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Provision #773: Perfect Protein

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Quantity, when it comes to protein, is generally not a problem. Most people in the developed world actually eat too much protein. But do we eat the right proteins for health and wellness? Do we even know what the right proteins are? From the standpoint of evolutionary nutrition, the answer is clear: people evolved eating non-starchy fruits and vegetables along with nuts, seeds, eggs, wild game, and wild fish. Those are the proteins our bodies digest most easily, and those are the proteins that many people are rediscovering today. If you want to make them a part of your diet, then this Provision is for you. It will point you to sources and formulas for success.

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One of the best advancements in the 2010 edition of the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, compared to what came out in 2005, is that the new guidelines say a lot of helpful things about protein (whereas the 2005 guidelines said practically nothing about this vital macro nutrient). Here are the highlights:
  • Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils.
  • In addition to calories, protein provides amino acids that assist in building and preserving body muscle and tissues.
  • Inadequate protein intake in the United States is rare.
  • Recommended protein proportion by age: 1-3 Years, 5-20%; 4-18 years, 10-30%, 19+ years, 10-35%.
  • Non-fat, low-fat, or lean animal-based protein choices should be selected.
  • Because of their high nutrient content, beans and peas may be counted as either a vegetable or as a protein food.
  • Meat and poultry should be consumed in lean forms to decrease intake of solid fats.
  • Consumption of a balanced variety of protein foods can contribute to improved nutrient intake and health benefits.
  • An intake of 5.5 ounces of protein per day, for a 2,000 calorie diet, is recommended.
  • Eating seafood twice a week in place of meat or poultry, about 8 ounces total, is recommended (less for young children).
  • Vegetarians and vegans should be sure to get enough protein from beans and peas, soy products, as well as nuts and seeds.

Those are pretty good recommendations, even when judged by the LifeTrek Optimal Wellness Prototype, but they still neglect the question of protein quality. It is assumed that all low-fat protein sold in the United States is fit for consumption and will have similar health effects. The recommendations say nothing about the conditions under which animals are raised and slaughtered and they never use the words "organic," "pesticide," "fertilizer," "antibiotic," "hormone," "free-range," "pasture-fed," or "genetically-modified" at all in reference to protein quality (or, for that matter, in reference to any other kinds of foods).

I suppose they just don't want to go there. Since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are responsible for regulating the food industry, they would hardly want to imply in their Dietary Guidelines that there might be something wrong with the conventional, mass-market food supply. Think of the trouble that would occasion! Especially since so many people are unable to afford the higher-quality foods. Until, of course, they get sick from eating the lower-quality foods. Then we all pay to either help them get well or to care for them through infirmity and death.

The fact is, quality is everything when it comes to protein. Animal and plant protein alike are uniquely impacted by their environment. The more contrived and hostile the environment, the lower the quality of protein. The more natural and supportive the environment, the higher the quality of protein. By eating at the high end of the quality continuum, one can stay at the high end of the health spectrum. By eating lower on the quality end of the continuum, protein as well as other foods become more and more of a health hazard.

The vast majority of protein eaten by people in the world today is of low quality. That's why you so often see research findings and recommendations as to why we must avoid red meat or stay with a strictly vegetarian diet. Consider the case of the largely sedentary cow, who in 18 short months is born, moved into an overcrowded Contained Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), fattened with corn (which cannot be properly digested by cows) and hormones, kept in unsanitary conditions, treated with antibiotics, and slaughtered before it dies a premature death from its mistreatment. Such meat is riddled with suffering, toxins, antibiotics, hormones, and unhealthy fat. What else would one expect to find in the case of such meat! No one should be eating this at all.

Even vegetable protein is subject to environmental degradation. The use of pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic-modifications impact the quality of vegetable protein, such as the tempeh and tofu made from soy beans, in much the same way as antibiotics, hormones, and CAFOs impact animal protein. How we treat our food in production determines how our food treats us in consumption. What goes into our food determines what comes out of our food in terms of health, energy, and well-being both for us as individuals and for society as a whole. There's really a lot to consider that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans still  fail to recommend or even to mention.

From an evolutionary point of view, there is no doubt that early human beings ate primarily fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wild eggs, wild game, and wild fish. It was only relatively recently that we added the products of agriculture such as grain, dairy, legumes, and starchy vegetables that need to be cooked. We were, after all, gatherers and hunters for a much longer period of time than we have been farmers and ranchers. When it comes to protein, what we started with is still the most perfect of proteins. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, along with wild eggs, game, and fish are the foods our bodies are best designed to eat.

Although most foods contain protein, including most fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, the real jump in human evolution took place when we learned to hunt and fish. By virtue of the abundant calories that came from the proteins and fats in wild eggs, game, and fish, the size of our bellies shrank by 40% while the size of our brains increased by 300%. At the same time, we grew taller and healthier. It wasn't until the advent of agriculture that people started to suffer the ravages of infectious and chronic diseases. From an evolutionary nutrition point of view, agriculture was a step backwards rather than forwards.

The problem, of course, is that we now have 7 billion people on the planet and there aren't enough wild eggs, game, and fish to go around. So what's a person to do? I think the best strategy is to eat local, as much as possible. If you know the person who raises or grows your protein, if you can visit that protein in the pasture or the field, then chances are you will get a sense of the quality and care that go into their production.

One of the best proteins to eat is grass-fed bison or buffalo. It is extremely lean, low-calorie, and laced with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. We met our bison ranchers at our local farmer's market, and they, in turn, introduced us to a local chicken farmer. If you are going to eat meat, then eating meat that led happy and healthy lives, with a natural lifespan, is the way to go. Other lean and healthy meats, with an average of 15% fat, include deer, antelope, ostrich, and moose. For comparison purposes domestic meats, such as lamb, beef, chicken, and pork, average about 60% fat. I would avoid such meats as much as possible, especially those that come from conventional food sources.

The point is that all meats are not created equal. Steaks may look alike on the outside, but on the inside they may be radically different. It's the quality of the protein that determines whether or not you should eat that steak. Some steaks, like a well-marbled, corn-fed, CAFO-produced beefsteak, will erode your health and wellness while others like the same cut of free-range, grass-fed bison will promote your health and wellness. I, for one, prefer to choose the latter.

In many situations, and especially in many social situations, it is not possible to eat local, wild eggs, fish, or game. They either aren't available or aren't served. In those situations, choices become harder to make. Is it better to eat a lean cut of turkey or chicken breast, for example, that has been raised in overcrowded and inhumane conditions or is it better to switch to vegetable protein such as tempeh or tofu? I do a little of both, but increasingly I tend toward vegetarianism when there is no healthy animal protein option. In such cases, it makes more sense to eat lower down on the food chain, since we are not only what we eat. We are also what we eat eats, and what we eat eats eats. The higher up we eat on the food chain, the more we have to be concerned about every step along the way.

Dr. Andrew Weil recommends getting getting 10 to 20 percent of calories from protein. He also recognizes the quality issue for both animal and plant proteins. "A small number of farmers," he notes, "specialize in producing more healthful meat from animals raised organically and certified to be free of hormones or antibiotics. Some of these animals spend all of their lives grazing in the wild rather than being fattened in feed lots and, as a result, are not only leaner but also have a much better profile of fatty acids in their fat." When healthy, happy meats are not available, Dr. Weil recommends vegetable proteins such as beans, peas, and soy products. To learn more about Dr. Weil's recommendations, visit www.DrWeil.com.

Dr. Loren Cordain suggests that we can afford to get even more of our calories from protein, up to 35%, if the protein is lean and of high quality. Unlike Dr. Weil, Dr. Cordain discourages the eating of plant proteins from legumes and grains, since neither were in the diets of our evolutionary ancestors and since both can cause a variety of health problems. He recommends that we make non-starchy fruits and vegetables along with nuts, seeds, free-range eggs, grass-fed game, and wild fish our primary foods. To learn more about Dr. Cordain's research, visit www.ThePaleoDiet.com.

To discover your own local food sources, now is a great time to visit farmers' markets, talk with your neighbors, read local papers, and go to www.LocalHarvest.org (just enter your postal code to find many local food sources, including meat processors). Once you find one local food source, you will be introduced to many others. There is a local-food network that you may know nothing about, but it is alive and quite the phenomenon.

In all cases, avoid adding salt to your protein (animal or plant). Salt was virtually unknown to our ancestors and wreaks havoc with human health. Using herbs, spices, and bulbs (such as garlic) will keep protein from being bland even as they introduce their own healthful properties.

Because of genetic differences, and because of the challenges involved with digesting protein, there is no one perfect protein for all people. Many proteins, especially the plant proteins of agriculture, generate allergic reactions or food intolerances that need to be identified and respected. What works for one person may not work for others. Most people, however, do well on a diet that includes protein from free-range eggs, wild fish, and grass-fed meat. If you're not opposed to eating meat on personal or religious grounds, I encourage you to make these proteins the staple proteins of your diet.

Coaching Inquiries: What proteins do you eat on a regular basis? Do you consciously look for free-range eggs, grass-fed meat, and wild fish? Do you know what local food sources are available to you? How could you befriend these sources and share them with others? What foods are you allergic to or intolerant of? How could your protein consumption contribute to both your well-being and the well-being of the planet?

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LifeTrek Readers' Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor's Note: The LifeTrek Readers' Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


Your Provisions on fruits and vegetables have come at the perfect time: just in time for spring produce!! Thanks for the encouragement to go green. Top

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers

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