CONVERSATIONS WITH HEALTH
By Christopher Hassett
I’m a little confused about protein. How much of it do we need each day, and how much of it should come from our friendly farm animals? Some of your columns have addressed the benefits of a plant-based diet, but wouldn’t that create a risk for protein deficiency? — Erin, Chelsea
This is probably one of the more complex and controversial topics in nutritional studies today. Theories on protein range from the sensible to the extreme, and so much of it comes together in the public sphere as a confusing wash. I’ll do my best to bring in clarity by saying unambiguously that most people can meet their daily need for protein on an exclusively plant-based diet: No animal products are needed. However, that is by no means the final word, since while the majority of humanity can live long and healthy lives on an exclusively plant-based diet — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and minimally processed oils — there are nevertheless many individuals who simply benefit from having meat in their diets and, in fact, are healthier for it. There are no hard and fast answers on this one, which makes it all the more important that you become both conscious of and responsive to your body’s unique dietary needs.
My personal opinion is that we as a society should minimize our intake of meat because of the widespread damage its production causes to our planet, which is now progressively ruinous. We should likewise minimize our intake of meat because of the long-term damage a meat-heavy diet wreaks on our bodies.
Yet while the health of our planet and the health of most individuals would greatly improve by switching to a plant-based diet, there are nevertheless many in this world who simply need to eat meat. Their own experience tells them that living on an exclusively plant-based diet is untenable, for it causes them to weaken and wither away. This is why every dietary theory and all individual manifestos amount to nothing more than mere information for your consideration when trying to figure out what works best for you.
If, for instance, based on the advice of doctors and nutritionists you make a decision to get all of your protein from whole foods, no animal products whatsoever, and two months later you’re tired and unproductive and fading off in every context, then I would tell you to go out that day and order your favorite cut of meat and thereafter begin bringing small amounts of it back into your diet. My stress would always be in small amounts because evidence now strongly shows a connection between meat-heavy diets — that is, diets where animal protein is 20 percent or more of the total protein intake — and cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and newer studies are even saying Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Diets light on meat, about once or twice a week, show a significant reduction in all of the above, and exclusively plant-based diets show a notable absence of all of the most common health concerns of the modern era.
China up until a few decades ago had an exceptionally low incidence of what we now call the “Western diseases.” Now a meat-eating society like our own, China today is experiencing all of the same maladies: Their incidence of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, degenerative brain diseases and the rest all now look very similar to ours.
Meat, however, is not the problem per se; the problem is the sheer amount of it we consume. The Chinese even 50 years ago ate meat, but their intake of it was always supplemental to what had for centuries been a plant-based diet. And though their day-to-day existence was fueled primarily by plants, certain special occasions would call for, say, a few extra shreds of pork in a meal consisting primarily of rice, noodles, vegetables, soups, etc. Very special occasions or days of festivity might call for a small chicken or duck to be the centerpiece of the meal, but this was as much a symbolic nod to the importance of the occasion as it was the rarest of pleasures to have meat as the central dish.
This, by the way, is still the relationship most people around the world have with meat today, and it is one borne of community, joy, gratefulness and respect for both the animal and the occasion in which that animal is being killed and eaten. That type of relationship with meat, with food in general, is somehow scoffed at in our society, for it is seen as primitive. But then more and more we are losing our spiritual connection to food and as a result we are losing sight of the critical role food plays in our deeper and more dynamic connections to our Earth and to each other. This becomes more acutely true as our diets move more predominantly toward synthetic, industrially produced, packaged foods, which rather than enlivening and exalting our inherent humanity is instead working to make us something far less.
Regarding protein specifically, a major problem today is not so much its source but the sheer amount we’re taking in, which in the U.S. is well over two times the amount our bodies actually need. The World Health Organization recommends that 10 percent of our calories come in the form of protein. This means that an individual weighing 150 pounds would need about 54 grams of protein per day. You can figure out how much you need by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2, then multiplying that number by 0.8. With that total in mind, consider the chart below:
|| 31 g
||6 oz can
|| 18 g
|| 18 g
|| 15 g
|| 13 g
|| 9 g
|| 8 g
|| 5 g
|| 5 g
You can see that it is quite easy to meet our daily need for protein on an exclusively whole-foods diet. But, again, your own personal experience will tell you where the balance needs to be struck when attempting to meet the protein requirements in your diet, whether it is derived more from plants, animal products or somewhere comfortably in the middle. Trust in what your own body is telling you.
That being said, there’s another idea that comes out of this discussion that I find similarly interesting, if only as an aside, and that is while both sources of protein are equally valid, the two nevertheless seem to fuel us along notably different journeys through life, to the point where it could be argued that we are now seeing (especially as we move into the second decade of this century) the initial branching of our species, an evolutionary split, though perhaps at this point that split is happening more on the level of consciousness rather than the physical.
But purely as consideration for debate (which I’m sure many readers will happily chime in on!), how many C.E.O.’s do we know are vegetarians? How many bankers, politicians, athletes, media personalities? These individuals are at the forefront of our society and to a large extent personify if not define the core ideals of the West, in particular the U.S. Is it a meat-based diet that both fosters and propels these individuals along their chosen paths or, conversely, is there a type of individual who has a fundamental need for a protein derived primarily from meat?
And what about the naturalists, the conservationists, the mystics and enlightened thinkers, the day-to-day spiritual seekers? To what extent do these men and women eat large quantities of meat? Though the proteins are scientifically similar, their energies seem to significantly differ, to the point where the two diets, beyond easy clichés, become almost representative of the larger journeys many of us pursue in this lifetime, be it consciously or not.
Perhaps, then, this could be the new template for deciding how to get your protein: Know, first, the path you want to walk on in this life, the path of your desire, the one truest to your highest vision of self (whether you’re currently on it or not).
Then choose your protein.
Christopher Hassett is a holistic health practitioner who specializes in restoring energy and mental clarity, losing weight naturally, and alternative approaches to health and well-being. You can reach him through his Web site at www.threeperfections.com. Do you have a question you’d like Christopher to respond to in his column? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.