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 animals they worshipped, it was heralded as the treasured nutrient. In the words of famous chemist Justus 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 protein 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 proportions 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 high quality, can also mean speeding up all manner of body functions. It can mean stepping on our accelerators, putting the "pedal to the metal." And, like most other things pushed to their limits, there's a cost to pay, such as soaring rates of chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
Consuming"high-quality" animal protein was taken by these early father figures in nutritional science to mean "civilization itself." And so it was in this climate that their scientifically based recommendations began encouraging very high intakes of around 110 to 130 grams of animal-based proteins a day.
Vegetarian Athletes at Yale
At the beginning of this century, the majority opinion generally held that the more we consumed of this "high-quality" nutrient, the better.
s21 However, there was some dissenting opinion, soon to be maligned or forgotten. And it is this generally forgotten bit of history that is my main point. A certain Professor Russell Chittenden was, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a very distinguished professor of physiological chemistry at Yale University. He wondered whether consuming diets very much lower in high-protein foods (i.e., much lower intakes of animal-based foods) would bring about undue fatigue and loss of mental and physical fitness. What concerned Chittenden were the claims that a generous consumption of anima lprotein could really make for strength, endurance, and "manly" qualities, as some were saying.
Initially, he organized an experiment to see if eating less protein and animal food woul dreally make him and his colleagues weaker and less able to put in a good day's work. To the contrary, he found that their health, vigor, and overall fitness were considerably improved.
Next he undertook a more complete six-month experiment with a detachment o fmilitary men who were just entering their training and who were accustomed to eating very large quantities of protein-rich meat. He switched their diet to one containing only about one-third their customary i ntake ofprotein. This he did by substantially reducing but not entirely eliminating meat, clearly establishing that this low intake of protein was adequate to maintain their usual needs for protein. He also subjected them to a series of fifteen strength and fitness tests. The average score for all fifteen tests at the beginning was about 3000 and the final score was about 6000. Without doubt, this improvement was quite remarkable.
Confronting the Critics
But Chittenden's critics said that this did not necessarily prove his point because these soldiers very likely might have gained even more during this training period if they had, instead, consumed animal-protein-based diets. So Chittenden obliged his critics by organizing yet another experiment, this time with well-trained athletes in the "pink of condition," as he put it. Accustomed to the typical meat-containing diet, these athletes were, understandably, at about the same level of physical fitness as the physically fit military men. And guess what? By switching to largely plant-based diets from January to June these athletes improved by about 35 percent in just five months. In this case, only the dietary change could have accounted for these remarkable results.
Chittenden was one of the leading scientists of his day. He worked at a leading university, he was president of the American Physiological Society, and he had published on a wide variety of technical topics in nutrition prior to these well-conducted experiments. This man was no shrinking violet in scientific research.
Still Ignoring the Evidence?
Wouldn't you have thought that his research, now almost 100 years old, would have been accepted? Or at least reexamined by others to see if such spectacular results were true? Not on your life. What awaited Chittenden was mostly scorn from his colleagues and it was not until the 1940s, when the daily recommendation for total protein intake was decreased, that his work was partially vindicated. However, even then, the recommendation for protein intake of the animal kind still held sway. And up till today, the average American gets 60 to 70 percent of his or her protein from animal sources-mostly without realizing that this practice largely arose from the false premise that animal protein improves physical fitness and sport competitiveness.
I said earlier that this story had its insidious aspects. So strong has been the belief in the physical fitness value of animal-based protein that today we struggle in science to uncover the clear messages from the data thats eriously question our beliefs about animal protein. Indeed, some scientists, who have major influence within United Nations advisory groups, continue to develop technical arguments favoring higher recommendations for protein.
In China, I was surprised to learn some years ago from my colleagues that they had-and still have-the highest dietary protein recommendations of any country in the world, mostly for the presumed purpose of improving athletic performance in the Olympics. This seems especially ironic considering that it was well known in ancient Greece that Olympic athletes performed best when they ate plant-based diets. Furthermore, some of today's athletes, such as Dave Scott, six-time winner of the Ironman triathlon, and Carl Lewis, seven-time Olympic gold-medalist sprinter, train and compete on plant-based diets.
It is not that animal protein cannot be utilized for good effect, especially when nothing else may be available, or that this nutrient does not build muscle mass. It does. But so does plant protein. And it does so with superior results. If only we had remembered and understood Chittenden's work we might not be facing such dire health consequences today.
T. ColinCampbell, Ph.D., was trained at Cornell (M.S., Ph.D.) and MIT (researchassociate) in nutrition, biochemistry, and toxicology. He is professor ofnutritional biochemistry at Cornell University.
(c)1996 NewCentury Nutrition. Reprinted by permission.
Chittenden,R.H. Physiological economy in nutrition. F.A.Stokes, New York,1904.
Chittenden,R.H. The nutrition of man. F.A.Stokes, New York, 1907.
Thanks to BayArea Vegetarian 1997 (PO Box 9470, Stanford, CA 94309), where this article previously appeared.
Famous Veggie Athletes:
· B J Armstrong (US Basketball star)
· Andreas Cahling (body builder)
· Chris Campbell (1980 world champion wrestler)
· Sally Eastall (marathon runner, UK No 2 -- vegan)
· Di Edwards (runner, Olympic semi-finalist)
· Cory Everson (bodybuilder, 6-time Ms Olympia)
· Desmond Howard (football player, Heisman trophy winner)
· Billy Jean King (tennis champion)
· Jack LaLaine( fitness guru -- vegan)
· Tony LaRussa (coach of Oakland Athletics)
· Carl Lewis (Olympic Gold Medalist sprinter -- vegan while training)
· Monika Montsho (weightlifter, 1991 NW woman weightlifter of the year)
· Edwin Moses (Olympic Gold Medalist hurdler)
· Martina Navratilova (tennis champion)
· Bill Pearl (bodybuilder, 4-time Mr. Universe)
· Dave Scott (triathlete, 6-time Ironman winner)
· Lucy Stephens (triathlete -- vegan)
Information from Vegetarian Pages (www.veg.org) and Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets.
US Olympic Committee on Vegetarian Diets
"If care is taken to include a wide variety of foods, vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate to support athletic performance."
"Whether an individual is a recreational or world-class athlete, being a vegetarian does not diminish natural talent or athletic performance. As far back asthe Ancient Games, Greek athletes trained on vegetarian diets and displayed amazing ability in competitive athletics."
Excerpted from "Vegetarian Diets" by the International Center for SportsNutrition, Olympic Coach Magazine, Winter 1997.
Copyright (c)1998 United States Olympic Committee
All Rights Reserved