There are three macronutrients in food: carbohydrates, fat and protein, ‘macro’ in the sense that they comprise almost all of the weight and calories of food. Vitamins and minerals are the micronutrients.
Protein, ever since its discovery in 1839, has been considered by many people to be an exceptionally important nutrient, often assuming that the more we consume the better. Its name comes from the Greek word, proteios, meaning ‘of prime importance’—an auspicious and almost mystical beginning for the future of this nutrient! Add to this importance the long standing impression by most people that protein is exclusive to animal source foods.
We now know, however, that this importance is exaggerated, to mythical proportions. For a starter, protein is not exclusive to animal-based foods. In the late 1800s protein was also found to be present in plant foods. Yet the myth of its being tightly or even exclusively linked to animal-based foods still lingers. Simply ask a non-meat eating vegan how many times they are asked, “But where do I get my protein?”
This bias implying that meat is the sole source of protein was encouraged over these many decades by ‘science’. Research findings, for example, were showing that animal-based proteins are utilized by the body more efficiently. This efficiency of utilization referred to increased body growth rate among other effects, with greater efficiency being described as greater ‘biological value’ or higher quality. But it was only animal-based proteins that have high quality.
Because most people obviously like high quality, animal-based protein became the protein of choice. In effect, this history evolved through the prism of linguistics to give a profound self-perpetuating paradigm.
The problem with this proposition is that high quality does not necessarily mean better health. Increasing [...]
It’s my guess that there’s hardly another myth in nutrition so insidious yet so intractable as that which encourages us to believe that consuming lots of high-quality protein
– basically the stuff of animal-based foods – makes for fitness, bigness, and strength of body. Rooted in antiquity, this myth began to sprout in the minds of men (especially men, it seems) long before protein was identified and named.
The myth took root in the belief that we could get our strength, our agility, and our ability to soar to unimaginable heights if only we consumed the flesh and bodies of animals. Much later, in the early nineteenth century, when scientists identified protein as being more or less equivalent to the flesh of the animals they worshipped, it was heralded as the treasured nutrient. In the words of the famous chemist Justis von Liebig, it was none other than the very “stuff of life itself.”
Quality Protein by Whose Standards?
Around the beginning of this century, scientists came to believe – erroneously – that animal proteins led to improvements in sport competitiveness. This was combined with their stand that animal flesh, milk and eggs spurred body growth more “efficiently” than plant protein. Efficiency, in this sense, meant that by eating animal protein one could gain more body weight per pound of protein consumed. High “efficiency of utilization” occurs with animal protein because the proportion of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in animal muscle most closely match the proportion of amino acids needed to synthesize protein in our own bodies. We know now that this may be a drawback, but at the time the scientists equated -efficiency of utilization” with “quality,” a bias that persists today.
Efficiency, or [...]