Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Do we need more plant-based calories in our diet?

Eat a plant-based diet.

It's a message we're bombarded with almost daily in the media and from health experts.

Carefully packaged within the message are subtle cautions about our omnivore ways - meat is loaded with "artery clogging" saturated fat, so are dairy products; eggs are rich with that deadly stuff called cholesterol; and, my favorite, we eat too much protein anyway, so limiting or eliminating animal foods will somehow resolve this problem in our diet.

A recent article in Pipe Dream, sums up our wayward diet nicely, "we are here to tell you to relax and put down the t-bone, as you're probably getting enough protein to feed a small family...of lions.


Although protein is an essential macronutrient which plays many key roles in the way our bodies function, we do not need huge quantities of it...Given the content of a Western diet, getting enough protein is no challenge. Unlike carbohydrate centered diets of China and Italy, protein is a huge part of our diet. From pork chops to hamburgers to filet mignon, meat is everywhere...You don't have to become a vegetarian to combat the protein craze, but consider rethinking the amount of animal protein you ingest."

Another site, The Body Fat Guide, explains that "Looking first at the role of animal fat in producing disease, one comes across a contradiction to the conventional wisdom: the French Paradox. If eating animal fat produces heart disease, why do the French, who eat plenty of saturated animal fat, have lower rates of heart disease?

The explanation that is consistent with the research on animal protein is that the French consume animal fat largely in the form of butter and cream, which is very low in animal protein. When considering the overall diet of the French, one sees that it is much lower in total animal protein then the Western diet, even though it is higher in animal fat."

Articles like these try convince you that the problem in our diet is animal foods - and that if we eliminate or limit animal foods, we'll see better health because we'll be eating less animal protein and animal fat.

The question then is, are we really eating too much animal protein and fat?

In order to answer that question, we need to first look at our dietary habits before the "diet-heart theory" (aka the lipid hypothesis) took off in the popular media; before the messages to eat less fat really took hold in the minds of the American public; to a time when people just ate their food and didn't think much of it other than did it taste good?

To do that we'll look back at data from the 1960's - the period right before health organizations and the government sought to modify our eating habits toward a plant-based let's look at the year, 1961 - the earliest date available for complete data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN.

From the food balance sheets (which calculates production, exports, imports, waste, spoilage and other factors that determine final consumption of a given population) we find that in 1961 the calories in our diet came from mostly plant-based foods; 65% of total calories were plant-based and 35% were animal-based sources.

Of the 2882.50-calories each day, we consumed 13.2% of our calories from protein, 34.4% from fat, 48.7% from carbohydrates and 3.7% from alcohol.

Of those calories, animal protein accounted for 8.7% of our total calories and also accounted for 66.1% of our total protein intake.

Animal fats provided 21.7% of our total calories, and also accounted for 66% of our total fat consumed.

Pretty shocking, isn't it?

By today's dietary standards, that's a diet that's going to kill you - and given the level of noise about our "poor diet" these days, we must be eating more animal fat and protein - so you'd think?

Well, we're most definitely eating more calories - in 2000 we consumed an average of 3816.71-calories each day; an increase of 934.21 calories over 40-years.

Where things get interesting though, is how our diet has changed in those years.

By 2000, however, our diet looked very different from the sixties; in fact, our dietary intake from plant-based foods increased to account for 73% of our calories each day, animal food sources provided just 27% of our calories.

Must make the "plant-based diet is all that" crowd pretty darn happy - we've most definitely migrated toward eating more calories from plant-based foods than animal foods!

But, in 2000 we did eat more calories - we consumed just 12% of our calories from protein, 36.7% from fat, 47.3% from carbohydrate and 4% from alcohol.

Shifts in protein consumption also are found in the data - where before 8.7% of our total calories were from animal proteins, in 2000, just 7.6% of calories came from animal protein; and animal protein now accounted for 63% of our total protein versus 66% previously.

So while we're told we're in the middle of an obesity epidemic, an explosion of diabetes and a healthcare crisis - remember this fact: while the powers that be are trying desperately to convince you to restrict or eliminate animal foods - today we're eating less protein as part of our total diet than other countries with less heart disease - including Japan!

In countries with enviable low mortality rates from heart disease, protein accounts for
  • 13.2% of calories in Japan
  • 13.2% of calories in Sweden
  • 13.1% of calories in France
  • 12.5% of calories in Italy
  • 13.1% of calories in Spain
  • 13.5% of calories in Greece

We consume just 12% of our calories each day from protein - and here's an interesting fact: we're not eating more red meat or eggs.

In fact, consumption of both red meat and eggs has decreased over 40-years, along with consumption of butter.

In 1961 red meat (beef, lamb, and goat) provided about 140-calories each day; in 2000 these same foods now provided an average of 123-calories a day. Pork consumption didn't change much, but poultry consumption increased significantly - in 1961 poultry accounted for an average 64-calories a day; by 2000 it accounted for 186-calories a day.

So, while we're eating less red meat and about the same amount of pork, we're eating a heck of a lot more poultry!

Eggs used to provide an average 67-calories a day (about six eggs a week on average per person); in 2000 that had declined to 55-calories a day (less than five eggs a week on average per person).

And, butter - that "bad boy" everyone keeps insisting we must eat less of - well, we are...a lot less. In 1961 we averaged 65-calories a day from butter (about 4.5 tablespoons a week) - in 2000 that was down to just 40-calories a day (about 2.8 tablespoons a week).

So, while we're eating the same calories from animal fat - most of it today is from poultry, not butter, eggs and red meat - and 36 more calories from animal protein, is again from increased consumption of poultry, not red meat or eggs.

But still, if you're advocating a plant-based diet, that's not much of an "advance" toward a "healthier" diet is it?

And, well, we are eating 934 more calories a day! That can't be a good thing.

So, if just 36 of those calories are from animal foods, what the heck explains the other 898-calorie increase?

Sugar, vegetable oils and cereal grains.

Yes, a full 80% of our calorie increase - 750.48 calories - comes from just three sources: sugar, vegetable oils and cereal grains.

Over the period of 40-years, we've increased our added sugars by about 30%, adding 150-calories a day (from 515.75 calories to 665.82 calories); increased our consumption of vegetable oils almost two-fold, adding 358.78-calories a day (from 276.15 calories to 634.93 calories); and increased our consumption of cereal grains by 38%, adding 241.7-calories a day (from 627.32 calories to 869.05 calories).

Sugar, vegetable oil and cereal grains - the base ingredients of many packaged, processed foods in America.

The changes in our diet over the last forty years begs an important question - how are we able to consume copious and increasing amounts of sugar, vegetable oils and cereal grains while continuing to eat a similar level of animal foods?

Just what is going on in our metabolism that even makes that possible?

Those questions will be explored tomorrow!


  1. "Sugar, vegetable oil and cereal grains"

    can you spell subsidized???

    The government tells us to eat more of this poison, we comply, and then they blame us for non compliance...

  2. Americans eat an average of 3800 calories a day? How is that possible? I don't think I ate that many calories a day at my heaviest weight! I currently eat about 1/2 that number of calories.

  3. The 3800-calories a day is an estimated average based on production, imports, exports, processing, waste, spoilage, etc. The year 2000 is when our calorie intake as a nation topped out - in the three years after our calorie intake was slowly declining (not much) and the changes within the data strongly suggest the influence of low-carb diets between 2001-2003 as they gained in popularity...

  4. Excellent post! These are just the type of stats that are needed to show folks how when you eat too many calories and don't exercise, weight gain in inevitable. Thanks for the stats ...