Jul 15, 2011

Give me some Protein!

As I was waiting for a video about the new FDA guidelines for contanimation of food in the US to load, I was treated with an ad for Bob Evans juicy farm burger menu. They showed beautiful, colourful farms with even more beautifully animated colours of crops and then CUT TO the burger - A huge (American size) burger with lots of cheese. Of course they mention in passing that the burger comes from a 'juicy' 100% black Agnus (which is beef) and also that the burger is topped with bacon (which is pig). What is funny is that there were no pictures of 'happy' cows or pigs in the entire ad. We have now graduated to advertising that at least 60% of any meal's origins don't need to be shown.

I've wanted to write about protein for a long time but I kept putting it off because there are so many articles all over the place about our protein requirements and where we should be getting it from. I have talked to many people who are of the opinion that they need animal protein to survive, put on weight, build muscles and so on. Of course I disagree, but why is anyone going to listen to me? I don't have any written proof that I am qualified to make such comments. What I only have is proof that I am alive (and kicking) and that like me, there are hundreds and thousands of people all over the world who are doing very well without any animal protein in their diets. There are also many many doctors who highly recommend omission of all animal protein from the diet to reverse many diseases and to stay healthy (I have a list of books below). So many people also ask me why do I want to live longer by being so restrictive. I think I'd rather live longer and healthier rather than die with a disease.

So what is the big deal about protein? And why has it gathered so much press that everyone is so concerned about getting 'enough protein'?

Proteins are organic compounds made up of amino acids and are essential constituents of any living cell. Proteins as nutrients are required to build, maintain and repair tissues in our bodies. Aside from water, protein is the most abundant molecule in the body.

This is my three line definition for protein. Of course books and more can be written about protein but I'll leave that for the Phds.

Where do we get our protein from?

Apart from the protein that our cells are made up of, the amino acids that form protein can be obtained when our stomachs digest the food we eat just as we get carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, etc from our food.

The next BIG question on people's minds is usually where do I get my proteins from?

The moment people know about my food choices (or the lack of it), there are two questions that I get asked the most. One being about calcium (which I will write about someday) and the next about protein. There is this (unnecessary) worry about not getting 'enough' protein. What people might not realize is that they are getting too much of it!

For that I always remember what I learned at Dr Nandita Shah's workshops. When was the last time you saw someone who was deficient in protein? I hope you have not, but to be deficient in protein you have to have been starving. This is a very valid deficiency in India more so in Africa and it is called Kwashiorkar. We learn about it in school and it is accompanied with a picture of a listless, pot bellied child with his rib cage showing from the back. It is a deficiency mainly caused because the child has not been eating anything or eating way too little.

So where do I get my proteins from?

From fruits and vegetables of course!

The human body is designed to be herbivorous. An article by Dr Nandita Shah in Upper Crust gives a good idea of the comparison between our digestive systems and those of the carnivores.

But milk, meat and eggs have lots of protein. And vegetables and fruits are not enough.

Milk, meat and eggs are classified as animal protein and fish is meat too.

The problem with any animal protein, as I have read in many many books and have been told by many doctors, is that it is very similar in its make-up to the proteins found in the human body. The body is not able to differentiate between the good and bad cells and hence attacks itself. This is one of the main reasons why auto-immune diseases and cancers are on the rise. A very comprehensive research study is available in the book The China Study by Dr. T Colin Campbell.

Apart from that, animal products do come with cholesterol and saturated fat. MNCs advertising zero cholesterol butters and yogurts are just saying there is no cholesterol or saturated fat in .000001mg of their butter! No one reads the fine print anyway and butter tastes so good and makes everything else taste so good.

The whole protein myth probably started when the non vegetarians came across the vegetarians, when the meat industry realized they needed a new strategy to combat the rise of the vegetarians. That is my theory. But this protein myth is so widely accepted that now even in nutrition school they are taught that Indian lacto-vegetarian diets don't have enough protein and Indians need to start eating eggs and chicken. Try telling that to my grandparents, who have been raised on lacto-vegetarian diets all their lives, or even their parents who probably had a bath if they were in the same room as an egg. There is also another line floating around that protein from meat, milk and eggs is superior to plant protein. Also that our bodies have evolved to consume and digest meat. Of course, that is why we have claws, canines, hunt for our meat, eat it raw, have the saliva to digest meat, have a short small intestine so that the meat passes by quickly through our systems and are not constipated at all.

How do I know I am getting enough protein?
For one I show no signs of protein deficiency and like me the scores of people on healthy vegan diets are also healthier than ever.

The problem these days is of too much protein. People on non-vegetarian and vegetarian diets alike are eating more animal protein than ever and it's showing. Everyday there are reports of how obese and overweight people are getting. But every other day there are reports to show that we need milk for strong bones and eggs for protein. The most ridiculous advertisement I spotted recently by India's favourite butter brand,was about how butter is on top of the food chain! Thanks to India's 'White Revolution' we are now going in the same direction as US and Europe. And I don't need to mention that the US has the heaviest population on this planet.

Protein deficiency is caused when your body is not getting enough or any food. Developing countries where famines and droughts ensure that no food gets to its people, are subject to kwashiorkar - a disease that affects children the most.

Cutting out animal protein certainly doesn't mean you cannot eat anything. There are a multitude of fruits, vegetables, grains and pulses you can eat and how!

The Devil that is CARBS!

Carbohydrates are very simply carbon, hydrogen and oxygen come together needed to provide our bodies and brains with energy. Without them we would be comatose zombies! (Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin).

Thanks to the Atkins diet and so many others, Carbohydrates have been tagged as the bad guys. So you can eat all the dead animals and cheesy food, just avoid the fruits and the grains and you will be as thin as you want. You will lose weight but that will only be your initial water weight, if you continue to be on this diet life long you are asking for some trouble (aka osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer and so on). I also think diets that say you need one nutrient more than the other have got it all wrong because no one nutrient can work in isolation. They all need each other to synthesize and transform into energy for us.

As long as you fill you your plate with complex carbs (brown red rice, natural unprocessessed sweetners, whole grains) and avoid simple carbs (sugar, white rice, polished grains, white bread and even store bought brown bread in India) you will be doing your body a whole lot of good. Of course don't forget your fruits, vegetables and legumes.

I don't sit in front of my plate and measure 1/3rd carbs or 2/3rd proteins or 5/7th minerals or any such thing. I think the whole concept of a diet by classifying foods according to their main nutrient is bull crap. I eat whole, healthy and as much raw as i can.I don't count my calories and I do not measure every meal. I make sure I eat at least one fresh fruit a day though I'd like it increase that. There's a multitude of junk food you can eat even if you follow a vegan diet. Almost everything that is fried is vegan except when they add cheese or milk powder to it. I can go on and may be even write a book with the amount of information that is available out there. Finally it boils down to whether you want to believe it or not. If you still believe you need to have egg white and a piece of chicken to survive, I can only ask you to open your mind to the possibility that it might not be good for you and you won't know unless you try.

Books you must read:

The China Study - Dr T Colin Campbell
Skinny Bitch / Skinny Bastard - Rory freedman and Kim Barnouin

for an extensive list of books available in Mumbai at the SHARAN Library, try http://sharan-india.org/resources/sharan-library-books/

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