How to Create a VEGAN WORLD - a pragmatic approach by Tobias Leenaert
January 17, 2018
'PROTEINAHOLIC' by Dr Garth Davis
January 3, 2016
I have followed Dr Garth Davis for some time via social media and have now read his recent book ‘Proteinaholic’. Anyone interested in the relationship between diet and health (and a vegan lifestyle) should read this book.
The book has many great quotes, including:
‘At the individual level, reducing the intake of calories by increasing the consumption of a variety of minimally processed plant foods and by significantly reducing the intake of animal foods will significantly increase the health span and reduce health care costs, environmental pollution, soil erosion, water pollution and shortage, CO2 production and global warming, violent weather and associated planetary consequences’ (Fontana, Atella, et al 2013)
He opens with ‘My name is Garth Davis and I was proteinaholic’
Initially, he points out that most of us have been persuaded that protein (and plenty of it – especially from animals) is an essential part of a healthy diet.
He is now of the opinion that this obsession with protein might well be the main reason for the rise in obesity, cancer, diabetes, hypertension and coronary heart disease.
Certainly, we need protein – but plant protein is much better than animal protein and, contrary to popular belief, plants can provide all the protein we need. We will also be reducing our intake of saturated fat.
As Dr Davis is based in the USA, all the figures he quotes are from there – consumption of animal protein is probably higher than anywhere else in the world, but the general principles will apply in most developed countries.
According to the World Health Organisation, the average American consumes about 130 g of protein per day – though there are other estimates that put it a bit lower. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) suggested by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is 56g for men and 46g for women. Most people have NO IDEA that their ‘normal’ diet probably includes at least twice the RDA!
In fact, the populations with the longest lived people tend to derive approx 10% of their calories from protein – in the US, this can be more like 40 – 50 %.
In Chapter 1, Dr Davis suggests there are a number of myths we need to correct:
MYTH 1 – High carbohydrates is the main cause of Diabetes
NO – IT’S MEAT AND FAT
MYTH 2 – High carbohydrates pre-dispose you to Coronary Heart Disease
NO – IT’S MEAT
MYTH 3 – High carbohydrates is the main cause of obesity
NO – IT’S MEAT AND EXCESSIVE CALORIES
MYTH 4 – Meat is only a health risk if it’s raised on a ‘Factory Farm’
MYTH 5 – Many cultures have thrived on a high protein diet
What I find interesting is that, at medical school, it was a ‘given’ that illness and disease is inevitable – so there will always be a need for doctors, medication and surgery.
Also, it is incredible to realise that, throughout his medical course, he spent a total of ONE HOUR on nutrition – and that was all about how to administer intravenously when a patient is unable to eat!
At age 35, Dr Davis began to realise that he was not in the best of health – though he ate what he then considered to be a reasonable diet.
The crunch came when, during an eye examination, his optometrist told him that the blood vessels at the back of his eyes were full of cholesterol!
A subsequent medical confirmed very high cholesterol levels, fatty liver, elevated triglycerides and high blood pressure.
His doctor prescribed statins and beta-blockers, but warned of possible side effects!
Although he accepted the need for this medication, he decided to do some research and see if he could improve his health (and, indeed, that of his patients) through changes in his diet and lifestyle.
He began by reading ‘The Blue Zones’ by Dan Buettner. This considers the 5 places in the world where humans have the greatest longevity – and are 10 x more likely than the average American to reach the age of 100.
The most studied of these groups are the inhabitants of the Japanese island of Okinawa and the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda in California.
The common thread through ALL the Blue Zones is that their diet is predominantly plant based, with 10% or less of their calories being derived from protein and 70 – 80 % from carbohydrates.
The more he researched, the more he realised that levels of ill health are closely correlated with the consumption of animal protein.
Dr Davis also began to discover that, in fact, there were an increasing number of American doctors who are moving away from prescribing medication and advising patients to adopt a plant based diet. The success of this approach is well documented in the film ‘Forks over Knives’
At this point he read ‘The Food Revolution’ by John Robbins and ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer – in which he was further alerted to other issues relating to animal welfare and exploitation as well as massive environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture.
By this stage, Dr Davis is beginning to see a wondrous improvement in his own health and fitness and is starting to compete in marathons and triathlons – never having been particularly athletic in his younger days!
So – why have we been led to believe that we need so much protein in our diet? In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the chemical structure of protein was worked out and it was realised that the bulk of our bodies – especially muscle – is composed of protein. Hence, the advice to eat plenty of it – especially of animal origin.
Also, meat was relatively expensive – so it was seen as an indicator of affluence if you were able to have plenty of it on the table on a regular basis.
However, even in 1907, the New York Times reported a study which suggested that eating more meat was leading to higher rates of cancer.
In spite of this, average meat consumption per person per year was 124 lbs in 1909 and rose to 201.5 lbs in 2004 – an increase of 63%!
In 1969, the US senate set up a Select Committee on ‘Nutrition and Human Needs’ chaired by Senator George Govern.
At a White House conference, this committee heard the famous evidence of Ancel Keys – who had concluded that Coronary Heart Disease was linked to the consumption of fat – particularly saturated fat – and therefore animal based foods.
When the committee finally reported in 1977, they recommended a decrease in the consumption of meat and dairy and an increase in fruit, vegetables and grains.
The meat, dairy and sugar industries were immediately up in arms and a modified report was published in 1980, in which the recommendation was to eat MORE lean meat, like chicken and fish!
In an attempt to reduce the amount of fat, refined and processed foods have featured much more in the average diet – and this has led to an INCREASE in the overall calories consumed – especially from fats and oils!
Through all of this, most of the arguments have centred around fats and carbohydrates – leading to numerous ‘Low Fat- and ‘Low Carb’ diets – protein is never in question!
Dr Davis summarises a conversation with a patient to demonstrate how difficult it is to convince people that their ill health is most likely down to an over consumption of protein!
In Chapter 6, he considers – and demolishes – the famous Atkins Diet. If you don’t know about this diet, you are not missing anything. However, if you are interested as to why it doesn’t work then read this account.
He also dismisses the Weston A Price Foundation. I had never heard of them. They are named after a prominent dentist who, in the 1930s, travelled the world to try and discover why some societies experience so much less tooth decay than the USA. Today, amongst other things, they advocate eating plenty of butter and lard. Enough said!!
Chapter 7 is the Paleo diet. Another ‘Low Carb’ diet which has become quite popular. The one (and only!) good aspect is that they avoid all refined and processed foods. They also avoid legumes (odd!) and wheat. This is supposed to be based on the ‘healthy’ diet eaten by Palaeolithic humans – i.e. the pre agriculture Stone Age. There is a great deal of argument about exactly what they would have eaten – and who is to say that they were particularly healthy on their diet?
Proponents of this diet often cite the health of the Innuits and the Maasai of Kenya as a good reason to adopt such a diet. Many – including Dr Davis – say this is another myth!
Gary Taubes, an American journalist, is one of these proponents, though his arguments are entirely refuted by scientific evidence.
Also mentioned in this chapter is Dr Denis Burkitt – much heralded by the plant based community for his work in which he emphasised the huge importance of fibre in our diet – something much lacking in the Atkins, Paleo and others!
In Part 3, Dr Davis considers the evidence to support the fact that it is our over consumption of protein which is responsible for so much ill health.
In Chapter 8 he emphasises how difficult it is to rely on the conclusions of many investigations and the importance of close scrutiny. He sets out a number of rules, including
NEVER BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU FIND IN A NEWSPAPER, MAGAZINE, BLOG, OR TV OR RADIO STORY.
and CONSIDER THE SOURCE – who is funding the study? In other words, is there a financial incentive to reach a particular conclusion?
For me, Chapter 9 is very interesting – he considers the reasons behind the continuing increase in levels of Type 2 Diabetes. For some time, the general consensus has been that insulin resistance is brought about by over consumption of carbohydrates – sugar in particular. However, there is an increasing amount of evidence to link Diabetes with the consumption of animal protein. It is now thought that the reason why cells (muscle cells in particular) become desensitised to insulin is because a diet high in animal protein and therefore fat (particularly saturated) leads to inflammation and the deposition of fat in muscle cells. It is this fat which interferes with the normal functioning of the insulin receptors and, therefore, the development of insulin resistance.
Contrary to the claims of many, a diet high in carbohydrates actually reduces significantly the chances of developing Diabetes.
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) is a very prevalent condition and medications to reduce it are widely prescribed. Unfortunately, many of these drugs do have unpleasant side effects for which it is sometimes necessary to take additional medication!
Dr Davis points out that there is plenty of evidence to link hypertension with meat consumption – as well as evidence to support the fact that a plant based diet can lower blood pressure. It may even be that certain amino acids, which are more prevalent in plat protein, are responsible for decreasing hypertension.
Coronary Heart Disease is the number one cause of early death in the US – and, presumably in many other parts of the world.
According to Dr Caldwell B Esselstyn ‘Cardiovascular disease is a toothless paper tiger that need never exist. If it does exist, it need never progress. It is a food-borne illness. Change your food, change your life’.
He (and many others) are now 100% convinced that it can be avoided, and even reversed, by eliminating animal products from the diet and going Whole Food Plant Based.
In Chapter 11, Dr Davis provides plenty of evidence for this, both from epidemiological studies and clinical trials.
It has long been well known that Diabetes, inflammation, hypertension and high cholesterol are risk factors in developing CHD. High cholesterol is linked with the consumption of saturated fats (Ansel Keys) and, therefore meat. In fact, statins, drugs used to reduce cholesterol levels, are currently the most widely prescribed drugs in the world!
Other points of interest raised in this chapter include :
Eating more fruit and vegetables means more flavonoids and antioxidants, both of which reduce inflammation
The extra fibre has been shown to reduce cholesterol
Animal protein and fat appear to have an influence on the walls of blood vessels. This is related to the breakdown of the amino acid arginine which produces nitrous oxide, which then causes dilation of blood vessels. This happens far more efficiently on a plant based diet.
The high iron content of meat causes oxidation which is directly associated with heart disease.
Meat eaters seem to have bacteria in their bowels which convert carnithene and choline (two compounds found in meat and eggs) into a compound called TMAO, which is directly implicated in the development of heart disease.
So what about obesity? As the director of a clinic dealing with helping people to lose weight, Dr Davis has a great deal of experience in this area. Most people think the problem is carbohydrates – and will even avoid eating fruit in an attempt to reduce sugar intake!
Dr Davis summarises another conversation with one of his patients who finds it extraordinarily difficult to come to terms with the fact that there is very little (if any) obesity in her home country (Ghana) where the diet is predominantly high carbohydrate. This in spite of the fact that she was aware that she did tend to lose weight on return visits to Ghana!
He explains the importance of CALORIES consumed and the importance of the caloric density of food consumed. In short, plant based food has a low caloric density and with its associated fibre it is highly satiating and impossible to overconsume calories!
Yet again, the answer is a WHOLE FOOD PLANT BASED DIET!
If Coronary Heart Disease is currently the number one cause of early death in the US, number two is cancer and it might well be on the way to taking over the top spot!
The chapter on cancer is the longest chapter in the book – it contains a lot of information, which is difficult to summarise briefly.
In essence, there are many types of cancer, there is undoubtedly a genetic element and whilst there are certainly correlations between levels of cancer and diet, it is difficult to show causation.
Dr Davis considers possible ways in which the consumption of red and processed meat might increase the risk :
A variety of compounds found in cooked meat are known to be carcinogenic
The heme iron in meat promotes the production of other carcinogens
Insulin Growth factor 1 is known to promote cancer and its levels tend to be higher if meat is consumed
Carnithene, Choline and TMAO, associated with Coronary Heart Disease may also play a role in cancer formation
There are known to be beneficial bacteria in our gut which produce compounds to help protect us from cancer. The levels of these bacteria are reduced in meat eaters
The essential amino acid Methionine is found in high levels in eggs, fish and meat (and in some nuts and seeds) – whilst we need some, it is possible that these high levels can be carcinogenic
Acidosis (the lowering of the body’s pH) caused by the consumption of animal products may play a part
A form of sialic acid (Neu5Gc) found in meat seems to cause an inflammatory immune response which can lead to cancer formation
Many chemicals used in animal agriculture are probably carcinogenic
Some thermoresistant viruses found in animals are now associated with promoting cancer development
On the other side, it is clear that the many phytonutrients (of which there are thousands) and the fibre derived from plant based food provide a considerable amount of protection against cancer.
Finally, in 2004, an article ‘Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer’ was published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. One of the co-authors was Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
‘Among the diet-related factors, overweight/obesity convincingly increases the risks of several common cancers’
In an earlier chapter, Dr Davis has provided much evidence to show the link between obesity and the consumption of animal products.
In the final chapter of Part 3, Dr Davis poses the question ‘Do Plant Based eaters live longer’?
He then provides plenty of evidence to support the fact that they do. Much of this comes from the many studies already cited in the previous chapters on CHD, Diabetes, cancer etc., including (amongst others) Blues Zones and the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda.
He includes another interesting quote from Professor Walter Willett :
‘When you get down to maybe one serving or less of meat per week the risk gets pretty low. If you really want to go for the lowest possible, it does look like not consuming red meat at all, or a couple of times a year, is where you’d want to be’.
The exact reasons for longevity are not yet clear. In his final paragraph of this chapter, Dr Davis says
’To sum up, the link between diet and longevity is a complex one, and there’s a lot we don’t know. But don’t let the complexity, or the uncertainty, hide the main point : it’s overwhelmingly clear that the animal-rich diet is associated with a shortened life’
The question is whether the shortening of life is because of the presence of animal products, or the lengthening of life is due to higher consumption of fruit and vegetables. Probably a combination – read the chapter!
In Chapter 15, Dr Davis considers exactly how much protein we actually need. It is now well established that this figure is not as high as previously thought.
I learnt some new information here :
We are pretty good at recycling amino acids (the ‘building blocks’ of protein)
It would appear that the gut flora (bacteria) prevalent in those with a plant based diet, both assist in this recycling and may even synthesise more essential amino acids for us!
The idea that it is difficult to obtain all our required amino acids from plants is a myth. This idea was first put forward by Frances Moore Lappé in ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ (1971) when she suggested that, in order to obtain all the essential amino acids, we needed to complement carefully a range of different plant foods. In 1985, she admitted that she was wrong and that, if enough calories are being consumed from a range of plants, obtaining all the required amino acids is not an issue.
So, how much DO we need? Earlier on, it was discussed that the US RDA is 56g for men and 46g for women. This equates to about 0.8g per 1kg lean body mass (Dr Davis does the calculation). He thinks this is probably about right – but, again, emphasises that many people are completely unaware that they are consuming considerably more than this!
It is generally accepted that those with the highest need for protein are infants, athletes bed-ridden people and the elderly.
From my point of view, athletes are the interesting one – in my case for endurance cycling. I don’t measure my protein intake - nor do I take protein supplements – and I don’t appear to have a problem. In this chapter, Dr Davis says :
‘I did an informal poll of vegan athletes. There were some surprisingly muscular men and women who told me they don’t worry about protein at all. They just eat a varied plant based diet. I (Dr Davis) fall into the same category. I never count my protein’.
If any athletes could be short of protein, it would have to be those who live exclusively on fruit. One of the most prominent of these is the ultra marathon runner, Michael Arnstein. He consumes around 25 – 30 lbs of fruit per day! If you are interested in finding out more about him, check out his website:
Again, the overall conclusion is that if you eat plenty on a Whole Food Plant Based Diet, you will struggle to eat too much protein, but should have no problem gaining all your requirements.
I particularly like an analogy at the end of this chapter, in which he compares amino acids with the bricks used to build a house:
‘Bricks are obviously necessary for the construction of a brick wall, and they’re needed when we want to extend the height or length or width of the wall. They’re likewise required for ongoing maintenance, when we need to replace missing, broken or worn-out bricks.
But are more bricks always better? What if your house were built, and in fine repair, but a dump truck kept dropping loads of bricks on your front lawn and a forklift kept leaving pallets of bricks on your kitchen floor? At that point, those bricks would go from valuable building materials to dangerous nuisances’
In the penultimate chapter, Dr Davis considers three questions:
WHY should anyone consider changing to a Whole Food Plant based Diet?
Anyone having reached this stage of the book should be very clear that there are numerous HEALTH reasons for doing so – watch ‘Forks over Knives’ www.forksoverknives.com
Of course, there are many people who will provide reasons why it might not be a good idea – B12 deficiency, anemia, ‘vegans are weak’ etc. Dr Davis argues that all of these are myths and explains why this is the case (and I agree with him!)
WHAT should you be doing differently?
Essentially, a Whole Food Plant Based Diet involves eating ONLY plants and as close to their natural form as possible. This means a complete elimination of refined and processed foods i.e white flour, white rice, sugar, oil etc
There is some controversy and disagreement over Soy – Dr Davis thinks we should eat it. Also, he does not really bother with so-called ‘superfoods’ – and he explains why.
Whilst nuts and seeds are an important part of this diet, he thinks they should probably be limited because of their caloric density and high fat content.
HOW do you change over to this diet?
Different people will accomplish the transition in different ways – and some will find it more difficult than others. In my case, I just did it and never looked back!
Dr Davis suggests that you need to be comfortable in what you are doing and really understand and believe in WHY you are doing it.
If you find it difficult or continue to have cravings for foods that you are trying to cut out, there are a number of techniques and strategies suggested – keep a journal, stick to a regimen, plan meals with care, try and associate with like-minded and positive people etc.
On this note, he includes a quote from Mark Twain :
‘Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great’
In his final chapter, he has asked a registered dietician, Dana McDonald, to put together a suggested food plan. This is an excellent chapter – with lists of possible ingredients in your Whole Food Plant Based Diet and lots of recipes!