Monthly Archives: May 2011

Where do you get your protein?

photo courtesy of nickandmel2006 on flickr

This is a question often asked of vegans, people who eat no animal products — no meat, no milk, no eggs, no cheese, no ice cream, no butter, no lard, no fish, no chicken, no pork, no honey. Generally, they don’t even wear leather, feathers, fur, or any product made from a dead animal.

In US culture, protein is considered the gold standard of nutrition. We hear about how eggs are “high quality” protein or “perfect” protein, as if any other source of protein can’t be quite as good. Actually, eggs, and all animal-based foods, contain cholesterol and fat our bodies don’t need. They actually aren’t health-producing in a human body, especially in the quantities typical of the Standard American Diet.

Protein comes in the form of amino acids. Most of the amino acids humans need are produced in the body from the materials consumed in the diet. However, there are eight amino acids that are termed “essential” that human bodies don’t know how to synthesize. Wikipedia provides a table listing the essential amino acids and their relative daily requirement for adult humans according to the World Health Organization:

Amino acid(s) mg per kg body weight mg per 70 kg mg per 100 kg
I Isoleucine 20 1400 2000
L Leucine 39 2730 3900
K Lysine 30 2100 3000
M Methionine+ C Cysteine 10.4 + 4.1 (15 total) 1050 1500
F Phenylalanine+ Y Tyrosine 25 (total) 1750 2500
T Threonine 15 1050 1500
W Tryptophan 4 280 400
V Valine 26 1820 2600

(Methionine and Cysteine can be interconverted from one to the other, so the diet only has to include a pool of one or the other, although it may include both. The same holds true for Phenylalanine and Tyrosine. See the Wikipedia page linked above for more details.)

Eggs happen to contain these amino acids in amounts very close to these proportions. That’s why they are considered a “high quality” or “perfect” or “highly digestible” protein source. Plant foods also contain plenty of these amino acids. They aren’t necessarily in the same proportions in plant foods but they’re all there. It’s not necessary that the amino acids be present in the proportions in which the body uses them, just that the diet provide enough of the least prevalent amino acid.

As it turns out, if a person eats enough calories, it’s almost impossible for them to be deficient in any of the amino acids, no matter which foods they choose to eat. Here’s what the Wikipedia entry says, with references:

Although it is possible to induce deficiency of one or more of the individual essential amino acids in a laboratory setting by providing an elemental diet or a diet based on gelatin (the only “incomplete” protein that is commonly found in human diets), it would be highly unusual for such a deficiency to occur in a community setting. It is practically impossible to design a diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables that would fail to provide enough protein, including sufficient amounts of all of the essential amino acids, to support human health.[8] Nor is it necessary to combine “complementary” plant sources to provide complete protein.[12]

So, where do vegans get their protein? The same place everyone does, from their food. They just happen to make different food choices, which provide all the protein they need.

Let me ask another question. Where do wild elephants get their protein? Here’s Wikipedia on elephant diets:

Elephants are herbivores, and spend up to 16 hours a day eating plants. Their diets are highly variable, both seasonally and across habitats and regions. Elephants are primarily browsers, feeding on the leaves, bark, and fruits of trees and shrubs, but they may also eat considerable grasses and herbs. As is true for other nonruminant unglulates, elephants only digest approximately 40% of what they eat.[60] They make up for their digestive systems’ lack of efficiency in volume. An adult elephant consumes 140–270 kg (300–600 lb) of food a day.

They digest less than half of what they eat, they don’t eat the same thing all the time, clearly their diets are not carefully planned or thought out, yet they get enough protein from what they eat to build a huge, strong, robust body. Cattle of all kinds, horses, and giraffes are other examples of large animals who get all their protein from plant sources. Clearly, plants must contain plenty of protein if such large bodies can be built entirely from plant-based nutrition.

Or how about our nearest genetic relative, the chimpanzee? According to the Honolulu Zoo’s website, chimp diets are largely vegetarian with only 5% of their diet coming from hunted meat (mostly juvenile red colobus monkeys). Although The Predatory Behavior and Ecology of Wild Chimpanzees emphasizes chimpanzee hunting behavior, it says that only 3% of their calories come from hunting. The vast majority of chimps’ calories, 95% – 97%, and therefore most of their protein, come from plant foods. On average, Americans get around 25% of their calories from animal sources in their indoctrinated fear of protein deficiency. Yet the typical chimpanzee has five to seven times the muscular strength of the strongest human. If the animal foods were providing so much more or higher quality protein, why aren’t we stronger than the chimps?

The bottom line is that plants provide all the protein humans need, without any special planning or care given to combining or sequencing foods. That’s where vegans get their protein.

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Posted by on 2011/05/31 in nutrition


The World Peace Diet

In The World Peace Diet, Dr. Will Tuttle suggests that the essence of Western civilization is the commodification of animals, beginning with pastoralism in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia around 10 to 8 thousand years ago. His thesis is that this objectification of animals (seeing “beings” as “things” that are there to be owned, bought, and sold) has led to war, human slavery, abuse and exploitation of animals and other humans, disease (physical, mental, and cultural), poverty, alienation, and many of the systemic problems that plague modern society.

One of the unfortunate effects of this heritage is that it has led to an cultural assumption that money is equivalent to everything. That is, we act as if anything and everything can be “monetized” — bought and sold, converted into money. We talk of “monetizing” blogs, websites, “content”, services, experiences, even art. We are indoctrinated from an early age to be preoccupied with monetary wealth. We judge each other and accord status based on “what a person is worth”, meaning how much money they earn.

On the other hand, if we think about it, we all know in our bones that some things cannot be monetized: truth, aesthetic appreciation, honesty, integrity, personal fulfillment, and good health are all examples.

The Proprietary Paradigm

Ownership and money has been culturally successful because it is a surprising useful set of concepts. It allows us to allocate resources among ourselves effectively. It makes it possible to reward societal contributions in very nuanced and incremental ways. It provides an incentive for individuals to make contributions to their society and a mechanism for penalizing behavior that is deemed unacceptable (eg., fines).

However, it also has its limits. The ownership and money concept implies a particular set of values. It includes an assumption that making a profit is the highest good and that any other behavior has to be judged against that standard. For most businesses, if an activity is not profitable, it’s not even to be considered as worth doing. Yet there are many things that need doing that are not immediately monetarily profitable: cleaning up the environment, planting trees, teaching people to make healthy choices so that they have more control over their own health outcomes, teaching children to live well in their culture.

So the cultural paradigm of ownership, what we might call the “proprietary paradigm”, encourages the commodification of everything, including animals and people (seeing “beings” as “things”). While it has its uses, this paradigm has become a monster that is eating us alive. We need a new paradigm to challenge and control the traditional proprietary paradigm by which most of us live. Here’s a proposal:

Experience is self-guiding

This is the essence of the scientific world view. Science is the process of trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t. Science is another cultural paradigm that has been amazingly successful. Up to the present, the scientific paradigm has been a thread within a broader culture rooted in ownership. The scientific paradigm and the proprietary paradigm need to be flipped. We need to make the scientific attitude deeper and more fundamental than the proprietary attitude so that instead of science being controlled and driven by ownership concepts, ownership is modulated and informed and limited by the scientific attitude that we’ll do what works with regard to ownership and let go of ownership attitudes where they have undesirable effects.

For example, it has become clear that managing resources on the basis of maximizing profit by reducing costs is, in some areas, not effective. It has led to strip mining of coal since that’s a less expensive way of producing energy than more renewable options like wind or solar energy. It has led to environmental degradation since it is less expensive to simply dump waste in the environment than to reduce waste and/or handle it more appropriately.

It is becoming clear that the profits of some industries depend on a reliable supply of addicted, sick consumers, trained to docilely ingest artificial food products that will keep them addicted and sick so the medical and pharmaceutical industries have a reason for being. The profits of agribusiness depend on the abuse and destruction of beings with their own interests, concerns, and lives.

Making the scientific attitude our cultural foundation would allow an optimistic understanding of where we find ourselves. One way of parsing our situation is that we are greedy, nasty, violent creatures who will cause any harm we can think of to get what we want and there’s no way to change us. Our history would bear out this interpretation. However, the scientific lens suggests that the last 10,000 years of human history have been a grand experiment. We’ve tried out the proprietary paradigm as a cultural foundation and learned that it has both strengths and limitations. Our challenges now are 1) to shift the foundation of our culture from the proprietary paradigm to one that can help us grow into the future, and 2) to find ways of applying the proprietary paradigm where it’s appropriate while limiting it so that it cannot continue destroying people, animals, and the environment.

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Posted by on 2011/05/30 in cultural paradigms


Forks Over Knives

Last night we went to see Forks Over Knives, a documentary describing the life journeys of several ordinary people, scientific researchers, and medical doctors. The researchers discovered and demonstrated that eating a diet of whole, plant based foods and eliminating or greatly reducing animal foods (meat, dairy products, and eggs) can control or reverse a range of degenerative diseases. The medical doctors applied this finding in the treatment of their patients, getting them off medications and into vibrant, glowing health. The ordinary people were the patients who benefited, including people like Ruth Heidrich, a marathon running cancer survivor who switched from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to follow Dr. John McDougall‘s recommendations 25 years ago after her cancer diagnosis and then continued training and winning races. Or Joey Aucoin, who went from five medications and two injections every day to losing weight, beginning to exercise, and feeling great. Or Lee Fulkerson, the maker of the film, who dropped his cholesterol from over 200 to 154 without any medication at all.

Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn conducted research into the effects of animal- and plant-based nutrition. Dr. Campbell discovered that by controlling the animal protein as a percentage of calories fed to laboratory rats, he could turn on or turn off cancer growth. Low levels of animal protein (5% of calories consumed or less) turned off cancer growth. Higher levels (20% or more) turned it on. Through the China Study, Dr. Campbell showed that a similar relationship holds for human nutrition as well, based on examining diets and disease rates in 65 rural counties of China.

Dr. Esselstyn started out with 18 cardiac patients who had been told to go home and die by their cardiologists. By adjusting their nutrition, he was able to arrest their heart disease and in some cases reverse it. All of the participants outlived their original doctors’ predictions for their survival. Perhaps the most amazing outcome Dr. Esselstyn achieved was reversing the heart disease of Dr. Joe Crow, a colleage of Dr. Esselstyn’s at the Cleveland Clinic. At 47, Dr. Crowe had a heart attack and almost died. By following Dr. Esselstyn’s dietary recommendations, Dr. Crowe reversed his heart disease and cleared his arteries of blockage.

In the 1970s, Dr. John McDougall worked on the Hamakua sugar plantation in Hawaii. He observed that first generation immigrants from traditional Asian cultures were trim, healthy, and functional into their 80s and 90s. Second and third generation immigrants were fat and sick like the rest of Americans. What was the difference? The first generation had learned a plant-based eating style in the culture they grew up in. When they came to the U.S., they brought their approach to eating with them. The second and third generation adopted the eating style of their adopted culture — lots of meat, dairy, and eggs, fast food, and refined and processed products.

The movie touches on the other reasons for adopting a plant based diet besides one’s own health — reducing harm to animals and saving the planet from the environmental catastrophes we are creating — but the main emphasis is on the health effects of plant based nutrition.

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Posted by on 2011/05/29 in nutrition, reviews


Games for Walking and Running

The Tarahumara Indians play games based on running — passing a wooden ball from runner to runner for exampe — for hundreds of miles at a time. I’m not that hardcore, but I have found some ways to entertain myself while walking or running.

Running or Walking to Music

Load up your iPod with your favorite music with a beat of suitable pace, put it on shuffle, and go to town. It may take some experimentation to find music of the right speed for you. What I like about this is that it gives an interval effect — I speed up when the music does, then get a rest on the slower songs.

Counting Cars

A car going the same direction I am counts +1. A car going the other way counts -1. This can be especially challenging on a four lane road where lots of vehicles might pass at the same time.


Where I live, if I wave, most folks will wave back at me. Some of them wave before I do. I think those count, too, especially if I wave back. Each time, I get a little hit of friendliness and warmth. It’s nice.

The best exercise is the one you’ll do. If inventing games will get me to exercise more, or keep at it longer, it’s well worth it. Have fun.

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Posted by on 2011/05/28 in exercise


Another Blogger/WordPress difference

With Blogger, I got used to tagging my posts to make it easier to find them as part of a category or group. In Blogger, a tag applies only to the blog it’s in. When I click on a tag at the bottom of the post, I get all the posts in that blog that share the tag.

So I started tagging my posts in WordPress. Then, recently, I clicked on a tag on a post and discovered that WordPress tags connect to all the other blogs. Clicking on the tag didn’t show me any of my posts, just posts from other blogs. WordPress “Categories” work more like Blogger tags, linking together related posts within my blog.


Posted by on 2011/05/27 in blogging, Wordpress vs. Blogger


What I’m Reading These Days

Of course, these mini-reviews are incomplete since I have not yet finished the books described. The titles link to the page for each book.

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker

An exploration of what the last twenty years or so of science has to teach us about how the human mind is constructed and functions. In particular, Pinker examines the debate between nature and nurture, genes versus environment, and explains how mythologies about the human mind like Tabula Rasa (the Blank Slate), the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine lead to incorrect assumptions about how human beings motivate themselves and counter-productive policies. As Pinker explains it, it seems clear that the structure and nature of the mind is due to the interaction of nature and nuture, genes and environment, with neither being completely dominant. He also points out how organisms must optimize and the price of a mind that could help us survive may be the ability to comprehend that very mind.

Pinker doesn’t say this in so many words, but the picture that is coming into focus for me is that our brains evolved on the African savanna in a tribal social structure and they are optimized for recognizing threats and enjoying life in that kind of environment. Part of the cost of those optimizations is that the brain so optimized is subject to delusions like the supernatural, the ghost in the machine (the doctrine of a soul independent of physical reality), free will, and so forth.

The World Peace Diet, Will Tuttle

A thorough analysis of the unsustainable nature of the modern food production and distribution system, how it and the culture that developed it will have to change if humanity is to have a future, and how each person can facilitate and participate in that change.

The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor

Mithridates Eupator the Great, King of Pontus, was one of the Roman Republic’s most implacable and successful enemies. His birth was seen as the fulfillment of prophecy. Auspicious omens surrounded his childhood and adolesence. Despite his father’s murder and attempts on his own life, he survived to adulthood, defeated his enemies, and established himself as king of one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the Asia known to Rome. As Rome extended her influence to the east, Mithridates fought back, engineering the massacre of all the Romans in Asia Minor is 88 B.C.E., then spending the next forty years fighting wars against Roman aggression. There is some suggestion that Mithridates’ resistance may have contributed to transforming Rome from the Republic he confronted into the Empire it became a few decades after his death. He is called the “Poison King” because Mithridates studied toxicology and was reputed to have developed a universal antidote that protected him from all poisons.

Contested Will, James Shapiro

An account of the history of the idea that the Shakespearean oeuvre was written by someone else: Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, or someone else, anyone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America, Nortin M. Hadler

Dr. Hadler argues that the scientific evidence many medical treatments are based upon indicates that many of those treated would do as well or better without treatment. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When our only tool for pursuing health is medicine, eventually, every minor abnormality comes to look like sickness deserving of treatment. Dr. Hadler documents, for example, how cardiologists “are so convinced that what they do advantages patients, they are hell-bent to do it better. Furthermore, they are so handsomely rewarded, in acclaim if not monetarily, that it would seem counter-intuitive if not absurd to question what they do.” He explains how the financial incentives for hospitals, equipment and drug manufacturers and suppliers, and insurance companies are structured to reinforce and sustain this self-feeding loop.

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Posted by on 2011/05/26 in reading


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Chicken Salad

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Posted by on 2011/05/25 in cartoon


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