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Diet for a Small Planet Helps and Harms

By: John McDougall M.D.

A popular book among vegetarians, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe’ published in 1971, started a revolution that has had a positive impact for the past three decades on the lives of millions of people. Unfortunately, Ms. Lappe’ failed to understand the basic scientific literature on human protein needs and the sufficiency of plants foods before she wrote her influential book. She believed plants contained “incomplete proteins” with insufficient amounts of certain essential amino acids to meet the needs of people.[13] As a result of this misunderstanding, she placed great emphasis on combining vegetable foods to create an amino acid pattern which resembles that found in animal foods. This emphasis is unnecessary and implies that it is difficult to obtain “complete” protein from vegetables without detailed nutritional knowledge. Because of her complicated and incorrect ideas people are frightened away from vegetable-based diets.

The impact of her incorrect teachings of more than 30 years ago affects nutritional policy even today. In 2001 the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association published a long overdue review warning people of the dangers of high protein diets, like the Atkins, the Zone, and Sugar Busters diets.[14] Unfortunately, this one statement in an otherwise valuable report is scientifically incorrect: “Although plant proteins form a large part of the human diet, most are deficient in 1 or more essential amino acids and are therefore regarded as incomplete proteins.” For a supporting scientific reference the Committee cites Frances Moore Lappe’s 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet.

You may think this is a trivial matter; however, incorrect information on our protein needs can have grave consequences on your health and your family’s health. With the American Heart Association teaching that plants fail to supply complete protein you are almost certain to receive incorrect, potentially damaging, medical advice. For example, say you go to your doctor after a heart attack and mention that you are now going to become a pure vegetarian to avoid future heart trouble. Your doctor may respond, “You can’t do that, you will become protein deficient on an all plant food diet – the Heart Association says so.” Or your child is sick with recurrent asthma and ear infections and you want a dietary cure – you may be warned away from a highly effective therapy because members of the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association fail to understand basic scientific research about human protein needs and plant foods. So this is no small matter.

I have confronted the Heart Association about spreading misinformation that can result in suffering as serious as death from heart disease – so far they have shown no interest in making overdue corrections to their incorrect teaching. (See my July, August and November 2002 Newsletters for more information on this.) I recently shared my conflict with the Heart Association with the world’s leading authority on human protein requirements, Dr. D. Joe Millward from the Center for Nutrition and Food Safety, School of Biological Sciences University of Surrey, UK. His response to me on July 10, 2003 was, “Contrary to general opinion, the distinction between dietary protein sources in terms of the nutritional superiority of animal over plant proteins is much more difficult to demonstrate and less relevant in human nutrition. This is quite distinct from the AHA position which in my view is wrong.” [15]

Go on to: So How Do You Know the Truth about Your Protein Needs?
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We began this archive as a means of assisting our visitors in answering many of their health and diet questions, and in encouraging them to take a pro-active part in their own health. We believe the articles and information contained herein are true, but are not presenting them as advice. We, personally, have found that a whole food vegan diet has helped our own health, and simply wish to share with others the things we have found. Each of us must make our own decisions, for it's our own body. If you have a health problem, see your own physician.