The short answer is no, it is not universal. Some people do very well on it and others do not. I want to get into the reasons why – the science that both supports it and says otherwise so that we can all make a more informed decision on how to fuel our bodies. But regardless, It is both okay to choose it as a way to eat and it is also okay to not. On a small enough scale, all eating is “murder.”
I am not anti-vegan and I am not anti-carnivore but if you read any of my articles you will find a common theme in my beliefs, which is that I don’t think optimal health (be that for humans, animals or the planet at lage) exists in any ‘all or nothing’ scenario. Every single ecosystem is dependen on the cycle of life and death and I do believe that removing ourselves from this equation is detrimental to the health of the whole. I also believe that abusing our sources of food – be it plants or animals is doing more damage than is necessary. But I don’t want to use this post to address environmental impact or better farming practices or animal rights. All I want is to add to the dialogue about human health and how we can optimize it through nutrition. What this means as far as some basic tenets we should all be aware of so that we , as individuals can make better decisions for ourselves and then maybe we can all discuss the grander scale issues with a better idea as to what we can compromise on for everyone and everything to survive and thrive.
I find myself writing this after getting a lot of questions about my opinion on the recent documnetary on plant based diets, Game Changers. I should say that I am not a certified nutritionist but I have spent the last 12 years studying all things nutrition, several of those years being focused on plant based diets as I was experimneting with that myself and had many clients, both athletes and non athletes ask for vegan nutrition plans.
I do think that the documnetary was very well done in focusing in on elite athletes who seem to thrive n a plant based diet. Its smart. We tend to assume that if an athlete, who is pushing their body to its limits, can succeed then everyone should mimic something similar. This is problem number 1. Eat for your needs not someone else’s. This is actually my major issue with any single diet plan. There are elements of certain approaches to food that can work for many people – like don’t eat processed food, limit refined sugar and try to find clean organic produce. But most current science on health and longevity suggests eating a diet that corresponds to your specifc ancestral patterns, your current bacterial environment, gut micriobiome and enzyme profile, intolerances and allergies and what your activity level is or should be given your age and any illnesses you may have or are genetically inclined to develop.
There is a lot to go over but for part 1 of this series I want to talk a bit about protein. There are some half truth claims in the movie, concerning protein that are worth going over. The importance of protein for muscle synthesis is universal but is doubly important for several populations, including athletes, pregnant women, anyone suffereing from illness, sarcopenia and the elderly. Regardless of which population you fit in, it is paramount that we all get enough protein to maintain our muscle tissue, heal wounds, build hormones and enzymes and many other functions.
It is claimed in the movie that proteins come from plants, That animals are just the middleman and we can easily cut them out and go straight to the source. But the true source of protein is actually bacteria. Protein is constructed from nitrate and plants are unable to use nitrogen directly so they consume bacteria (through their roots) who take nitrogen from the atmosphere. Plants are also able to gain free amino acids by consuming dead bacteria. Furthermore, bacteria in the guts of ruminants as well as bacteria that live on the plants they eat are both the plant metabolizers and the major source of nutrients for the animal. A quick breakdown goes a bit like this – Saliva, stomach acids and bacteria begin the breakdown of the plant lectins, they are then drained of fatty acids and water and finally the bacteria are ripped apart by enzymes and acids and this is where the animal gets the majority of its nutritents, including proteins. The bacteria are part of the metabolizing process but they are also consumed as nutrition themselves. In a cow this is all done is separate chambers, in a system that has evolved specifically to maxiimize the nutrient absorption from the plant and bacteria. We can not compare ourselves to ruminants, who have specialized digestive systems.
So while animals are the “middle men” (as is stated in the movie) , it is the bacteria and the process in which they help metabolize plants that allows for more readily available amino acids for the animal to use. The protein may exist in the plant thanks to bacteria but it is more easily avaialbale in animal sources for us to consume once they have processed the plants, something we are not as good at. Now they are not doing this “for us” but this is why we eat them. This is one of the reasons we have thrived as a species. Easily bioavailable sources of protein and fatty acids are the reason our brains have grown and are bodies have evolved. Our digestive system, while effective and efficient given its length is not the industrial fermenting complex like that of cows or gorillas. That whole arguent of ‘look at a gorilla and how powerful it is, does it look like it is missing protein?’ is very simple and powerful. But wrong. If you really look at a gorilla you will notice its massive protruding abdomen. Thats not pure muscle, it is bloated because of the massive, complex digestive system behind it. This system is necessary to break down all the plants that it eats. A gorilla spends 50% of its day eating. Much like I did when I was vegan and training like an athlete. I was also bloated but not for the same reasons.
All proteins are not created equal, each one has different functions, some of them can be formulated in our bodies and some can not. Thos are called esential amino acids. The 9 essential amino acids (EAA) that we need to get from food do exist in plants. As is suggested in the movie, as long as we acquire all of these EAAs then the source is unimportant. This is kind of true. But if you dive deep into how bioavailable the amino acids are from different sources you begin to see that the quality from one food can be very different form another.
Scientists use a scoring system to rank foods for their amino acid profile (how many they carry) and bioavailability, it is called the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acids Score. The difference is quite clear that plants foods rank much lower than animal products. As implied above, just because the food doesn’t carry all the amino alcids doesn’t mean you can’t find them all with a cariety of plants. Indeed, you can mix rice and beans to get all 9 EAAs, as you can with soy and rice or peas and rice. But the quantity of beans and rice you will need to eat to get the equivalent amount of protein you would get from a medium sized piece of meat makes this much harder to maintain. The bioavailability of the proteins in plant foods is low enough that the effort to maintain optimal amounts becaomes daunting. As someone who was trying to reach fairly high levels of protein intake on a vegan diet, I found it had a detrimental effect on my digestive system. I had to consume so much high fibre food just to attain the right levels that cooking and eating became a cumbersome part of my day. I also needed to add more vegetables and fruit to get all of the other nutrients I needed to balance out my diet. The other outcome was that due to the lack of absorption of proper fats and proteins I developed tendinitis in both of my forearms. It took months to recover to a point where I could type again, never mind train the way I was used to. I tried everything, including cutting out soy – that seemed to be an inflammatory food for me – but the two things that seemed tohelp me recover the most was a systemic enzyme (called zymactive) and switchcing back to an omnivore diet. My tendinitis as well as other small connective tissue injuries all happened while I was on my 6 month vegan phases. Eventually I had to give up on the research.
So when James Wilks proposes that a vegan diet will offer way more protein than is necessary based on the recomended daily allowance, he is not taking into consideration how bioavailable the proteins are in plant foods, nor is he addressing anther common misconception – how much protein we need to function. One issue is that the RDA represents the bare minimum for survival, not the ideal amount – a dose that keeps us working at an optimal level – never mind high performance or speical needs levels. The RDA as used in the film is from outdated research using nitrogen balance studies.. A new method (Indicator Amino Acid Oxidation) puts the recommended daily allowance at almost a half gram per kilogram above what the old number was. This is a really big difference and it is still the absolute minimum for survival, nevermind someone who falls into one of the populations I mentioned above. When using the new technique to develop proper allowances, studies on athletes show a required intake upwards of 2.7g of protein per kilogram. I have done this protocol and it is table to toilet living. I once found myself eating a banana while on the can. My girfried at the time’s words were “you are a new level of gross.” But come on, when your diet requires 6 bananas in a day, one of those bananas might be a bathroom banana.
Plants are not poorer quality sources of protein because they don’t have all of the EAAs, they are poorer sources becaus of the low amounts of the amino acids they do have and the bioavailability of each one. Some amino acids can be limiting amino acids – which means they limit protein synthesis due to the extreme low amount in the source. For instance Lyseine is a limiting amino acid in rice. Can you make up the difference in other foods, like beans? Absolutely, but i hope you are okay with eating 2.5 cups of beans and a cup of rice. The other option, whch is often used by athletes, including those shown in the documnetary is to supplement with protein powders. Full transparency, I do this as well – though I fluctuate between grass fed whey protein and a multi sourced plant protein powder. But the maximum I use is one shake per day as I do my best to get all of my macronutrients from whole foods. Protein powder is highly processed, be it animal or plant sourced. It is no longer in the form that we have evolved to metabolize, and the ethods to isolate the proteins often involve chemilcal solutions or hexane based solvents, I like the use of powders for people who have a hard time adding protein to there diets for weight managemnt purposes, or when working with athletes who need to bulk up in short periods of time. But as a daily form of protein intake for the average semi active or even regulalrly actove individual? I don’t love it. This is just my opinion though.
Part 2 coming up soon, where I will dive into the research on saturated fats, the link between red meat consumption and cancer and a couple of the other misleading quotes from the film, Game Changers.