Tell someone you’re vegan and without fail, the first question is, “Where do you get your protein?” Our culture is SO obsessed with getting enough protein, but this is the last thing Americans should be worried about. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2007-2008, the average American man consumes 101.9 grams of protein per day and the average American woman consumes 70.1 grams of protein per day. This is almost double the recommended daily allowance!
The technical term for protein deficiency is Kwashiorkor. There is a reason Kwashiorkor is not a household name. It is because protein deficiency is virtually NON-EXISTENT in America. It exists in countries where people experience extreme poverty and famine. What does exist in America, however, are diseases of excess. The following diseases and conditions are caused by TOO MUCH protein intake and, unfortunately, they are household names that we all know well:
In 2007, the National Cancer Institute revealed that meats, particularly red meats and processed meats such as deli cold cuts, increased the risk of many types of cancers. Lung, liver, esophageal, prostate, bone, bladder and colorectal cancers all increased for people with diets high in protein. According to the 12-year study by the National Cancer Institute, consuming large amounts of protein significantly increases your risk of getting cancer.
Bone loss, also called osteoporosis, happens when calcium is taken from the bones to help carry out bodily functions. Calcium is needed to process proteins, and if there is not enough calcium present in the body, it is taken from the bones. When calcium is removed from the bones, bones lose density; excess protein intake can lead to a 1% decrease in bone mass per year, which can quickly lead to severe osteoporosis. Side effects of osteoporosis include brittle bones that break easily and loss of teeth.
Kidney Damage Normal kidneys work to remove excess wastes from the body. Proteins create byproducts, such as uric acid, that needs to be eliminated from the body. When excessive amounts of protein are consumed, more byproducts need to be excreted from the body through the kidneys. Overworked kidneys can lead to irreversible, permanent kidney damage.
Severe Constipation Bowels utilize fiber to carry out excretion. Diets extremely high in protein generally have little-to-no room for carbohydrates and fibrous foods, such as grains, nuts and seeds. Cutting these foods out completely or eating very small amounts can be very dangerous and could lead to severe constipation and blockages in the bowels. While not immediately dangerous, severe blockages can cause anal fissures, hemorrhoids, impaction, obesity and suppressed immune system.
Weight Gain Your body is simply not capable of storing extra protein that comes from your diet. If you consume an excess of calories and protein, you will convert the unused protein into fat stores.
A personal side-note: I recently completed a course on nutrition and disease-prevention in which I had to keep a food diary and calculate my daily protein consumption. Much to my surprise, I learned I was consuming a lot more protein than I need, over 80 grams per day! This is without any protein supplements whatsoever, just pure whole foods– vegetables, beans, fruit, grains, and seeds. I’m tall for a woman and do cardio and lift weights 5 days per week, so I have a higher than average caloric intake, but 80 grams was still way more than I was expecting to be taking in. The more I thought about it, though, the more it made sense. There’s protein in practically everything I eat, even in foods that I don’t think of as “protein rich.” Sure, I knew there was protein in my hummus because of the chickpeas, but I didn’t really give much thought to the protein in the carrots that I dip in my hummus. Or the dressing I put on my salad. Or the greens I put in my smoothie. Over the course of a day, this really adds up.
So instead of being obsessed with protein-deficiency, let’s worry about something that is actually plaguing our nation, like heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, or our deficiency in vegetable consumption.
Further reading & listening: