naturally by our bodies. The remaining nine—what we call essential amino acids—must be ingested from the foods we eat. So technically, our bodies require certain amino acids, not protein per se. But these nine essential amino acids are hardly the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. In fact, they are originally synthesized by plants and are found in meat and dairy products only because these animals have eaten plants.

Admittedly, we absorb plant-based proteins differently than animal proteins. And not all plant-based proteins are “complete,” containing all nine essential amino acids. But these two arguments are overused to negate the advisability of shunning animal products. In truth, a well-rounded, whole-food, plant-based diet that includes a colorful rotation of foods like sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes will satisfy the demanding protein needs of even the hardest training athlete. And unlike animal-derived protein, these foods will give you everything you need without the saturated fat that causes heart disease, the casein that has been linked to a variety of diseases, or the whey that is an unhealthy, low grade discard of cheese production.

Just ask Mixed Martial Arts/Ultimate Fighting Championship (MMA/UFC) fighters like Mac Danzig, Jake Shields and James Wilks; cyclists like Dave Zabriskie and Ben Bostrom; triathletes like Brendan Brazier, Hillary Biscay and Rip Esselstyn; ultra-marathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek; or undefeated boxer Timothy Bradley, Jr. They will all tell you the same thing: Rather than steak, milk, eggs and whey supplements, opt instead for healthy, plant-based protein sources like black, kidney and pinto beans, almonds, lentils, hemp seeds, spirulina, quinoa, spinach and broccoli.

Provided your diet contains a rotating variety of the aforementioned high-protein plants, I can guarantee that you will never suffer a protein deficiency—it’s impossible. Despite the incredibly heavy tax Iimpose on my body, training sometimes 25 hours a week for ultra-endurance
events, this diet has fueled me for years in building lean muscle mass and properly recovering between workouts. In fact, I can honestly say that at age 45, I am fitter than I have ever been, even when I was competing as a swimmer at a world-class level at Stanford in the late 1980s. And despite what you might have been told, I submit that more protein isn’t better. Satisfy your daily requirements and leave it at that. With respect to athletes, to my knowledge no scientific study has ever shown that consumption of protein beyond the advised 10 percent of daily calories stimulates additional muscle growth or expedites physiological repair induced by exercise stress. In fact, excessive animal protein intake can be harmful over the long run. There is evidence that excess animal protein is often stored in fat cells and contributes to the onset of a variety of congenital diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function and heart disease.

Still not convinced? Consider this: Some of the fiercest animals in the world are plant powered. The elephant, rhino, hippo and gorilla share one thing in common—they all get 100 percent of their protein from plants. So ditch that steak and join me for a bowl of quinoa and lentils.

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