Complete Protein: Is Meat Our New Magic Pill?

“If you cut out animal products on your own diet, you’re going to have a full time job making sure you get enough protein.”  Such was the reaction of a concerned friend this morning when I mentioned I’m seriously considering a gradual but radical total diet overhaul: cutting out grain because I already have and my migraines have decreased significantly, and eventually cutting out meat and dairy as well.  My reasons for this are quite simple.  I’ve been ill and in pain for a while, and I would like to not be ill and in pain if there is any possibility of that.  I’d also like to not be on ten different medications by the time I’m forty.  I’m already a fifth of the way there.

So I started doing the thing I do when I don’t know what else to do.  I started doing self-powered research.  If any of my high school teachers are reading this, I know I probably disappointed you in some way or other with my dismal papers, but I didn’t particularly care about the state of coal plants in China.  (At least I think that was the topic.)  However, when I care about something, I can find out a lot in a limited amount of time.  So first, a glimpse into my research process.

The Process

  1. Assume Nothing: As soon as you assume something, you’ve decided it’s true, regardless of whether or not you’ve undertaken to research it yourself.  We do this with any number of accepted “scientific truths” nowadays.  Some of them are true.  Some of them are mostly true.  Some of them, fifty years down the road, will be known as a bunch of crock.  Some of them have already been recanted but no one knows that.
  2. Do Not Limit Source Type:  All sources have bias, even those trustworthy medical studies we’ve heard so much about.  That’s not to say they should all summarily be discarded, but in the age where Wikipedia is now accepted as a starting point for college essays?  Well, it’s best not to write off anything.
  3. Dig Deeper:  If you find a term you don’t know, learn the definition.  If you encounter concepts you can’t explain or have never truly examined, examine them.

That’s pretty much it.  Oh, and last and most important, QUESTION EVERYTHING.  Question every molecule of everything said to you, everything you read, and everything you think you already know.  Chances are, you don’t know as much as you think.  I know I didn’t.  Still don’t.

The Myth of Complete Proteins

Okay, okay, before I’m lynched, what have we, as Americans, even as urbanized populations worldwide, been taught for the last several decades?  We need animal products in our diet.  Since the 1970’s, the reason cited has been this idea of complete protein.  And yet I’d bet more than half of us don’t even think about what that phrase really means.  I didn’t until this morning.  The reason I did was because of my friend’s comment.

The concern stemmed from the fact that because I can’t eat grain – yes, this is a thing for me, discovered recently – I will be unable to eat foods containing complete protein, and I would also be unable to utilize a concept known as protein complimenting, basically blending various plant foods to obtain all the essential amino acids found in complete proteins.

So what is an essential amino acid?

An essential nutrient of any kind is one your body can’t make itself out of stuff you eat.  Here’s the part where I get a bit sciencey.  I promise, there’s a good reason.  The human body needs 20 different amino acids.  TWENTY, people!  Of those, we are able to make just over half.

The nine we can’t make are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

A food considered an “incomplete protein” is a food that contains some, but not all, of these amino acids.  The idea of protein complementing actually came about in the 1971 edition of Diet for a Small Planet, which advocated not meat, but plants, and ensuring that plants that contained complementing sets of amino acids were consumed at the same time.

So that’s when my logic center kicked in and went, “Hold it, but the human body is fully capable of pulling individual nutrients from a variety of food sources.  Why must we have a single food that contains ALL of the essential amino acids?  If our body is capable of distinguishing Vitamin A from Vitamin B, and B6 from B12, and tryptophan from isoleucine, and pulling them from whatever food they’re in, isn’t it just as feasible that we simply need to ensure a variety of food sources that contain these aminos?”

Something smells fishy to me…

Steak: The Magic Bullet

How would you like your steak cooked?
How would you like your steak cooked?

Well, after that thought hit, I went to Google again, and I typed in this phrase: plant foods containing…

And I filled in every individual amino acid.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here’s most of the foods I found.

  • Soy showed up in over half of the lists
  • Green vegetables – from spinach to asparagus – abounded in over half of the lists, not always overlapping with soy
  • Beans appeared in nearly two thirds of the lists
  • Seeds, such as pumpkin, appeared in at least one third of the lists
  • Nuts appeared in a similar number to beans, often the same lists
  • Lentils sprung up as well
  • Squash made some appearances
  • Root crops like potatoes and radishes
  • Grains – though I can’t eat them – also cropped up
  • Fruits like melon and citrus
  • Mushrooms

All of these popped up in at least one list.  While it’s true, the only items that popped up in ALL the lists were animal-based, I’m wondering if this is yet another example of the Magic Pill Syndrome that we, as humans, have fallen to over and over again?  Do we need a single, all containing source of that list of nine amino acids when, with creative combining of a variety of plant based foods, we can obtain all nine of them anyway, and without the saturated fat, as well as adding a lot more fiber and trace nutrients in the mix?

I don’t know.  I’m not a scientist, and I don’t claim to have all the answers.  A lot of this started a few years ago when I watched Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead on Netflix, followed by Forks Over Knives, and yesterday Food Choices.  Those documentaries didn’t convince me.  But they did get me to start questioning.  This post is a result of taking it further.  Share your thoughts in the comments, because I know this is an uncommon way of thinking, and I WANT to be challenged.  It’s how we grow as people.

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