Slaying The Protein Myth Eating Lower on the Food Chain:
A Plea for Sanity
By Ultra Endurance Athlete Rich Role
I am plant-based. Essentially, this means I don’t eat anything with a face or a mother. Animals find this agreeable.
I’m also an ultra-endurance athlete. Essentially, this means I don’t go all that fast, but I can go all day. My wife finds this agreeable.
Conventional wisdom is that “vegan” and “athlete” simply don’t get along—let’s call it irreconcilable differences.
I’m here to say that is utter BS.
“But where do you get your protein?”
Not a day goes by that I am not asked this question. If I had a dollar for every time this came up, everyone in my family would be driving a Tesla.
Most vegans bristle at the question. Armed for battle, they assume a defensive position and hunker down for the inevitable, age-old omnivore versus herbivore fight that always ensues. Because belief systems around food are entrenched—it’s right up there with religion and politics—emotions run high. Before you can blink, arrows are flying in both directions. Conversation becomes debate. And debate all too often devolves into mudslinging—an endless, hopelessly unproductive merry-go-round that leaves each side further entrenched in their preferred dogma and never leads anywhere constructive.
I hate that—it’s why a large portion of the general public find vegans so unpalatable.
Instead, I welcome the question. If someone is asking, I presume a genuine interest; simply an opportunity for a productive dialog.
So let’s try to have that dialog. The productive kind. My perspective on the elephant in the room—nothing more, nothing less.
We live in a society in which we have been willfully misled to believe that meat and dairy products are the sole source of dietary protein worthy of merit. Without copious amounts of animal protein, it’s impossible to be healthy, let alone perform as an athlete. The message is everywhere—from a recent (and wildly successful I might add) high-profile dairy lobby ad campaign pushing chocolate milk as the ultimate athletic recovery beverage (diabolically genius) to compelling food labels to a dizzying array of fitness expert testimonials. Protein, protein, protein—generally reinforced with the adage that more is better.
Whether you are a professional athlete or a couch potato, this hardened notion is so deeply ingrained into our collective belief system that to challenge its propriety is nothing short of anathema. But through direct experience I have come to believe that this pervasive notion is at best misleading, if not altogether utterly false, fueled by a well funded campaign of disinformation perpetuated by powerful and well-funded Big Food, Big Ag industrial animal agriculture interests that have spent countless marketing dollars to convince society that we absolutely need these products in order to breathe air in and out of our lungs.
The animal protein push is not only based on lies, it’s killing us, luring us to feast on a rotunda of factory farmed, hormone and pesticide induced low-fiber foods extremely high in saturated fat which—despite the current populist fervor over high fat, low carb diets—I remain convinced is indeed a contributing factor to our epidemic of heart disease (the world’s #1 killer) and many other western diet and lifestyle induced infirmities that have rendered our prosperous nation one of the sickest societies on Earth.
Indeed, protein is an essential nutrient, absolutely critical not just in building and repairing muscle tissue, but in the maintenance of a wide array of important bodily functions. But does it matter if our protein comes from plants rather than animals? And how much do we actually need?
Proteins consist of twenty different amino acids, eleven of which can be synthesized naturally by our bodies. The remaining nine—what we call essential amino acids—must be ingested from the foods we eat. So technically, our bodies require certain amino acids, not protein per se. But these nine essential amino acids are hardly the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. In fact, they’re originally synthesized by plants and are found in meat and dairy products only because these animals have eaten plants. Admittedly, plant-based proteins are absorbed differently than animal proteins. And not all plant-based proteins are “complete”, containing all nine essential amino acids—two arguments all too often raised to negate the advisability of shunning animal products. But in truth, a well-rounded whole food plant-based diet that includes a colorful rotation of foods like sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes will satisfy the demanding protein needs of even the hardest training athlete—without the saturated fat that (despite recent studies to the contrary I take issue with) I am convinced contributes to heart disease, the casein that has been linked to the onset of a variety of diseases including cancer, or the whey—a highly processed, low grade discard of cheese production (another diabolical stroke of genius courtesy of the dairy industry that created a zillion dollar business out of stuff previously tossed in the garbage).
On a personal anecdotal level, adopting a plant-based lifestyle 8 years ago repaired my health wholesale and revitalized my middle-aged self to re-engage fitness in a new way. As hard as it may seem to believe, the truth is that my athletic accomplishments were achieved not in spite of my dietary shift but rather as direct result of adopting this new way of eating and living.
I’m not alone in this belief. Just ask Oakland Raiders defensive tackle David Carter. Watch this video of strongman Patrik Baboumian breaking a World Record for most weight carried by a human being when he hauled over 1200 pounds—roughly the weight of a Smart Car—10 meters across a stage in Toronto last year. Witness two-time World Champion Freerunner and parkour artist Timothy Shieff hopscotching off rooftops like a video game character and be amazed by this video of plant-based strength athlete freak-of-nature Frank Medrano doing things with his body you didn’t think possible. Then there’s MMA/UFC fighters like Mac Danzig, Jake Shields and James Wilks. Multisport athletes like Brendan Brazier, Rip Esselstyn and Ben Bostrom—a world renown motorcycle, mountain and road bike athlete & victorious member of this year’s Race Across America 4-man relay team; Professional triathlete & Ultraman World Champion Hillary Biscay who just raced her 66th Ironman; Ultramarathoners extraordinaire like Scott Jurek, his fruitarian compadre Michael Arnstein, and my old friend Jason Lester, with whom I completed 5 ironman distance triathlons on 5 Hawaiian islands in under a week who has since criss-crossed the USA on two feet and is currently prepping for a 100 day run across China. Then of course there is Timothy Bradley, Jr. who took down Manny Pacquiao last year (well kind of, but you get my drift).
The point is this: each of these athletes, and countless others, will all tell you the same thing: rather than steak, milk, eggs and whey supplements, opt instead to eat lower on the food chain and source your protein needs from healthy plant-based sources like black, kidney and pinto beans, almonds, lentils, hemp seeds, spirulina, quinoa, and dark leafy greens like spinach and broccoli.
Even if you ate nothing but fruit, you still would never suffer a protein deficiency—short of starving yourself, it’s almost impossible. Despite the incredibly heavy tax I impose on my body, training at times upwards of 25 hours per week for ultra-endurance events, this type of regimen has fueled me for years without any issues with respect to building lean muscle mass. In point of fact, I believe eating plant-based has significantly enhanced my ability to expedite physiological recovery between workouts—the holy grail of enhancing athletic performance. In fact, I can honestly say that at age 47, I am fitter than I have ever been, even when I was competing as a swimmer at a world-class level at Stanford in the late 1980’s.
And despite what you might have been told, I submit that more protein isn't better. Satisfy your requirement and leave it at that. With respect to athletes, to my knowledge no scientific study has ever shown that consumption of protein beyond the RDA advised 10 percent of daily calories stimulates additional muscle growth or expedites physiological repair induced by exercise stress. And yet most people—the overwhelming majority of whom are predominantly sedentary—generally consume upwards of 3-times the amount of daily protein required to thrive.
The protein craze isn’t just an unwarranted, over-hyped red herring, it’s harmful. Not only is there evidence that excess protein intake is often stored in fat cells, it contributes to the onset of a variety of diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function and heart disease.
Still not convinced? Consider this: some of the fiercest animals in the world—the elephant, rhino, hippo and gorilla— are Plant powered herbivores. And nobody asks them where they get their protein.