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I think about food a lot. Not because I want to lose weight or have cravings or for any negative reasons. I think about food and health, food to fuel cycling, food and ethics, food and the environment. For better or worse we humans are blessed with science and culture. We are animals that can choose the food we eat and create entire meals from separate ingredients. If you are a human who lives somewhere in relative wealth, who can go to the grocery store and buy pretty much whatever you want, diet, health, nutrition, has probably become something you think about too.

Paleo, Atkins, high-fat, low-fat, high-carbs, low-carbs, cholesterol, Omega-3s, we are bombarded with news stories about food and what we should be eating or should not be eating and every year it seems more confusion is added. What we do know is that if you follow the standard western diet, in other words if you eat like the average American, you will very likely be struggling with weight, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, or any number of other lifestyle diseases.

Garth Davis, medical director of bariatric surgery at Memorial Hermann Memorial Medical Center and the Davis Clinic for surgical and medical weight management in Houston, Texas, has been doing some research and has come to an interesting conclusion about diet. Think for a second about what the most important nutrient for good health is. Did you say protein? If you did, you are not alone. Everybody is super worried about protein and getting enough of it. But Davis suggests in his book, Proteinaholic, that too much protein is at the root of our health crisis.

What do you eat to get your protein? Most people eat meat. When Bookman and I went vegan over 20 years ago one of the things we got asked most was, what are you going to do about protein? I still get asked it now and then. And, as an endurance athlete, I can say that athletes are even more concerned about protein than the general population. There is an obsession about not only getting enough protein but having enough protein in the magic time window after a hard workout to maximize muscle recovery and muscle building. The amount of protein per pound of bodyweight an athlete is told to have everyday is huge and so many resort to adding protein powder to smoothies and other meals. But protein powder is an unregulated supplement in the United States and a recent study found that almost all of 134 protein powder and drink brands tested are contaminated with toxins like arsenic, BPA, and heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury. Scary.

I digress. In his late 30s, starting to get a little overweight, discovering he had high cholesterol and the beginnings of heart disease, Davis decided he had to do something. He had been following the kind of diet he recommended to his patients who were trying to lose weight–high-protein, low-carb, low-fat. He always assumed that when they did not lose weight, it was the fault of the patient, not the diet. So he started really digging into the science and reading more medical studies than any one human should be subjected to. What he concluded is that the high-protein and low-carb diet that is supposed to be so healthy is what is killing us.

Davis discusses many things that are wrong with our approach to food besides our concern about protein. It all starts with talking about food in terms of macronutrients — carbs and protein and fat. Because this leads us to completely dismiss food that is vitally important to our health and well-being. There are a lot of people who think carbs are bad and because things like potatoes and oatmeal are carbs they consider them “bad.” I even had someone tell me once that she didn’t allow her children to eat carrots because they had too many carbs! Say what? Food satiety studies show that the most filling and satisfying single food item is the potato. Potatoes are filled with nutrients, it’s what we put on the potatoes that is the problem. And oatmeal and other whole grains are full of colon healthy fiber and loads of other nutrients. When it comes to carbs, it is not the sugar in carrots that is bad for you, it’s the refined sugar in processed foods that is the culprit. But because fruits and vegetables = carbs people don’t eat enough of them and overeat the protein and end up not doing their health any favors.

The average person eats well over 100 grams of protein a day. The recommended amount of daily protein for the average person is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men (and this Davis suggests is too high). No one who is not starving is in danger of a protein deficiency yet everyone worries about it. We are supposed to have 38 grams of fiber a day for men and 25 grams for women but the average person only eats about 15 grams of fiber. Clearly there is a major fiber deficiency but no one ever asks, where do you get your fiber?

Davis does a fantastic job of explaining how the body works and how it processes carbs, protein and fat. He uses not only the latest research but also takes the long historical view on nutrition and population studies. And he looks at studies that have been done and are ongoing on the longest-lived and healthiest populations in the world. Want to know the best way to eat? Look at what these healthy “Blue Zone” people eat — mostly a carb heavy whole food plant based diet with either no meat, fish, eggs or dairy at all or small portions once or twice a month at most. Clearly, Davis says, the high-protein low-carb diets promoted in America and other western countries are not working very well given the vast numbers of people who are obese, diabetic, and have heart disease.

Proteinaholic is so rich with fascinating data that I could go on and on about it until you beg me to stop. If you are interested in health and nutrition, read this book. My biggest takeaway is the knowledge that I am getting plenty of protein on my whole foods plant based vegan diet, that even as an athlete, protein is not something I need to worry about. I have some protein powder in my pantry (thank goodness none of the brands mentioned in the study but that doesn’t mean they are free of contaminants) and I am really glad I don’t have to think about adding it to smoothies or workout recovery meals anymore. I simply need to eat enough fruits and veg, whole grains and a small amount of nuts and seeds and I am good to go. Since this is what I already do my only concern is whether I am in the mood for black beans in my salad bowl or spiced up chickpeas. I am also making an effort to think of and talk about food as food and not macro- and micronutrients. There is more to good food than talking about it in terms of iron, calcium, fat, protein, B vitamins, etc.

Michael Pollan in his food books has it right: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

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