It’s myth-busting time! I connected with my good friend, Whitney English, a Registered Dietician and Nutritionist, to talk about some of the most common questions that come up for guys going plant-based. She’s also the co-creator of Plant-Based Juniors, providing advice for parents looking to raise their kids on a plant-based diet.
I wanted to dispel some of the common myths around plant-based eating for guys and asked Whitney all about it. There are a ton of things that I’ve experienced personally, so I wanted to ask Whitney with the science nutritionist angle on some of these common questions.
Myth #1: Can guys really get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
Every single whole plant food contains protein. Everything from fruits to whole grains, to nuts, to seeds, legumes, they all contain protein. Even coffee has a little bit of protein if you believe it. I wouldn’t advise you trying to meet your protein needs though, with caffeine and coffee. It’s widespread in a plant-based diet. As long as you are eating enough calories, you’re getting enough protein and that’s also because you don’t need as much protein as you think. We see lots of guys online, especially in the bodybuilding community that are taking in two grams of protein per pound of body weight and that is just so incredibly excessive.
The recommended daily amount of protein is about 55 grams for the average man. If you want to find out your individual needs, you take your body weight, you divide it by 2.2, and that will give you how much you weigh in kilograms. The recommended amount is 0.8 grams per kilogram. There are about two kilograms in a pound. You can see how this recommendation for one or two grams of protein per pound of body weight is just so, so much more than you need.
It’s actually hard to not get enough protein. There’s a lot of dietary strategies out there in the longevity community that are based on eating a little bit lower protein, and I’ve calculated my protein intake for the day before. Without taking any protein supplements or any protein powder, I’m always way above my needs with strictly plant-based foods. Studies have shown that the average American actually gets about double the protein that they need.
Myth #2: Is plant-based protein complete? Is it less than meat protein? Do I need to be combining proteins to get a complete protein?
Next to the, “Can you get enough?” this is probably the second most common question about protein. It all kind of stemmed from a literature review many, many years ago where a nutritionist had written that you have to combine certain proteins like beans and grains together in order to form a complete protein that has all nine of the essential acids that our body needs to grow and that we need to get in the diet. Since then, that same person came back and said that that’s actually not accurate, and many governmental bodies have also said that as well. Basically it comes down to this: just like all plants have protein, all whole plants also do contain all nine essential amino acids. If you ever hear someone say that beans don’t have all the essential acids, that’s simply not true. What is true is that certain plants have slightly lower amounts of one or more amino acids than others.
For example, beans tend to be higher in lysine and lower in methionine and the reverse is true for grains. That’s why people thought that you had to combine them. But when you look at the totality of the diet, as long as you are eating a varied plant-based diet and eating all of these sources of protein: beans, grains seeds, all throughout the day, your body puts them together on its own. It doesn’t need you to sit there and strategically match them up in a meal. That’s just not how the body works.
Myth #3: Can guys get enough iron on a plant-based diet?
We talk about this a lot over on Plant-Based Juniors because iron is such a critical nutrient for babies and their needs are actually so much higher per pound of body weight than any other point in life. It’s actually from six to 12 months, babies need 11 milligrams of iron a day. Compare that to a grown man whose requirements are eight milligrams a day. It’s pretty crazy, right, that a six to 12-month-old needs more than you? Also, women need a lot more iron than men. Non-pregnant, non-lactating women need 18 milligrams a day and that’s because women lose iron in the menstrual cycle. That’s all basically to say, guys don’t need a lot of iron first of all. You only need eight milligrams a day. Now a cup of beans has anywhere from about four to six milligrams.
If you eat a cup of beans, you’re knocking out about 50 to 75% a year needs right there. What is true about iron is that there are two different forms. Animals contain what’s called heme iron. Well, they actually contain both heme iron and non-heme iron and heme iron is easier to absorb. Plants only contain non-heme iron. Basically our body regulates the amount of non-heme iron your body can take in. If your iron stores are great and they’re high, it’s not going to take as much in. If your iron stores are low, it’s going to increase the bioavailability. Whereas heme iron found in animals, your body just keeps taking it in. Now that can be a good thing and a bad thing. If you were really needing iron, if you’re anemic, then that’s when your doctor might be like, “Oh, you should eat red meat. It’s really bioavailable.”
But actually the study shows that too much iron can be really harmful in our bodies as well. Iron is an oxidant, so it can actually damage DNA. That’s one reason why meat can actually be a bad source of iron because if you get too much of it, you can be overloading your body. That’s why plants might be a better source. But there’s something that we can do to overcome this reduced bioavailability and that is by pairing iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C. Vitamin C can enhance and increase the absorption of the iron found in plants by about three to six times, which actually brings it up to the same absorption as animals. It’s kind of a moot point and we really naturally combine iron-rich and vitamin C rich foods in a plant-based diet anyway. Some vitamin C rich plants include things like bell peppers, strawberries, citrus. If you’ve ever had a burrito that has some salsa or some red bell peppers in there mixed in with your black beans, you’re doing that naturally.
My breakfast every morning is usually a bowl of oatmeal. Oats are a good source of iron and I usually top it with some strawberries, so that an option right there of a natural combination of iron and vitamin C.
Myth #4: Will eating soy give me man boobs?
That is another all too common, but completely factually inaccurate myth. Soy has never been shown in any cohort studies, in any epidemiological studies, to have any effects on the reproductive system and on hormones like testosterone. There’ve been lots of large trials that have been done. There have also been observational studies and they all show no difference in levels of hormones for men. There’s also no reports of moobs, if you will. This idea all stems really from one case study. A case study is where they look at a patient and they described what happened with them. It’s really anecdotal. There’s not a lot of science behind it. It’s just describing a case. There was one case many years ago of a 60-year-old man who’s drinking three quarts of soy milk a day and he developed some mammaries. I don’t think they were milking, but he developed some breast tissue.
That’s really where all of these claims come from, one random case study when the large bulk of the evidence refutes that. It’s really absurd and any good practitioner, any good researcher knows that case studies if we’re looking at the pyramid of evidence and the weight we give to different types of evidence, case studies are at the very top. They don’t compare to the mountain of the evidence that we rely on. Counter to that, we actually find that men who eat soy have a reduced risk of many diseases. One of those is prostate cancer. There was also a randomized control trial, which would be down at the bottom of the pyramid. These are really the most credible studies out there where you take two groups of men, you put them on different diets and you compare the results.
This was a study of men with Type II diabetes, and those who were consuming soy with isoflavones. Isoflavones are the phytochemicals that people often attribute these so-called dangerous effects of soy too because they say that they’re like estrogen. The men that were put on this diet had no difference in testosterone levels and they actually had improvements in insulin levels. They had decreases in inflammation and improvements in other cardiovascular health markers. We consistently see that soy is good for men. It doesn’t do any of these things that the pseudo-scientists out there claim that they do.
Myth #5: So maybe a “normal” guy can live off of a plant-based diet, but what about athletes?
I feel like this one is getting a little bit more cleared up in recent days, especially since the documentary Game-Changers came out. If you are on social media at all, there are numerous, just hundreds of examples of ripped dudes on plant-based diets. There’s no denying that you can’t get ripped on a plant-based diet. Like I said, go on follow some of these plant-based bodybuilders, and you will see that there’s plenty of examples out there. I think the best example is the fact that the strongest man in the world is a vegan.
What the science says is that really in order to build muscle, the most important factors are number one, strength training, so breaking down your muscle and building it back up. Proper nutrition, but it’s not dependent on certain foods. It’s dependent on certain nutrients, making sure you’re getting enough protein, making sure you’re getting enough carbohydrates, which is something that people also miss out on. Then of course, genetics. Some people are just going to put on muscle easier than others, but those are the three factors and nowhere in there does it say that you need animal protein in order to build muscle.
Myth #6: Didn’t humans evolve to eat meat?
It makes sense why people would be looking towards history to see what we’re supposed to eat. The bottom line is there’s no denying that people in the paleolithic era and throughout the course of history ate meat. There’s no denying it. We have records of this. What is disputed is a few different things. Number one, anthropologists and other researchers do not have a consensus on how much animal food we ate. Some people say it was a large contribution of the diet. Some say that it didn’t really contribute that much, and this also varies by region. If we look at hunter-gatherer societies even in recent times, people in the Arctic had a very, very large percentage of their diet coming from animals.
Whereas in other parts of the world in Okinawa, for example, or in the four other so-called blue zones which contain the largest populations of people living over 100, the percentage of meat in the diet was very, very small. So one, meat may not have taken up that much room in the diet as we think. Then secondly, just because we did eat meat doesn’t mean that it is beneficial now. Historically, evolution wise, meat carried an evolutionary advantage. Food was very hard to come by. It was scarce. As we know from eating a plant-based diet, plants are typically lower in calories. Meat was a concentrated calorically-rich, nutrient-dense source of food. It helped people survive. But nowadays we’re not just trying to survive. We are trying to thrive. We’re trying to improve our health span, the number of years without chronic disease, we’re trying to improve our longevity.
There’s no evidence that eating meat can contribute to that. Like I just talked about in the blue zones, it’s in fact, the opposite. We see that the longer lived populations are actually those that eat less meat. We may have ate it. It may have been beneficial then. It’s probably not beneficial now. We may be eating a lot more than our ancestors did, and it may not be contributing to our survival anymore because now food is not scarce. We have the opposite problem. We actually have too much nutrition. We have over-nutrition. It’s just not necessary. We can extract the same amount of nutrients from plants now to meet that same advantage that our ancestors got from meat.
The paleo and keto diets are really high in animal products and animal products don’t have fiber. They have zero. Not one animal product has any fiber. Go ahead and eat your meat, but you can’t let it displace all of the plants in the diet, or it’s not going to be anything like an ancestral diet. Grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and literally every plant has fiber and every nonplant has no fiber, and we’re learning more and more about the widespread benefits of fiber. We already knew that a high intake of fiber was associated with a reduced risk of every single chronic disease out there: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes. But now as we learn more about the microbiome, we’re starting to understand why, and that’s because fiber is what feeds our healthy gut bacteria. There are just widespread harmful effects to a diet that’s low in fiber.
Do you have any recommendations for people that are looking for more information or trusted sources to get info from?
Even within the plant-based space, there are gurus out there who are spreading non-evidence-based information, and while it’s at least closer to what I believe in, it’s very important to always get your information from the science. One person I really like is Dr. Michael Greger of nutritionfacts.org. He does a really great job of summing up nutrition trends and various nutrition topics into really easy to digest videos and articles. He has two books out. One’s called How Not to Die, and one’s called How Not to Diet, and both are really great. Both for people who’ve been plant-based for a while and want to learn more and for people who maybe are interested in a plant-based diet, but not ready to make the leap or not sure how to make the leap. I can’t say enough good things about him. I also do a lot of nutrition myth-busting over on my YouTube channel, Whitney E. RD. I actually have a three-part series on soy and myths about soy. The second video is about moobs, one of my other topics.