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Spring 2007 - Act•ionLine

Sustaining the 'Active' in Activism: Food as a Part of Fitness, Part II: The Low-Down on Protein & Fat

Sustaining the 'Active' in Activism: Food as a Part of Fitness
Part II: The Low-Down on Protein & Fat

It's one of the most talked-about nutrients for vegetarians. It's also one of the most misunderstood. ?Where do you get your protein?? goes the common question, and, "How do you get enough?"

If some of the strongest, largest and most powerful mammals (elephants, rhinos, silverback gorillas and plenty more) can get enough protein from plants, can we? The simple answer is yes.

While protein is an important nutrient for health, we don?t need a lot. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and World Health Organization recommend no more than 1g per kg of body weight. This works out to about 72g of protein for someone who weighs 160lbs, or 7.6% of about 2,200 calories this person might consume in a day. How much protein is that? Many people would get that much in a single meal.

A vegan can expect about 12-15g of protein in a bowl of cereal with soy milk, 9g in a baked potato, 29g in a Tofurkey soy sausage, 16g in a plate of spaghetti -- it all adds up effortlessly, because our average daily calorie intake will include more than this. On average, fruits and vegetables are at least 10% protein, so eat enough calories, and it?s virtually impossible for you to be deficient in protein.

On the flip side, many common health concerns are attributed to the over-consumption of protein, and specifically animal proteins. Osteoporosis is a big one, due to the acid-forming effects of proteins that can leach calcium from our bones. Joints and muscles can become inflamed, and our liver and kidneys are over-taxed from processing proteins.

As a young researcher, T. Colin Campbell sought ways to get people in financially poor countries to eat more animal proteins: milk, flesh, and eggs. Decades later, after what has been called the most comprehensive study of health and nutrition ever conducted, Campbell concluded that more animal protein does not promote good health.

Dr. Campbell's "China Study" would receive funding from the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research, and encompassed a 20-year partnership of Cornell and Oxford Universities and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. Unfortunately, the research is partly based on the use of nonhuman animals, but it essentially confirms what many people in vegetarian cultures have long known, and what Dr. Campbell?s studies of human children indeed confirmed: People who ate the most plant-based foods were healthiest. The health implications of consuming either animal or plant-based nutrients, moreover, were remarkably different.

Well-off children with high-protein diets, for example, were the most likely to get liver cancer. And casein, which is 87% of the protein in cow's milk, promoted all stages of cancer.

What type of protein did not promote cancer -- even in large amounts? The safe proteins were from plants, including wheat and soy. In sharp contrast, even modest intakes of animal products were associated with adverse effects.

So plants are a superb source of protein -- as well as vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrates and anti-oxidants. This was ideal for Carl Lewis, who cites becoming vegan as one of the top factors in his medal-winning performances in the late 90's. Lewis liked eating, and couldn't eat as much on a "standard" diet without starting to gain weight. But plants are typically nutrient-dense and low in calories, so Lewis went vegan, and saw a performance boost because of it.

But do we need to "combine" proteins? The 22 known amino acids are protein's building blocks. Eight are essential; they must be eaten. The other 14 can be made by the body. Ever heard that you need to eat foods such as beans and rice together, to form a "complete" protein, containing all eight essential amino acids?

This concept was popularized by vegetarian author Frances Moore Lappé in 1971, in the well-known book Diet for a Small Planet. But in 1981, Lappe wrote:

"In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein ... was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.

"With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on (1) fruit or on (2) some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on (3) junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein." 1

In short, we need not worry about protein combining. Here again, a total vegetarian with a reasonably varied diet does just fine.

Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the Algae

Along with carbohydrates and protein, the third macro-nutrient we need is fat. It plays many a vital role, from lubricating joints to providing energy to facilitating key neurological functions. But which ones, of the myriad names we hear -- saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, trans fats, cholesterol, Omega-6, fatty acids? While all fats should be limited to a relatively small portion of our diets, some are healthful and others can be extremely detrimental.

Cholesterol and fat both belong to the lipid family of chemical compounds. We hear from dieticians about the 'bad' cholesterol -- lipoprotein particles that carry fatty acid molecules in blood and around the body and c an lead to cardiovascular disease.

Avoiding saturated fat has the healthful effect of lowering blood cholesterol levels. High rates of heart disease are relatively common where the diet is heavy with meat and dairy products containing a lot of saturated fats.2

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Butter and almost all animal fats are saturated, and almost all saturated fats, according to the Department of Agriculture, come from animal products. Unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, remain liquid at room temperature.

A sub-category of saturated fats that has media attention (and should have yours) is the group called trans fats, also known as hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) oils. Typically from plants, they're processed in a way that allows them to become saturated. They raise cholesterol levels, increasing rates of cardiovascular disease, and creating free radicals in our bodies -- molecules which can damage our cells. Governments in Western countries are finally obliging companies to list the amount of trans fats in products, and some are banning them outright. The optimum amount of trans fats in anyone?s diet is zero.

If you use oil to prepare foods, it's best to get plant-based, cold-pressed oils with minimal processing. In regular grocery stores, a good bet for low-temperature cooking, salad dressings and sauces is extra-virgin olive oil. Extra-virgin means it's derived from the first pressing. Make sure you get organic when possible; it's better for animals and the environment, and better overall for human health.

In health food stores, you can find other cold-pressed oils, like canola, sunflower and sesame oils. These are all unsaturated fats.

An oil's "smoke point" indicates how high a heat the oil can take. Never allow oil to smoke; it compromises nutritional value and releases carcinogenic free radicals. High monounsaturate oils, such as canola, can generally take higher heat than polyunsaturates like safflower, sunflower and soybean.

Most cooking oils are processed to produce a neutral taste and to remove naturally occurring particles that would cause the oil to foam, pop or smoke when subjected to heat. Unfortunately, mass-produced oils are further processed to extend shelf life by adding carcinogenic antioxidants such as BHT, BHA and TBHQ. So choose the better oils, such as Spectrum Naturals. (Notably, Spectrum uses no genetically engineered canola.)

Palm oil contains coconut oil. Coconut butter and oil, along with avocado oil, will solidify at room temperature; yet they act differently in our bodies than animal fats. Evidently, our bodies absorb and use these fats much as we do carbohydrates, so they provide almost immediate energy, with very few of the drawbacks of other saturated fats.

When purchasing, make sure that the coconut oil is cold-pressed and non-hydrogenated. Avoid palm kernel oil, which is far richer in saturated fat than palm oil.

Note also that modern awareness of the dangers associated with trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oil has made palm oil much more popular as an alternative ingredient in packaged products or as a cooking oil. This has put pressure on jungle habitat, home to orang-utans and other animals. Your best bets currently include Fuji Oils and Spectrum Naturals. Fuji supports sustainable palm fruit harvesting. Spectrum purchases its palm oil from DAABON Organic of South America, which claims to be committed to the principles of sustainability and organic production.

Canola is Canada's most widely used oil. The popularity of canola oil is also rising in the United States, probably because it's been discovered to be lower in saturated fat (about 6 percent) than any other oil. This compares to the saturated fat content of peanut oil (about 18 percent) and palm oil (a very high 79 percent). Moreover, a good, cold-pressed canola oil contains more cholesterol-balancing monounsaturated fat than any oil except olive oil. It also has the distinction of containing Omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fat reputed to not only lower both cholesterol and triglycerides, but to contribute to brain growth and development as well. Canola oil is neutral in taste and suitable both for cooking and for salad dressings.3

A final word about Omega 3s and 6s -- the Essential Fatty Acids. Optimum health would mean a ratio of around 4:1 of Omega-6s to Omega-3s in our diets. Most people get too many Omega-6s and too few Omega-3s. One of the best sources of Omega-3s is flax oil. Simply put, Omega-3 fatty acids can be boosted by a teaspoon of flax seed oil per day.

One should not cook with flax oil; instead, add it to salads or smoothies. For beneficial fats, people whose diets rely heavily on raw foods frequently include olives, avocados, almonds, hazelnuts and macadamias. Raw foodists might use ground flax seeds, and flax crisps are very popular in the raw diet.

DHA is a component of Omega-3 that's touted in fish oils, but not present in most plants. Results showing a benefit of fish oil or fatty fish may not apply to vegetarians, because plant-based diets contain a number of protective factors. Most studies showing positive effects of fish consumption have compared diets high in fish to diets high in animal flesh.4 Some vegetarians opt to use DHA supplements from microalgae as a simple way of insuring adequate intake. Udo's Choice, for example, now has a vegetarian DHA oil blend -- from an algae, from whence all fish derive DHA.

Next issue: Helpful supplements for the active vegan!


A delicious example of a recipe using canola oil: Asparagus Soup

From Friends of Animals' highly acclaimed cookbook, Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine

Asparagus is a traditional spring vegetable. Leeks and celery complement it gently. To enjoy this soup at its best, serve it at a springtime gathering.

Serves 4

2 tablespoons canola oil (such as Spectrum Organics)
2 1/2 cups chopped asparagus stalks and tips
1 1/2 cups leeks, mostly white parts, well rinsed and chopped
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1 bay leaf
6 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup soy creamer (available in most health food shops or from grocers with large organic sections)
1 teaspoon salt
Ground pepper


Prepare the asparagus by discarding the tough ends.

Heat the oil in a 4-quart pot, and add the asparagus, leeks, celery, garlic, bay leaf. Sauté over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes. Add the vegetable broth; simmer, partially covered, for about 20 minutes over medium-low heat.

Let cool slightly; then purée mixture in a blender in batches. Return the purée to the pot, season with salt, and pepper to taste. Add soy creamer, and heat thoroughly.



  • 1. Diet for a Small Planet (1981), at 162; emphasis in original (as reprinted at Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ).
  • 2. New York State Office for the Aging, "Cholesterol and Fat: Sorting It Out" (citing the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration).
  • 3. Sharon Tyler Herbst , The Food Lover's Companion (as quoted by the Santa Cruz Public Libraries' Home Page).
  • 4. Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, 'Nutrition Hotline' - Vegetarian Journal (Issue 1, 2005).

Act•ionLine Spring 2007

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