A high protein diet has its benefits, especially for people into fitness, as long as plenty of fiber goes along with it.
This is why I like hemp protein which is high protein, high fiber.
When the primary protein source is from animals however, its not just health that we should be concerned about. With more than 7 billion people on the planet it becomes a massive sustainability issue that the planet cannot maintain.
Athletes and anyone in the fitness industry who eats meat often eats much more animal based protein than the average person. A high protein diet in this case is beneficial but it doesn’t have to come from animals.
Issues From An Animal Sourced High Protein Diet
An graphic from the Center for Biological Diversity stated that if the rest of the world ate as much meat as Americans we would need five Earths to sustain that amount of livestock. When put into that perspective its easy to see how a high protein diet (where the protein consists mainly of meat) is simply unsustainable. In one country, it starts a problem. In numerous countries, it creates a global issue.
Not just because the amount of resources used and land taken up but the amount of pollution produced from large scale animal farming.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the estimated amount of greenhouse gases coming from livestock is equivalent to 7.8 billion tons of CO2 per year. They say “equivalent” because for livestock this includes gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Both of which are far more damaging to the environment than CO2.
Mentioned in that same research from Cornell, every kilogram of beef made uses 100,000 liters of water. Compare that to a kilogram potatoes which uses only 500 liters of water.
The USDA states that 90 million acres of land is used to grow corn in the United States and most of it is used for feeding farm animals.
So rather than growing millions of acres of corn with the intention of feeding it all to animals that land could be used to produce untold amounts of drought tolerant quinoa. It’s high in protein and requires very little water to grow. Quinoa requires less than half the amount of water it takes to grow corn an has a lot more nutrition.
How A High Protein Diet From Animals Promotes Disease
The amount of disease risks that livestock farming introduces to the population is also a concern. Not only does animal farming help incubate and spread disease across species (swine flu, bird flu, mad cow disease) it is also a factor in antibiotic resistant pathogens.
Antibiotics that are given to animals to keep them from getting sick don’t go away when the animal is packaged for consumption. Trace amounts still show up in the meat.
The rest of those antibiotics that have passed through those animals has to go somewhere. This ends up in the manure used on crops and in the runoff from the farms which ends up in the ground water supply. The more bacteria in the environment that are exposed to antibiotics… the more antibiotic resistant bacteria is created.
Over time this causes problems and the world is starting to see the consequences of those actions. On June 23, 2016 researchers discovered an antibiotic resistant bacteria in pigs that is resistant to one of the most powerful antibiotics the world has.
This happened as a result of that antibiotic being routinely used on those pigs. 2 things would have prevented this from happening. Not using those antibiotics on animals in the first place and not having massive animal farms producing meat for consumption. By making the choice to not eat animal meats there is no market demand to create situations like this for these kinds of things to happen.
Artificial hormones used in animals presents another issue.
Cows have very similar DNA to humans. The artificial hormones used in both dairy and beef cattle show up in both milk and beef in trace amounts. A high protein diet which contains a lot of beef increases exposure to these artificial hormones. Because cow DNA and human DNA is so similar these artificial chemicals affect our hormone balance as well.
The reason these artificial hormones are used is to produce more meat or milk. Which was created by market demand. So it comes down to people choosing whether or not they want to support this practice.
Red meat in general has been the subject of numerous health studies. Some of them have linked higher consumption of red meat with increased mortality and chronic disease.
The most sustainable, healthy option people have for a high protein diet is to increase plant proteins. This choice not only decreases the numerous health risks but it also reduces pollution and frees up resources to grow more plants. More plants obviously equals more food.
Fitness, Athletes and the Vegetarian Diet
When many people in the fitness industry try being vegetarian for a few weeks, many of them end up doing it wrong. While there is no “right way” to a vegetarian diet there are certainly wrong ways to go about it. When people try it out for the first time they typically stick to their regular diet, remove the meat and replace the meat for eggs and dairy. It’s the easiest thing to do.
After a few weeks they quit and go back to eating meat because they think they experienced the vegetarian diet. Because of that they are under the impression that it doesn’t work for them.
Hundreds of millions of people all over the world maintain vegetarian and vegan diets. Some cultures have been vegetarian for thousands of years and are still doing it. In southern India its hard to find any restaurant that actually serves meat. Its estimated that nearly 30% of the population in India is vegetarian.
That portion of the population in India has been proving the sustainability of vegetarianism longer than many countries have been in existence.
No one has payed attention until now. Because now, we are trying to solve our sustainability issues with our current protein supply which mainly consists of animals. But only after seeing the devastating impact it still has on the planet.
Athletes are very knowledgeable about a lot of things when it comes to fitness, physical science and nutrition. Most of the nutrition knowledge, however, is based on things we are familiar with and not the broad spectrum of global foods we have available to us.
If they did know, we would have a lot more vegan and vegetarian athletes.
Many people are somehow under the impression that “we can’t get enough protein from a vegetarian or vegan diet”. There are millions of people all over the planet that have proven that to be incorrect.
The vegetarians of India have made thousands of recipes and most of them have plenty of protein. Vegetarians of India have been surviving this way for thousands of years.
Interestingly, many people in India consider animals as ‘sacred’ especially cattle.
The rest of the world however… not so much. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization 66 billion land animals are killed every year for food to feed a population of 7.4 billion. This is simply unnecessary.
The fitness industry alone could make a huge impact on that number if more athletes reduced intake of animal protein and increased the use of sustainable plant proteins.
High Protein Diets and Fitness
Athletes who are not vegetarians or vegans typically eat much more meat than the average person. Many people into fitness have been conditioned by the industry to believe that having more animal protein is the best thing for building muscle. Including both meat and whey protein. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, it can be beneficial but that doesn’t mean its necessary.
Setting aside the sustainability issues that have been pointed out, lets look at the nutrition facts and numbers as to why it’s not necessary to eat as much meat as bodybuilders and athletes do.
A typical high protein diet would have portions of meat for both breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- 3 slices of of bacon has 9 grams of protein.
- A 3 oz portion of beef has 21 grams of protein.
- A 3 oz portion of chicken has 23 grams of protein.
- That’s a total of 53 grams of protein in a day.
Typically meat portions are much larger than the recommended serving size which is 3 oz. So if we double that its 106 grams of protein. Omnivores who are athletes typically eat much more than that and roughly can get up to 170 grams of protein. That’s not much higher than what a vegan can get. But also remember, that diets high in meat do come with health risks.
For a vegan a high protein diet could look something like this.
- Breakfast burritos which have 14-25 grams of protein depending on what you put in them.
- Red lentil curry for lunch which has around 20 grams of protein for a single cup.
- Veggie burgers for dinner which can have 23 grams protein each. Most people have 1-2 veggie burgers.
- That’s a total of 57 grams of protein (114 grams if you double the portions) in a day from vegetables and plants only.
Add more protein by snacking on nuts or a hemp protein shake and that can add an extra 20-30 grams of protein. It easy to get much higher amounts of protein (toward 160 grams daily) if you get creative with wide selection of foods that are available.
As you can see, a high protein diet from vegetables and plants isn’t hard if you know what you can make.
But what about “complete proteins” in the diet? The whole idea of complete proteins is a myth and most people simply don’t know that was proven wrong over 30 years ago. Some organizations still use it as propaganda.
The whole concept assumes that vegetarians and vegans only eat one kind of food. In fact, the only way to have a diet that lacks complete proteins is to eat one kind of food which is really hard to do.
How Sustainable Change Can Be Made in High Protein Diets
Chefs can play an important role in this change. For the general public who eats out at restaurants its easy to pick something off the menu that is familiar. Typically a steak, a burger made from beef, sausages, etc. If chefs made smaller meat portions and include more plant protein that alone would reduce animal consumption.
Offering more dishes with plant protein as the primary protein source is also an option.
Many restaurants are popping up all over North America that are completely vegan, serving great food and are doing very well. Some of them are doing so well they have multiple locations.
Since athletes and bodybuilders are some of the highest consumers of animal protein it only makes sense that we start to set more positive examples.
People in the fitness industry have always set the stage for what it is to have a healthy diet and nutrition. Demonstrating physically what those diets along with exercise can accomplish.
By showing the world what can be accomplished with a vegan or vegetarian diet we inspire other athletes and fans to see what a plant based, high protein diet can do for them.
A high protein diet that uses only plants as the protein source isn’t hard. You just have to know what plants are high in protein. Ask an athlete or bodybuilder what amaranth is and most of us couldn’t tell you. That’s an easy example to demonstrate that many of people don’t know what is available in regards to plant protein. Kudos to those athletes who do know what amaranth is.
By researching what plants and vegetables are high in protein and adding that to your knowledge base there are tons of foods you could make to replace meat or reduce meat consumption. There are even companies that are making this transition to sustainable protein a lot easier for people.
Companies like Beyond Meat that have made plant proteins taste and look just like meat. Their plant proteins have just as much protein content and in many cases a lot more than the animal sources do. They also have a lot more nutrients you don’t get from meat. Which makes these plant proteins a better option not just because they have more protein and nutrients… but because they’re much more sustainable.
High Protein Plant Diets Can Benefit the World
Rather than growing millions of acres of crops and using trillions of gallons of water a year to feed those animals… all of that can go directly to feeding people and decreasing an unneeded link in the process which causes pollution, livestock.
By decreasing that 1 link in the food chain a lot less resources are used and everything regarding farming becomes more efficient.
Land, water, air, the very things that give us life become cleaner by making this change.
Katherine Martinko at Treehugger.com pointed out that Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America are working together on a project called Menus of Change. These are 2 very prominent organizations in America that have acknowledged a high protein diet that comes from animals is unsustainable and are taking action to help solve it.
I understand that for many omnivores removing meat from their diet, completely, is somewhat on the far end of the spectrum for them. But by making small changes and being aware of the impact of our decisions… this makes a whole world of difference.
By simply reducing meat intake to 2-3 times a week and eating plant protein the other 4-5 days, imagine how much of a difference that would make if billions of people made that choice. An incredible amount of resources would be saved and pollution reduced across the world.
Every year the world has more vegetarians and vegans. Each one of them makes a huge impact on pollution which compounds year after year. This results in cleaner food and environment.
It all starts with one person. If one person with a high protein diet reduces meat consumption and replaces it for plant protein, it makes a difference. If one group of people changes their diet, we start positive influence. If one state or province operated with this in mind we begin to see change. If one country begins to lead by example and we have the data to show that pollution, health and resources are all impacted positively… we start to benefit the world.