When Friends Ask:
  Where Do You Get Your Protein?
                                             By: John McDougall, M.D.
                                                                                        April 2007  

  If you don’t know where you get
     your protein while following a
      plant-food-based diet, you’re in
     good company.  

                         The Nutrition Committee of the
  American Heart Association,
scientists from the
Human Nutrition Research Center and Medical School at
Tufts University
, and registered dietitians, research nutritionists and
physicians of
Northwestern University, and the Harvard School of Public
are just a few examples of “experts” you look to for advice who have
the protein story wrong.  

Consequences of their shortfall are as grave as a lifetime of sickness and
obesity, and premature death, for innocent people.  These professionals must
be held accountable.  

                                   Ignorance Sickens and Kills People  

Don’t think it matters little if our public policy makers and educators remain
ignorant about our nutritional needs.  Misinformation leads to disastrous

People have serious health problems like heart disease, type-2 diabetes,
multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory arthritis that can be easily resolved by a
diet based solely on plant foods.  

However, advice to make this dietary change may be withheld from you or a
family member because of the erroneous fear that such a diet will result in a
greater catastrophe, like a nutritional collapse from protein deficiency.  

Consider this scenario: Your loving husband of 35 years has a massive heart
attack.  He recovers and both of you pledge you will do anything—even eat
cardboard—in order to avoid a repeat experience.  On your first follow-up visit
you tell your doctor that your family is going to follow a low-fat, vegan diet (all
plant foods) from here on out.  

Your doctor says:
“You can’t do that; you will become protein deficient—plant
foods are missing essential amino acids—you must eat meat and other high
quality animal foods.”  

Even though you vigorously explain meat, dairy, and eggs are the reasons
you almost lost your husband, your doctor insists that you would be foolish to
embark on such a course and defends that position with the writings of the
Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association.  

The Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association Has It Wrong  

In an October 2001 research paper published in the
Heart Association’s
journal, Circulation, the Healthcare Professionals from the Nutrition Committee
of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism
wrote: “Although
plant proteins form a large part of the human diet, most are deficient in 1 or
more essential amino acids and are therefore regarded as incomplete

My letter to the editor correcting this often quoted, but incorrect information,
about the adequacy of amino acids found in plants was published in the June
2002 issue of
Circulation.  Another letter from me in the November 2002 issue
Circulation demanded a correction.  

But, the head of the nutrition committee, Barbara Howard, PhD, would not
admit she was wrong and used research from the world’s leading expert on
protein, Professor Joe Millward, to defend her position.   

Joe Millward, PhD, Professor of
Human Nutrition, University of Surrey
(England), reviewed the published letters of disagreement between the
American Heart Association (AHA) and myself, and wrote the following to me
on July 10, 2003:

“I thought I had made my position quite clear in my published papers.  In an
article I wrote for Encyclopedia of Nutrition I said: ‘Contrary to general opinion,
the distinction between dietary protein sources in terms of the nutritional
superiority of animal over plant proteins is much more difficult to demonstrate
and less relevant in human nutrition.’  This is quite distinct from the AHA
position which in my view is wrong.”

I informed the
American Heart Association about Dr. Millward’s position, but
so far they have chosen to remain silent—and annually, 1.25 million people in
the USA alone suffer with heart attacks—an often fatal condition entirely
preventable by following a low-fat diet based solely on plant foods—all of
which contain all of the essential amino acids in ideal amounts for humans.  

                   Plants--The Original Sources of Protein and Amino Acids  

Proteins are made from chains of 20 different amino acids that connect
together in varying sequences—similar to how all the words in a dictionary are
made from the same 26 letters.  

Plants (and microorganisms) can synthesize all of the individual amino acids
that are used to build proteins, but animals cannot.  There are 8 amino acids
that people cannot make and thus, these must be obtained from our diets—
they are referred to as

After we eat our foods, stomach acids and intestinal enzymes digest the
proteins into individual amino acids.  These components are then absorbed
through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream.  After entering the body’s
cells, these amino acids are reassembled into proteins.  

Proteins function as structural materials which build the scaffoldings that
maintain cell shapes, enzymes which catalyze biochemical reactions, and
hormones which signal messages between cells—to name only a few of their
vital roles.  

plants are made up of structurally sound cells with enzymes and
hormones, they are by nature rich sources of
proteins.  In fact, so rich are
that they can meet the protein needs of the
earth’s largest animals: elephants, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and cows.  

You would be correct to deduce that the
protein needs of relatively small
humans can easily be met by

                                People Require Very Little Protein  

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that men and women
obtain 5% of their calories as protein.  This would mean 38 grams of protein
for a man burning 3000 calories a day and 29 grams for a woman using 2300
calories a day.  This quantity of protein is impossible to avoid when daily
calorie needs are met by unrefined starches and vegetables.  

For example, rice alone would provide 71 grams of highly useable protein and
white potatoes would provide 64 grams of protein.  

Our greatest time of growth—thus, the time of our greatest need for protein—
is during our first 2 years of life—we double in size.  At this vigorous
developmental stage our ideal food is human milk, which is 5% protein.  
Compare this need to food choices that should be made as adults—when we
are not growing.  

Rice is 8% protein, corn 11%, oatmeal 15%, and beans 27%.  Thus protein
deficiency is impossible when calorie needs are met by eating unprocessed
starches and vegetables.  

The healthy active lives of hundreds of millions of people laboring in Asia,
Africa, and Central and South America on diets with less than half the amount
of protein eaten by Americans and Europeans prove that the popular
understanding of our protein needs is seriously flawed.  

                Faulty Observations Lead to High Protein Recommendations  

People commonly believe: the more protein consumed the better.  This faulty
thinking dates back to the late 1800s, and was established without any real
scientific research.  An assumption was made that people who could afford to
do so would instinctively select a diet containing the right amount of protein.  

After observing the diets of laborers, soldiers, and workers in Western Europe
and the USA, recommendations of 100 and 189 grams of protein a day were

People’s innate ability to select a proper diet is disproved by the present day
popularity of burger joints, donut shops, and pizza parlors.  

Further confusion about our protein needs came from studies of the
nutritional needs of animals.  For example, Mendel and Osborne in 1913
reported rats grew better on animal, than on vegetable, sources of protein.  A
direct consequence of their studies resulted in meat, eggs, and dairy foods
being classified as superior, or
"Class A" protein sources and vegetable
proteins designated as inferior, or "Class B" proteins.  

Seems no one considered that rats are not people.  One obvious difference in
their nutritional needs is rat milk is 11 times more concentrated in protein than
is human breast milk.  The extra protein supports this animal’s rapid growth to
adult size in 5 months; while humans take 17 years to fully mature.  

The recent popularity of high protein diets has further popularized the fallacy
“more protein is good for you.”  

True, high protein diets, like
Atkins, will make you sick enough to lose your
appetite and temporarily lose weight, but this fact should not be extrapolated
to mean high protein is healthy—in fact, the opposite is true.  

                  The Truth Has Been Known for More than a Century  

In 1903, the head of Yale’s department of biochemistry, Professor Russell
Henry Chittenden, reported profound health benefits gained by cutting
popular recommendations for protein held at his time by half to two-thirds
(from 150 grams to 50 grams daily).  His research included detailed dietary
histories and laboratory studies of his subjects.  

In the 1940s, William Rose performed experiments on people, which found
daily minimum protein needs to be about 20 grams a day.  Further research on
men found single plant foods consumed in an amount sufficient to meet daily
needs easily met these human requirements for all 8 essential amino acids.  

Dr. Rose's studies concluded that vegetable foods contain more than enough
of all the amino acids essential for humans.   

                       You Don’t Need Beans or to “Combine” Your Foods  

Many investigators have measured the capacity of plant foods to satisfy
protein needs.  Their findings show that children and adults thrive on diets
based on single or combined starches, and grow healthy and strong.  

Furthermore, no improvement has been found from mixing plant foods or
supplementing them with amino acid mixtures to make the combined amino
acid pattern look more like that of flesh, milk, or eggs.  In fact, supplementing a
food with an amino acid in order to conform to a contrived reference standard
can create amino acid imbalances.  

For example, young children fed diets based on wheat or corn and
supplemented with the amino acids tryptophan and methionine in order to
conform to the standard requirements set by the
Food and Agriculture
of the United Nations (FAO) developed negative responses in
terms of nitrogen balance (the body's utilization of protein).   

People who are worried about getting sufficient protein will sometimes ask me
if they can still follow the
McDougall Diet if they do not like beans.  Any single
starch or vegetable will provide in excess of our needs for total protein and
essential amino acids—thus there is no reason to rely on beans or make any
efforts to food combine different plant foods to improve on Nature’s own
marvelous creations.  

                    Potatoes Alone Suffice  

Many populations, for example people in rural Poland and Russia at the turn of
the 19th century, have lived in very good health doing extremely hard work
with the white potato serving as their primary source of nutrition.  

One landmark experiment carried out in 1925 on two healthy adults, a man 25
years old and a woman 28 years old had them live on a diet primarily of white
potatoes for 6 months.  (A few additional items of little nutritional value except
for empty calories—pure fats, a few fruits, coffee, and tea—were added to their

The report stated,
“They did not tire of the uniform potato diet and there was no
craving for change.”
 Even though they were both physically active (especially
the man) they were described as,
“…in good health on a diet in which the
nitrogen (protein) was practically solely derived from the potato.”  

The potato is such a great source of nutrition that it can supply all of the
essential protein and amino acids for young children in times of food
shortage.  Eleven Peruvian children, ages 8 months to 35 months, recovering
from malnutrition, were fed diets where all of the protein and 75% of the
calories came from potatoes.  

(Soybean-cottonseed oils and pure simple sugars, neither of which contains
protein, vitamins, or minerals, provided some of the extra calories.)  
Researchers found that this simple potato diet provided all the protein and
essential amino acids to meet the needs of growing and small children.  

                        Excess Protein Causes Diseases of Over-Nutrition

Unlike fat, protein cannot be stored.  When it is consumed in excess of our
needs, protein is broken down mostly by the liver, and partly by the kidneys
and muscles.  Consumption in excess of our needs overworks the liver and
kidneys, and can cause accumulation of toxic protein byproducts.  

Proteins are made of amino acids, and are, therefore, acidic by nature.  Animal
proteins are abundant in sulfur-containing amino acids, which break down
into very powerful sulfuric acid.  

These kinds of amino acids are abundant in hard cheese, red meat, poultry,
seafood, and eggs, and their acids must be neutralized by buffers found in the
bones.  The bones dissolve to release the buffering materials; eventually
resulting in a condition of weakened bones, known as

Released bone materials often settle and coalesce in the kidney system,
causing kidney stones.  Fruits and vegetables are largely alkaline, preserving
bone health and preventing kidney stones.  Diseases of over-nutrition are
directly connected to planet health, too.  

Recommendations to eat animal foods for protein have resulted in an
environmental catastrophe.  Livestock produces 18% of the greenhouse
gases; these food-animals occupy 26 percent of the ice-free surface of the
Earth and 33 percent of the total arable land is used to produce their food.  
One telling tragedy is they account for the deforestation of 70 percent of
Amazon rainforests, which act as the
“lungs of the Earth.”  

                             Protein Deficiency Is Really Food Deficiency  

How many cases of the so-called “protein deficiency state” kwashiorkor, have
you seen?  I have never seen a case, even though I have known thousands of
people on a plant-food based diet.  

How about those starving children in Africa?  The picture one often sees of
stick-thin children with swollen bellies in famine areas of Asia or Africa is
actually one of starvation and is more accurately described as

When these children come under medical supervision, they are nourished
back to health with their local diets of corn, wheat, rice, and/or beans.  Children
recovering from starvation grow up to l8 times faster than usual and require a
higher protein content to provide for their catch-up in development—and plant
foods easily provide this extra amount of protein.  

Even very-low protein starchy root crops, such as cassava root, are sufficient
enough in nutrients, including protein, to keep people healthy.  

                          Starving People Die of Fat, Not Protein, Deficiency  

In 1981, 10 Irish prisoners from the Republican Army (IRA) went on a hunger
strike.  Nine out of 10 of these men died between 57 and 73 days (mean of 61.6
days) of starvation after losing about 40% of their body weights (the remaining
striker died of complications of a gunshot wound).  

This experience gave doctors a chance to observe first hand the metabolic
changes that occur during starvation.  Protein stores were generally protected
during starvation, with most of the energy to stay alive being derived from the
men’s fat stores.  

It was estimated that the hunger strikers had lost up to 94% of their body-fat
levels, but only 19% of their body-protein levels at the time of death.  They died
when they ran out of fat.  Since fat is more critical than protein, people should
be asking,
“Where do you get your fat” (on any diet)?  

Since Nature designed her plant foods complete, with abundant amounts of
fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals,
“Where do you get a specific
is almost never a relevant question, as long as there is enough to

So, why have scientists, dietitians, medical doctors, diet-book authors, and the
lay public become fixated on a non-existent problem?  Protein is synonymous
with eating meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs—the foods traditionally
consumed by the wealthier people in a society—thus, protein-eating means
higher social status.  

High-protein foods are also high-profit foods.  Therefore, propagating the
protein myth is motivated by egos and money—and the usual consequences
of pain and suffering follow closely behind these two human frailties.  

By: John McDougall, M.D.  www.drmcdougall.com  

When Friends Ask: Where Do You Get Your Protein?