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 [...]