The Truth about Protein and Calcium

by Leena Isac1

Nutrition is an increasingly important aspect of health and medicine. Most of us will practice in the United States, a country whose leading killers are heart disease, cancer and stroke, diseases largely preventable by lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, due to the time constraints inherent in medical school, our nutritional education is focused more on the biochemical aspects of nutrition. The major health problems in this country are not protein deficiency or vitamin deficiencies, but diseases of excess. We need to educate ourselves about the real nutritional problems, such as obesity and atherosclerosis, that will affect our future patients.

What Every Future Physician Should Know About Protein

It is a common belief that protein is an important element in a sound diet, and that meat is high in protein. Both statements are true, but there are two other facts that are less well-known among people uneducated in nutrition. The first is that the average American eats much more protein than needed, and that this has severe health consequences. According to Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University and former senior science advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research, there is “a strong correlation between dietary protein intake and cancer of the breast, prostate, pancreas, and colon.” [1]

The second thing to know about protein is that plant protein is equally nutritious as animal protein, and in many ways, it is far superior to animal protein. Though it is true that foods such as eggs and human milk have a high “biological value” in terms of amino acid composition, this does not in any way imply that they are good foods for adult human consumption. Plant foods contain a broad range of essential amino acids. An editorial in the medical journal Lancet reports, “Formerly, vegetable proteins were classified as second class, and regarded as inferior to first-class proteins of animal origin, but this distinction has now been generally discarded.” [2]

A clinical study reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association compared the intake of the essential amino acids in the diets of meat eaters, lacto-ovo-vegetarians (those consuming dairy products and eggs) and vegans (no eggs or dairy products). The study set the protein requirements for each amino acid at a height that would easily cover the needs of even growing children and pregnant women. The researchers found that not only did all three diets provide sufficient protein, they were all well above sufficient: “Each group exceeded twice its requirement for every essential amino acid and surpassed this amount by large amounts for most of them.” [3]

It is almost impossible to design a calorically adequate diet that does not include sufficient protein, including all of the essential amino acids. A member of a team of Harvard researchers commented, “It is difficult to obtain a mixed vegetable diet which will produce an appreciable loss of body protein without resorting to high levels of sugar, jams, jellies, and other essentially protein-free foods.” [4]

  1. Ed. Note: Leena Isac is a CSETA/AnimaLife alumnus who is now a medical student at SUNY at Buffalo School of Medicine. She wrote the following essay for her fellow students. []

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