The protein myth

When my son was a teenager, he was a serious Nordic ski racer and was good enough to compete in junior national competitions. The training was brutal but being a teenage boy in need of adventure, the harsh winter conditions and twice a day workouts focused and directed him.

Of all the memories of his time as a ski racer, the one that finds the front of my brain most was the amount of food he consumed during this time - especially in the winter. In the evenings, after the kitchen was put to rest for the day, he would raise himself from the sofa with a groan and stomp into the kitchen in search of sustenance, often mentioning to anyone within earshot, “I can’t believe I have to eat again.”

While I am certain this was a ritual in most of his teammates’ households, my son’s tribulations were particularly acute. He was a vegan Nordic ski racer; he ate no animal products - no meat, fish, butter, eggs or cheese. It was a challenge to find food that would satisfy and nourish his hard working body and I wish I had a dollar for every friend and parent who asked, “How does he get enough protein?” As an elite athlete, protein wasn’t his problem - getting enough calories down his throat was the goal.

So here’s the thing about protein. We eat way too much of it and it’s crowding out some other beneficial cast members on the dinner plate. The government has their guidelines for protein consumption and those recommendations are considerably higher than those offered by other countries.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the USDA guidelines may have been strongly influenced by lobbyists whose primary concern is not the health and well-being of the American people. If you think I’m wrong read Marion Nestle’s Food Politics. It’ll make you really mad but in an eye-opening kind of way.

While I am not a government anarchist, when it comes to choosing what to put on my plate, my own common sense will guide my choices rather than the USDA’s guidelines. Meat offers a few important nutrients that the body requires, but very small portions supply all you need and leaves room for the food powerhouses that are rich in a wide range of nutrients.

Americans get enough protein in their diet almost accidentally. Don’t concern yourself with this nutrient, worry about the vast array of other vital nutrients that only come from things that have had their roots deep in the dirt. Fruits, veggies and whole grains are the actors without the powerful lobbyists and they should have the starring role in all diets regardless of USDA guidelines or political inclinations.

NOTE: Oakhurst resident Virginia Eaton has been a life-long health and fitness advocate and is currently in California State University, Fresno's Master of Kinesiology program.