Chews Life Now: Breaking the protein myth

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Author of Chews Life Now Carolyn R. Choate, a lifelong foodie, has discovered a deeper relationship between health and diet.*

CHEWS LIFE NOW 1Humans are creatures of habit. Often bad ones, without knowing it. Take breakfast. What’s your go-to?  Yogurt with fruit and granola? A bagel with cream cheese? A fried egg on an English muffin with some deli ham? Maybe a donut or pumpkin muffin with one of dozens of sweet and/or creamy coffee concoctions available at the drive-through ‘cause, duh, TGIF! (And you deserve it.) Or perhaps it’s Sunday and you show love for the fam with your famous homemade buttermilk pancakes with creamy butter and New Hampshire’s best maple syrup and sides of sausage patties or nitrate-free bacon and home fries. Don’t forget the requisite OJ and prosecco combo.

Wake up, peeps! Breakfasts like these do not nourish the body for the day – or for the life – ahead. And isn’t that the goal? Happy, healthy longevity? That’s my MO! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But before I share recipes for avocado toast or sprouted oats with vanilla soy milk and rich, chopped dates or Middle Eastern bean salad jazzed with Za’atar on wild rice, among other whole food, plant-based (WFPB) options – and strategies for staying and enjoying life in the WFPB lane – let’s look under the hood.

Newsflash:  people don’t need as much protein as they think, and they don’t need it from animal sources. 

How and why homo sapiens came to believe they need mega animal protein to be healthy dates to the 1870s when German scientist, Carl von Voit, the father of dietetics, determined that the body needed 118 grams of protein per day to maintain proper muscle when exerting oneself for work. While conducting studies on dogs. (You can’t make this stuff up.) 

Dubbed “animal energetics,” social scientist Josh Berson, author of The Meat Question, (MIT Press, 2019) says the research really boiled down to “the science of animal starvation” as scientists withheld food from dogs while forcing them to perform any number of commands until they died in an attempt to understand the least amount of animal protein needed to sustain life. IMO, our four-footed best friends were murdered.

Nonetheless, it was generally acknowledged among the scientific set at the time that, to achieve von Voit’s average protein requirement of 118 grams daily, one would have to resort to eating animal protein which is, without a doubt, high in protein.  Just three ounces of red meat has 21 grams of protein.  

But along came vegetarian reformers and scientists Mikkel Hindhede and Carl Rose, who conducted experiments of their own.  They found no negative physical effects on those consuming less than 30 grams of protein a day despite a hard day’s work.  Their research didn’t catch on until World War I when food rationing and shortages took their toll, especially on the meat supply.  

According to Berman, “To most of the people involved in the [protein] debate around these questions, the underlying policy concern was clear:  How much meat is needed to maintain an industrial labor force – not to say a modern army or navy?”

About the current protein guidelines.

The controversy continues – as evidenced by lots of unfounded Instagram posts – but I’m sticking to the less is more prescription from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutritional Studies at Cornell:  8-10% of daily caloric intake or 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.   For me, at 130 lbs., I strive for 48 grams of protein daily – from plant sources.  

Here’s what the good doctor has to say: “Eating a varied whole food, plant-based diet will naturally provide approximately 10% of protein from total calories.”  

Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s recommendations for Dietary Guidelines (nutritionstudies.org)

I’ve bled a lot of ink here without addressing why animal protein compromises health but the biggest, by far, is inflammation. Unabated, inflammation is deadly on the human body. I will summarize a few of the most profound examples in this and upcoming articles.  While many vegetarians and vegans avoid animal protein because they prioritize animal welfare – and I will always defend their cause as noble – I submit that people should, likewise, have the same empathy and regard for the welfare of their own bodies and those of others.  

Eating animal protein is not in our best interest for optimal health nor is agri-business in the best interest of a sustainable environment.  (More on the environmental impacts of an animal-based diet in future posts also.) 

Consider the trinity of disease in the United States . . . cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.  Let’s break it all the way down for you Freakonomics types.  

The latest census, 2021, has the U.S. population at 331.9 million.

*Number of Americans with cardiovascular disease   82.6 million

*Number of Americans with type 2 diabetes               37.3 million

*Number of Americans with new cancer diagnosis +    1.9 million

            121.8 million people living with suboptimal health

*Figures derived from the National Institutes of Health 

37% of Americans are struggling to live their best lives. Are you one of them or joining their ranks soon because of dietary choices? 

Clearly, cardiovascular disease is public enemy #1. Yet many of the leading cardiologists in the nation – Caldwell Esselstyne and Dean Ornish among them – concur that 80% of heart disease is preventable. Meanwhile, in a recent American Heart Association report, we’re shelling out $320 billion a year in preventative cardiac care for statins and ACE inhibitors, ER visits, insurance claims, nursing care, blah, blah, blah. As WFPB advocate and NYT best-selling How Not to Die author Dr. Michael Greger says, “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” 

What exactly is going on? The Standard American Diet (SAD) i.e., the typical animal protein diet – both meat and dairy – of Americans, is 30 – 50% fat. A whole food, plant-based diet is 10 – 12% fat.  The human body is an intricate machine but despite the amount of abuse it can endure, there comes a time when the machine begins to break down. 

One major source of inflammation from animal protein starts in the gut or microbiome.  In the form of TMAO.  That’s short for trimethylamine N-oxide.  Turns out that, when a cocktail of chemicals only found in animal-derived sources including dairy, meat, and eggs, combines with the natural bacteria in your microbiome, TMAO is produced and, guess what? The caustic concoction is associated with some serious systemic inflammatory conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, cancer, and liver disease. (Cleveland Heart Lab, 2011)  

In 2019, Harvard Health Publishing noted three studies in JAMA linking high blood levels of TMAO with a higher risk for both cardiovascular disease and early death from any cause. 

Scientists are finding that TMAO causes cholesterol to metabolize in various ways that causes inflammation as well as endothelial dysfunction and platelet activation. (Gut Microbiota-Derived TMAO: A Causal Factor Promoting Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease? Int J Mol Sci 2023)

TMAO inflammation can be avoided with a whole food, plant-based diet.  Eating green, leafy vegetables 6 times a day with balsamic vinegar, for example, is highly beneficial for the microbiome, protecting the body from oxidative stress, inhibiting clot formation, and proactively fortifying the integrity of your arteries.

As for eating seafood, it increases TMAO levels in the blood and urine, but it is unclear what effects this has on heart health. (TMAO, A Seafood-Derived Molecule, Produces Diuresis and Reduces Mortality in Heart Failure Rats; PMC, June 9, 2020) Except for a once-a-year Maryland crab cake, I have removed seafood from my diet as well.  

In the case of coronary artery disease or CAD, cholesterol – which, remember, is only found in animal sources – sticks to the endothelium lining of the artery as it travels through blood vessels. Picture a row of soft plate-style Lego blocks end-to-end covering the exterior of your arteries. The endothelium acts as a kind of shield working hard to keep destructive goop at bay to allow vital blood flow to the heart.  

Here’s an analogy. Think of the pipes under your kitchen sink after continually dumping bacon grease down the drain. Who does that?  Who pours hot bacon grease down their kitchen sink and thinks it won’t become clogged at some point?  

If the bacon grease example is too graphic for you, swap the bacon for cheese, another animal protein, and compare it to the cholesterol and fat in black beans: 

1 Cup Cheddar Cheese (Animal-based) 1 Cup Black Beans (Whole food, plant-based)

               531 Calories                                                       241 Calories

               33 g Protein*                                                     15.24 Protein*

               118.65 mg Cholesterol                                     0 Cholesterol

               23.83 g Saturated Fat                                      0.24 Saturated Fat

*Note: 2 cups of black beans have just about as much protein as 1 cup of cheddar cheese; in other words, replacing animal protein isn’t rocket science.

Just like those pipes under your sink, cholesterol and/or plaque continues to build up on the inside of your artery walls over time – narrowing the artery and restricting blood flow.  When seriously restricted, you’ve reached a new level of dangerous:  atherosclerosis. At this point, if the cholesterol becomes oxidized within the endothelium, chances are it will become toxic with inflammation. Typically, a heart attack ensues if the plaque ruptures as the body naturally addresses the sudden rupture by forming a blood clot, which blocks the artery from blood flow. As such, one is now suffering from an advanced stage of CAD, obstructive coronary artery disease.   

Before I go any further, take note that there are numerous studies finding evidence of CAD in all American children by the age of 10. (Just search the online index of the National Library of Medicine.) That’s right; their tiny endothelium is getting clogged from diets high in fat and processed foods and little in the way of fresh vegetables and fruits.  With what passes for routine fare – take-out, fast food, processed foods – no one should be surprised, and no socio-economic group is spared. We’re giving our children a jumpstart towards adult-onset disease. And we now know that pregnant women eating hot dogs, bacon, and/or other processed meats increases the chance of their newborn or toddler being exposed to cancer-causing chemicals.  (Transplacental transfer of nitrosodimethylamine in perfused human placenta. March 2009) Scientists suspect 30-40% of childhood brain tumors are related to the placental passing of nitrosodimethylamine carcinogens.

But heart disease doesn’t happen overnight, the average age for Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery (CABG) surgery is 66. About 72 % are men. (Cleveland Clinic) The survival rate is 33% at 15 years for those with local impairment. (American Heart Association.)  

Speaking of habits, what about the admirable habit of Americans purchasing life insurance in the event of tragedy so their families are taken care of? Or the forward-thinking habit of Americans investing in retirement accounts over their careers so they can enjoy the golden years?  You know where I’m going with this. And I know you know new habits can be hard to adopt. Scientifically?  According to the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, it takes about 21 days to form a new eating habit. I went cold turkey. Cancer is a strong motivator. I did my homework studying the latest university research in epigenetic nutrition – more about that cool stuff later – because I figured I had to kick cancer in the ass before it kicked mine. 1.5 years later, I’m winning and 35 pounds lighter. 

Let me help you kick the animal-protein habit to improve your long-range health. You don’t need it and the inflammation it produces is destructive to the body. Go cold turkey or begin with breakfast. Here are a few of my favorites and always remember, chews life!


Avocado Toast with Tomatoes and/or Banana/Peanut Butter/Soymilk Smoothie

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  • 2 Slices Organic Ezekiel 4:9 Bread Toasted
  • 1 Ripe Organic Avocado – Mashed
  • 1 Ripe Organic Tomato – Sliced
  • Fresh, Organic Basil Leaves

330 Calories (Halve if having 1slice)

  12.5 Grams Protein

    0 Cholesterol

Smoothie

  • 1 Frozen Organic Banana 
  • 1 Cup Organic Unsweetened Soymilk
  • 3 Tbsp Organic Unsweetened Peanutbutter
  • Ice (Optional)

475 Calories 

  20.3 Grams Protein

    0 Cholesterol

  • ½ Orange

22.5 Calories

  0.4 Grams Protein

     0 Cholesterol


Overnight Oats with Fruit & Nuts

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In a Mason jar or jar with twist lid, add ½ cup or 1 cup Organic Rolled Oats with equal amount plant-based milk and mix. (I use soymilk for high protein value.) Top with choice of fruit and nuts. I added dates, blueberries, and walnuts for anti-inflammatory properties with a swirl of pomegranate syrup for a dash of extra natural but nutritious sweetness. Place in refrigerator overnight and enjoy the next morning! 

Per 1 Cup Serving: 

366 Calories (without fruit & nuts)

  35.35 Grams Protein

    0 Cholesterol


Kidney Beans with Wild Rice, Seasoned with Olive Oil & Za’Atar

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Cultures across the globe have been eating rice and beans for breakfast for thousands of years and no wonder! The combo supplies a protein punch. I make the dish sing in my mouth with a Middle Eastern spice staple, Za’Atar.  It’s a blend of oregano, sesame seeds, coriander, and, most importantly, sumac.  OMG! I use it so much I buy it in bulk through Amazon but you can find it in just about any grocery store spice aisle.  

This recipe is a no-brainer.  Cook the rice as directed, get a ½ cup serving and top with ½ cup kidney beans, mix spice mix with olive oil and dress. Bingo! Eat hot or cold.

  • ½ cup Organic Drained/Rinsed Kidney Beans
  • ½ cup Organic Cooked Wild Rice
  • 2 Tbsp Organic Olive Oil
  • 1 tsp Za’atar Spice Blend

829 Calories

47.35 Grams Protein 

  0 Cholesterol 


Oatmeal Breakfast Muffins (from nutritionstudies.org)

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  • 2½ cups rolled oats
  • ½ cup oat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • 4 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1 apple, grated
  • ½ cup non-dairy milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ cup raisins (I used fresh blueberries)
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts, optional
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In large bowl combine and whisk together dry ingredients.
  3. In small bowl combine bananas, apple, non-dairy milk, vanilla and stir until well combined.
  4. Add wet ingredients to dry and combine well. Fold in raisins and walnuts, if using.
  5. If using a 6-muffin tin bake for 45 minutes. If using a 12-muffin tin, bake for 35 minutes.

(Full Disclosure:  I do not have the nutritional value of this recipe but given the ingredients, it contains no cholesterol.) 


*Editor’s Note: The writer’s experiences and observations are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to provide medical advice about the avoidance, diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Medical advice should be sought from a qualified healthcare professional.

 


 

About this Author

Carolyn R. Choate

Carolyn overcame stage 3 breast cancer in 2003 because she thought she knew a lot about health and food. Turns out she didn’t know beans about health food. But all that changed on March 2, 2022 - the day after she was diagnosed with advanced Hurthle Cell thyroid cancer - when she joined the epigenetic diet revolution. Using phytochemicals found in nature’s astonishing bounty of plants, she reclaimed her life and earned her certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Campbell Colin Center for Nutritional Studies through eCornell to help herself and others suffering from chronic disease. Carolyn is passionate about sharing all the life-affirming reasons to be vegan.