Plant-Based Protein: Better for the Earth, Better for Us
Protein is necessary for good health: it aids growth and development, repairs tissue damage, and keeps our cells functioning. Protein fuels our immune system and is a component part of our hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes. In the past, getting a sufficient amount of protein was a significant challenge; however, in today’s developed world, it is now more important to get the right kind of protein. When people think of protein, they usually think of animal meat, eggs, and dairy, but what many don’t realize is that these sources of protein come with many downsides. For example, feeding our crops to animals and then eating a part of the animal is inherently inefficient.
According to the World Resource Institute, it takes nine calories of crops to obtain just one calorie of chicken meat. That’s 800% in food waste, as if we had nine plates of food ready to feed our growing population but then threw eight of them away. If we are growing nine times more calories than people are consuming, we are using that much more land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. It also means we are using that much more fossil fuel to plant, harvest, and ship the extra crops, and then we are using even more fossil fuel to run industrial animal farms and still more to ship the animals to slaughterhouses.
With regard to our health, meat, eggs, and dairy have specific downsides. In addition to protein, animal products include saturated fat and cholesterol. They may also be tainted with hormones, pathogens, antibiotics, and other contaminants. Animal products are also entirely without fiber. Many people in the developed world are fiber-deficient, in part because of a heavy reliance on animal products for protein.
People who don’t eat meat are often asked, “Where do you get your protein?” But no one ever asks, “Where do you get your fiber?” even though a fiber-deficient diet has been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases. Getting both kinds of fiber — soluble and insoluble — is necessary for optimal health. Soluble fiber can dissolve in water and helps with cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and glucose levels. Insoluble fiber travels through your digestive tract intact and keeps things moving along.
Fiber can help you avoid minor health problems such as hemorrhoids and constipation. Fiber can also play a role in preventing major diseases like colon cancer and heart disease. A study in the journal Stroke found that increasing fiber intake by 7 g a day can reduce the risk of stroke by 7%. Researchers at Yale University found that pre-menopausal women who eat 6 g or more of soluble fiber daily lower their odds of breast cancer by 62% compared to women who eat less than 4 g a day.
In his book Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession With Meat Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It, Dr. Garth Davis notes that people who eat the most animal protein are “the most overweight and sick”. This is backed up by a review by the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition, which looked at 32 studies — 21 clinical and 11 reviews — and found that high meat intake was clearly associated with bone deterioration, kidney disorders, increased cancer risk, liver disease, and heart disease. It is not clear yet whether the harm from excessive meat consumption is a result of the fat and cholesterol in meat, eggs, and dairy, or the lack of fiber and other key nutrients. Regardless, relying on animal products to meet our protein needs is clearly not wise given the increased risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and other diseases. Knowing this, we can we optimize our protein intake while avoiding disease, hormones, antibiotics, and contamination.
For over a decade, longevity researcher Dan Buettner analyzed the world’s healthiest and happiest people. From this research, he identified five Blue Zones where people live especially long and healthy lives. Buettner wrote three New York Times bestsellers about these areas. His research showed two dietary factors: all of these populations’ diets consisted of at least 90% plant foods and included a cup or more of beans every day.
Beans are packed with protein but are without the saturated fat, cholesterol, toxins, and other harmful ingredients often found in animal meat, eggs, and dairy. Low on the glycemic index, beans are associated with lower cholesterol, balanced blood sugar, and digestive regularity. Fascinatingly, beans are found in the diets of people around the world. In Latin America, black beans are served with corn, while in the Middle East, hummus is served with bread. And of course, there are plenty of soy products in the daily fare all across Asia. After reviewing every study of diet and cancer ever done, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommended that we eat beans at every meal. As Dr. Michael Greger summarized in his bestselling book How Not To Die: “Not every day or every week: Every meal!”
Beans and legumes also help us maintain a healthy weight. For example, scientists found that, with calories held steady, adding three cups of legumes per week more than tripled average weight loss. That is only about one half-cup serving per day. The same was found in another study where participants took in exactly the same number of calories, but those participants who were consuming beans lost significantly more weight.
Whole beans aren’t the only source of healthy, satisfying, clean protein. It seems that every week more plant-based meat alternatives come onto the market. These products are made from beans, peas, soy, and other healthy sources of protein, allowing us to share our familiar dishes with friends and family but without any of the disadvantages of animal products.