Is animal protein a life-enhancing elixir? From a young age, we’re taught it fosters health, growth, vitality, virility, and sometimes even weight loss. The alternative to getting plenty of it, we’re told, could be protein deficiency. Never mind that the typical American has never had—nor ever will have—protein deficiency and has little idea what its symptoms might be. We’ve heard of it, we’re scared of it, and whatever the heck it is, we don’t want it.
Spurred by the most basic force of meatonomics—the drive to sell more meat and dairy—animal food producers use our protein fears to their advantage. For example, a beef trade group’s website suggests when deciding how much meat to eat, we go beyond the bare minimum needed to “prevent protein deficiency.” Elsewhere on the site, we’re warned:
HEALTH ALERT: Sarcopenia.
Sarcopenia is a condition associated with a loss of muscle mass and strength in older individuals. . . .While there is no single cause, insufficient protein intake may be a key contributor to this condition.
The key phrase here is may be. In fact, the research linking sarcopenia to protein deficiency is spotty and inconclusive. A 2001 study published in The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine found simply, “Decreased physical activity with aging appears to be the key factor involved in producing sarcopenia.”
We’re regularly bombarded with protein messages like these. How accurate are they? What are the health consequences of following them? Because protein is such an important nutrient, and emerging research presents an array of new findings on the subject, it’s worthwhile to assess the protein messages that influence our consumption habits.
Where Do You Get Your Protein?
Here’s something to chew on: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread contains more protein (14 grams) than a McDonald’s hamburger (13 grams). Many consumers think plant foods contain little protein—in any case, not enough to meet our daily needs. But a closer look suggests the animal food industry may be overhyping animal protein in ways that are clinically unsupported.
For humans, the best guidance on protein requirements is contained in a 284-page report produced jointly by the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO). According to this report, an adult needs 0.66 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For a 170-pound adult, this is about 50.8 grams of protein per day. An omnivore could fill this quota with just one chicken breast and one drumstick per day, although among American consumers, such restraint is rare. Males between twenty and fifty-nine, for example, typically consume more than 100 grams of protein daily—twice the level recommended by WHO.
With 50.8 grams of protein (adjusted by individual bodyweight) as a rough daily target, we can evaluate the meatonomics claim that it’s hard to obtain adequate protein without eating animal foods. Consider these surprising protein equivalents, courtesy of the USDA: a baked potato contains as much protein as a hot dog, 2 ounces of peanuts equals a chicken pot pie, and ounce-for-ounce, roasted pumpkin seeds have more protein than ham. As the table below shows, many plant foods contain protein at levels equal to the same or even larger amounts of animal foods.
Protein Equivalents in Animal and Plant Foods
|Protein (g)||Animal Food||Plant Food|
|21||Double cheeseburger (w/ condiments)||Trail mix (1 cup)|
|18||Ham (3 oz., extra lean, canned)||Pumpkin seeds (2 oz., roasted)|
|16||Crab meat (3 oz., cooked)||Peas (1 cup, split, boiled)|
|13||Chicken pot pie||Peanuts (2 oz., roasted)|
|9||Turkey (1 patty, breaded, fried)||Hummus (1/2 cup)|
|6||Egg (large, hard-boiled)||Pistachios (1 oz., roasted)|
|5||Frankfurter (beef)||Potato (baked)|
|4||Cheese (1 oz., feta)||Grapefruit juice (6 fl. oz., from concentrate)|
|2||Ice cream (1/2 cup, vanilla)||Blackberries (1 cup)|
|1||Cream cheese (1 tbsp.)||Cocoa (1 tbsp., dry, unsweetened)|
In fact, every fruit, vegetable, nut, seed, or grain we put in our bodies has protein—in most cases, at surprising levels. You like to kick back with a Budweiser? A can of beer contains 2 grams of protein. A basic salad doesn’t seem hardy enough to add a bit of muscle? A cup of romaine contains a gram of protein. In fact, calorie for calorie, green vegetables like kale, broccoli, and romaine lettuce contain twice as much protein as steak. As one team of experts noted, “It is difficult to obtain a mixed vegetable diet which will produce an appreciable loss of body protein.”
A recent poll found that nearly 16 million Americans are vegetarian (that is, they eat no meat) and of these, nearly 8 million are vegan (that is, they eat no animal products whatsoever). Yet there is no clinical evidence that members of either group suffer from protein deficiency. In fact, a number of commentators note that protein deficiency is largely associated with caloric deficiency, and for anyone consuming sufficient calories, adequate protein is not a concern. In a report that is the basis for the USDA’s protein recommendations, the National Academy of Sciences downplays the risk that people on a plant-based diet lack sufficient dietary protein. According to the National Academy, “available evidence does not support recommending a separate protein requirement for vegetarians.”
Nevertheless, the animal food industry hypes the message that plant protein is lower in quality than animal protein. One industry website advises, “All proteins are not created equal. High-quality animal protein . . . helps fuel a healthy, active lifestyle.” Such claims that animal protein is “high quality” and “healthy” are central to the industry’s protein dogma, and for that reason, they merit a closer look.
Consider the results of a large number of studies on the effect that animal protein has on cancer growth, discussed in the 2004 book The China Study. The main finding from these many studies, according to lead author T. Colin Campbell, is that “nutrients from animal-based foods increased tumor development while nutrients from plant-based foods decreased tumor development.” This remarkable set of studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, and other organizations, lasted more than nineteen years and spawned more than one hundred scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals.
I asked Gregory Miller of the National Dairy Council about Campbell’s finding that animal protein, particularly the protein casein in milk, promotes cancer. According to Miller, who has a PhD in nutrition, Campbell’s research shows “if you feed [animals] a good healthy diet with a high-quality protein, the cancer thrives, and if you feed them a diet that’s not as good, it doesn’t thrive. It’s about good nutrition.” Yep, you read that right; Miller says animal protein promotes cancer because of its high quality, and plant protein does not promote cancer because of its poor quality. The meat and dairy industries churn out questionable messages like this with the help of a government-managed warchest of $557 million annually. Is it any wonder Americans consume animal protein in such huge quantities?
For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).
 J. E. Morley et al., “Sarcopenia,” The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine 137, no. 4 (2001): 231–43, abstract.
 World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and United Nations University, “Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition” (2007), accessed November 20, 2011, http://www.who.int.
 The USDA also issues recommendations regarding protein consumption, although its guidance is substantially higher. The agency recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram per day, which works out to 61.7 grams for a 170-pound adult or about 20 percent more than UN/WHO. I use the UN/WHO recommendations because they’re more consistent with current research and less likely to be influenced by industry (see chapter 4).
 World Health Organization, “Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition” (2007); US Department of Agriculture, “What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007–2008,” accessed November 15, 2011, http://www.ars.usda.gov.
 US Department of Agriculture, “Content of Selected Protein (g) Foods per Common Measure, Sorted Alphabetically,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24, accessed November 20, 2011, https://www.ars.usda.gov.
 Janice Stanger, The Perfect Formula Diet (San Diego: Perfect Planet Solutions, 2009), 34.
 U. D. Register and L. M. Sonnenberg, “The Vegetarian Diet. Scientific and Practical Considerations,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 62, no. 3 (1973): 253–61.
 A 2011 poll by Harris Interactive found that 5 percent of adult Americans are vegetarian and half of these, or 2.5 percent, are vegan. The US Census Bureau advises that US population is 313.4 million (as of April 25, 2012). The Vegetarian Resource Group, “How Many Adults Are Vegan in the U.S.?” (2011), accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.vrg.org; US Census Bureau, “U.S. and World Population Clocks” (2012), accessed April 25, 2012, http://www.census.gov.
 See, for example, T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, The China Study (Dallas: Ben-Bella Books, 2004).
 National Academy of Sciences, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005): 662.
 Campbell and Campbell, China Study.