The Great Protein Debate (Part 1)

If you’re like most raw foodists, you’re no stranger to the controversy surrounding the notorious “P” word: protein. Whether you came to raw from a vegetarian cuisine, a low-carb regimen, or even the good ol’ Standard American Diet, one of your earliest concerns was most likely: where will I get my protein?

And again, if you’re like most raw foodists, you probably had your fears placated early on. Maybe you were told that most people on cooked diets eat far more protein than they need (which is true) and that all raw plant foods contain protein (which is also true). Maybe you were told that cooked protein isn’t digestible, so you get more protein from raw sources anyway (which is not quite true). And maybe you were told my favorite whopper: that broccoli contains more protein than chicken (yikes!).

Raw food literature is woefully short on science. And although the cooked world is swirling with protein myths (often perpetuated by meat and dairy industries), the raw world is guilty of its own dietary delusions.

Why we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss protein

There’s no reason to let protein fears keep you awake at night, but this subject needs more attention and scrutiny than it usually receives in the raw community. Here are some not-often-discussed facts to consider:

  • Raw vegan protein sources tend to be low in biological value (BV), a measurement that tracks how much protein is used by the body—and how much is simply excreted. Five grams or protein from tomatoes is not absorbed as completely as five grams of protein from an egg.
  • You don’t digest 100% of any food you eat, and cellulose (abundant in ‘high protein’ greens) causes a notable amount of protein to pass through your system undigested. For instance, even though spinach is 30% protein by calorie (about 1 gram per cup), you’ll only be absorbing and utilizing a fraction of this—unless you’ve juiced the spinach or chewed each bite for ten minutes.
  • The highest-energy raw foods (fruits and fats) are also the lowest-protein whole foods in existence, but these are what form the bulk of most raw diets. Refined raw foods such as oils automatically lower your protein intake by providing calories without any amino acids.
  • Modern fruit is verifiably lower in protein than wild, uncultivated fruit, and many nuts (such as almonds) are surprisingly low in protein.

Although full-blown protein deficiency diseases—such as marasmus and kwashiorkor—are rare if you’re eating adequate calories, chronically low protein will rear its ugly head with symptoms like these:

  • Hair loss or changes in your hair texture (brittleness, thinness, breakability)
  • Slow healing time for cuts and wounds
  • General fatigue and weakness
  • Loss of muscle tone and strength
  • More frequent colds and illnesses (easy to mistake for detox)
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fainting and dizziness
  • Breakable, brittle nails, and nails with ridges forming

If you’re eating a 100% raw vegan diet, the best way to get enough protein is to be very physically active. Exercise. Run. Walk. Lift weights. Hike. Swim. Bike. Punch things. Climb your neighbor’s pear tree when they aren’t home (but don’t tell them I told you to). Increasing your calorie requirements allows you to eat more food, which means more total protein for the tummy. You’ll be burning the additional glycogen through physical movement, while your body uses the protein for its routine repair and maintenance work.

It’s not a coincidence that many of the most successful raw foodists are also athletes. This diet is not compatible with sedentary living, and eating a  low-calorie raw vegan cuisine is mighty difficult to pull off in the long run.

What about the chimps (and other apes) that get all their protein from fruits and leaves?

There aren’t any. No primate is vegan, and all of them consume at least a modest amount of overt protein. Chimpanzees, for instance, ‘fish’ for termites (which they seem to find pretty tasty) and also hunt small mammals, both of which provide considerable protein.

In addition, many of the higher primates—such as leaf-chompin’ gorillas—are known as hindgut fermenters, which means they use special microbes in their colon to break down cellulose for energy. Due to their specialized digestive systems, which are not identical to humans’ (although I’ve heard this claim before), they’re able to extract nutrition from matter we can’t digest.

Thirdly: wild fruit is up to twice as high in protein as the cultivated fruit we find in stores. Check back for a future post on this subject. Whereas a raw diet (without the addition of raw protein powders or other supplements) will average 5 – 10% protein by calorie, wild primate diets are double, even triple this amount.

What about cows, who get huge eating nothing but grass?

Cows have a four-compartment stomach and “cud” chewing abilities (where they repeatedly eat and regurgitate food to be re-chewed) that allows them to extract nutrition—including protein—from otherwise indigestible sources. In one compartment of the stomach called the rumen, cows have microbes that help them to synthesize amino acids from non-protein sources such as ammonia. Alas, humans have a digestive system so vastly different than cows’ that a comparison between the two is pretty pointless.

Part 2 coming up next…

19 comments

  1. Your sanity, as evident in your writing, is such a welcome relief. re: the spinach, are you saying it is better to juice, say, a pound of spinach than blend it in a smoothie to facilitate protein absorption better ?

    1. Thank you for the compliment!

      For protein (and other nutrient) absorption alone, juicing does have the upper hand. But both blending and juicing have their own benefits so I wouldn’t call one better than the other in the grand scheme of things. Different advantages for each.

      Generally, if your digestion is good and you “chew” the smoothie instead of just chugging it down, there won’t be a huge difference between juicing greens and blending them. Juicing is most helpful for people with impaired digestion, higher-than-normal protein needs, or who just don’t chew their food properly (which most people don’t!).

  2. There ARE gorillas, Orangutans and bonobos that get all their protein from fruits and leaves.

    You said no primate is vegan. False. Not only are the above vegan, but so am I, and millions of other people. ….

    professional athletes and Olympic superstars:

    Four-time Mr. Universe Bill Pearl, powerlifting champion
    Bill Mannetti, 1951 Mr. America ,
    Stan Price, the world-record holder in bench press,
    and football player and Heisman
    Trophy-winner Desmond Howard all reportedly did not eat meat.

    Martina Navratilova and Dave Scott, a six-time winner of the Ironman triathlon,
    have repeatedly beaten their carnivorous competitors.
    Swimmer Murray Rose, a vegetarian since birth, has six Olympic medals.
    Debbie Lawrence is an Olympic racewalking champ, and discus thrower Al
    Oerter has won at least four Olympic gold medals.
    Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses
    “Olympian of the Century” Carl Lewis has said that his best year of track competition was the first year that he ate a vegan diet.

    Saved perhaps the best for last. ….

    The ULTRA-marathon (100 mile race within 22 hours) Most wins – VEGAN Scott Jurek. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Jurek

    1. Hi Gary, thanks for the comment. I agree that there are many amazing vegan athletes out there, accomplishing incredible feats and redefining the limits of the human body. In fact, if you read the entry I wrote after this one, you’ll see that I actually say being athletic (or extremely active) is the best way to make a raw vegan diet work; the extra food you consume provides more protein than someone would get on a sedentary lifestyle consuming very little.

      However, I’m also talking specifically about a raw vegan diet, not cooked vegan (where it’s considerably easier to get enough protein through soy, legumes, etc.). Are the athletes you listed up there also raw? If not, we’re comparing apples and oranges here.🙂

      Have you ever studied primates in the wild? If you read up on primatology — not just from pro-vegan resources, but from researchers and scientists who work with primates — you’ll find that no gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, etc. are actually vegan. They all consume insects, many consume eggs and small mammals, and some (like chimps) even hunt.

  3. not to mention that the one primate that shares the most dna with humans is chimpanzee and compared with the rest of the primates they eat even more “flesh” in form of insects, and small mammals,(mainly other little monkeys)

    and yeah i have seen the hunting chimps in nature documentals and they are a very hard thing to watch (mother nature can be a bitch sometimes, no wait is it wrong to say nature and bitch in the same sentence in a raw blog? sorry)

    in fact correct me if im wrong but i think chimps have enough inteligence to use tools (well, sticks) to get honey from honeycombs (an other animal product)

  4. Denise, you may be overstating the difference in protein digestibility between animal-based foods and plant-based foods.

    You second point states that, “you’ll only be absorbing and utilizing a fraction of this [spinach protein]” which is leading readers to believe only a small quantity of the protein is available. On what grounds are you basing this?

    At pubmed: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16562812, you’ll find that vegetables have a PDCAAS (which is the WHO’s best and current measure for protein quality) that it about 75%. Compared to eggs or whey & soy protein isolates which score about 100%, vegetable intake allows for significant absorption, not the “fraction” as you state.

  5. Denise-

    I am curious to why you don’t cite most of your material. It would be good to know where you obtained your information, seeing that you aren’t a qualified health expert. I am particularly interested in the information that you posted on the side effects of low protein consumption.

    Hair loss or changes in your hair texture (brittleness, thinness, breakability)
    Slow healing time for cuts and wounds
    General fatigue and weakness
    Loss of muscle tone and strength
    More frequent colds and illnesses (easy to mistake for detox)
    Difficulty sleeping
    Fainting and dizziness
    Breakable, brittle nails, and nails with ridges forming

    Thanks for the info, and thanks for your time.

    1. I agree…sources would be beneficial, for a lot of claims are made throughout your blog that tend to be in favor of the paleo movement and rather biased against veg*nism. There are plenty of extremely healthy vegans, and the well-known plant-based doctors have reversed many severe and chronic health issues with a plant-based diet (instead of meds, supps, and paleo eating….sorry, but im not sure how eating dead, acidic, denatured animal flesh, butter, lard, skins, dairy, eggs, etc can be healthy….). Fruits/veggies, nuts/seeds, grains and legumes contain more nutrients than animal products. Look at our anatomy too…we are not built like ur average carnivore

      Im so sick of the “weak/sickly” vegan stereotype. Its so easy to be vegan: focus ur diet on veggies, fruits and round it out with legumes, some glutenfree grains, and small amounts of nuts/seeds, seaweeds, sprouts. Try to consume your fruits raw and at least half of ur veggies raw and lightly steaming the rest of them. If u are an athlete or need to gain muscle/rebuild, then a plant-based/raw pro powder might be a good addition. Otherwise, the diet described provids everything a person needs to thrive. Read “eat to live” and the “eat for health” books by Dr Fuhrman, a man who actually sources and tests his nutritional theories and has had great success healing countless “lost cause” cases. Also check Dr Goldhamer, Dr Klaper, Dr Greiger, Dr Campbell, Dr McDougall, Jeff Novick,….the list goes on…..

  6. Hello! Great post, even though I don’t quite agree that a completely raw vegan diet can provide sufficient protein, let alone the entire spectrum of vitamins and minerals that human bodies need to function properly.
    I just wanted to point out that, if you come to think about that, NO animal is a strict vegan -not even herbovores like cows: there’re always tiny insects, insect eggs and larvas on leaves and grass, and animals consume them while grazing.
    Actually, insects can be a very nutrient-dense source of food, providing highly BV protein, good fat, B-12,iron, vitamin A etc, and that’s probably why vegan or vegetarian populations (e.g. in certain areas of India) that consume their fresh produce without washing them prior to eating, don’t suffer from anemia and other health problems related to a strict vegan diet. Interestingly enough, the same populations turned anemic once they moved to Britain and one can assume it can be because food hygiene is quite different in the so called civilized world.

  7. Do u feel that soy is healthy or not? Lots of debate on this subject.

    The new thing on the market is sprouted tofu…does the sprouting of the soy prevent any of the possible negatives effects that non-sprouted soy has (estrogen, hormonal, thyroid, etc)….similar to how fermented soy is best?

  8. u need sea salt in your stomach to digest your food better. Drink 1 glass of water and then put a pinch of sea salt on your tongue for 30 second. drink 8 glass a day like that. drink when u just wake up . drink 30 min before you eat and 2 hour half after you eat. you will see a big different. no more allergy and no more of that ugly acne.

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