If you’re like most raw foodists, you’re no stranger to the controversy surrounding the notorious “P” word: protein. Whether you came to raw from a vegetarian cuisine, a low-carb regimen, or even the good ol’ Standard American Diet, one of your earliest concerns was most likely: where will I get my protein?
And again, if you’re like most raw foodists, you probably had your fears placated early on. Maybe you were told that most people on cooked diets eat far more protein than they need (which is true) and that all raw plant foods contain protein (which is also true). Maybe you were told that cooked protein isn’t digestible, so you get more protein from raw sources anyway (which is not quite true). And maybe you were told my favorite whopper: that broccoli contains more protein than chicken (yikes!).
Raw food literature is woefully short on science. And although the cooked world is swirling with protein myths (often perpetuated by meat and dairy industries), the raw world is guilty of its own dietary delusions.
Why we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss protein
There’s no reason to let protein fears keep you awake at night, but this subject needs more attention and scrutiny than it usually receives in the raw community. Here are some not-often-discussed facts to consider:
- Raw vegan protein sources tend to be low in biological value (BV), a measurement that tracks how much protein is used by the body—and how much is simply excreted. Five grams or protein from tomatoes is not absorbed as completely as five grams of protein from an egg.
- You don’t digest 100% of any food you eat, and cellulose (abundant in ‘high protein’ greens) causes a notable amount of protein to pass through your system undigested. For instance, even though spinach is 30% protein by calorie (about 1 gram per cup), you’ll only be absorbing and utilizing a fraction of this—unless you’ve juiced the spinach or chewed each bite for ten minutes.
- The highest-energy raw foods (fruits and fats) are also the lowest-protein whole foods in existence, but these are what form the bulk of most raw diets. Refined raw foods such as oils automatically lower your protein intake by providing calories without any amino acids.
- Modern fruit is verifiably lower in protein than wild, uncultivated fruit, and many nuts (such as almonds) are surprisingly low in protein.
Although full-blown protein deficiency diseases—such as marasmus and kwashiorkor—are rare if you’re eating adequate calories, chronically low protein will rear its ugly head with symptoms like these:
- Hair loss or changes in your hair texture (brittleness, thinness, breakability)
- Slow healing time for cuts and wounds
- General fatigue and weakness
- Loss of muscle tone and strength
- More frequent colds and illnesses (easy to mistake for detox)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fainting and dizziness
- Breakable, brittle nails, and nails with ridges forming
If you’re eating a 100% raw vegan diet, the best way to get enough protein is to be very physically active. Exercise. Run. Walk. Lift weights. Hike. Swim. Bike. Punch things. Climb your neighbor’s pear tree when they aren’t home (but don’t tell them I told you to). Increasing your calorie requirements allows you to eat more food, which means more total protein for the tummy. You’ll be burning the additional glycogen through physical movement, while your body uses the protein for its routine repair and maintenance work.
It’s not a coincidence that many of the most successful raw foodists are also athletes. This diet is not compatible with sedentary living, and eating a low-calorie raw vegan cuisine is mighty difficult to pull off in the long run.
What about the chimps (and other apes) that get all their protein from fruits and leaves?
There aren’t any. No primate is vegan, and all of them consume at least a modest amount of overt protein. Chimpanzees, for instance, ‘fish’ for termites (which they seem to find pretty tasty) and also hunt small mammals, both of which provide considerable protein.
In addition, many of the higher primates—such as leaf-chompin’ gorillas—are known as hindgut fermenters, which means they use special microbes in their colon to break down cellulose for energy. Due to their specialized digestive systems, which are not identical to humans’ (although I’ve heard this claim before), they’re able to extract nutrition from matter we can’t digest.
Thirdly: wild fruit is up to twice as high in protein as the cultivated fruit we find in stores. Check back for a future post on this subject. Whereas a raw diet (without the addition of raw protein powders or other supplements) will average 5 – 10% protein by calorie, wild primate diets are double, even triple this amount.
What about cows, who get huge eating nothing but grass?
Cows have a four-compartment stomach and “cud” chewing abilities (where they repeatedly eat and regurgitate food to be re-chewed) that allows them to extract nutrition—including protein—from otherwise indigestible sources. In one compartment of the stomach called the rumen, cows have microbes that help them to synthesize amino acids from non-protein sources such as ammonia. Alas, humans have a digestive system so vastly different than cows’ that a comparison between the two is pretty pointless.
Part 2 coming up next…