Plant-based eaters looking for the perfect book to not only convince their friends to transition to their way to eating but also give them the tools to do it need look no further: “Clean Protein: The Revolution that will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy—and Save Our Planet,” the most recent work from New York Times bestselling author and health expert Kathy Freston, in cooperation with Bruce Friedrich, co-founder of The Good Food Institute, shows readers how and why plant-based eating has gone mainstream with the perfect blend of inspiration and aspiration.
The Secrets of the 'Dirty Protein' Industry
It's not uncommon for plant-based eating books to first delve into the horrorscape that is the meat industry; "Clean Protein" fulfills this trope. In fact, despite several promises to demystify clean protein, the book's focus on "dirty protein" is so prevalent for the first 50 pages that you'll wonder, at first, if the book was mistitled.
The authors spend several chapters on the disastrous effect that the meat industry has had on climate change as well as how the meat industry – with cooperation from Congress – got us into this mess in the first place. The chapter entitled “Follow the Money” is particularly adept at clarifying the link between government subsidies and checkoff groups and the way that the meat industry keeps prices low: it’s nonsensical and has an eerie, "Big Brother" quality about it, and the book makes this abundantly clear.
This section also does some fantastic mmyth-busting related to how much protein people really need to ingest (spoiler alert: not that much) and highlights the far more dire problem plaguing those who adhere to the Standard American Diet, a lack of fiber:
“Please allow us to underline that point: meat, dairy, and eggs have no fiber at all," write the authors. "That may explain why the average American consumes only 15 grams of fiber per day, which is 60 percent of the recommendation for women and well under half of the recommendation for men."
"Where do you get your protein?" may be a common question for someone who is cutting back on their meat intake, but no one ever asks a heavy meat-eater, "Where do you get your fiber?" even though a fiber-deficient diet has been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases endemic in Western countries — and even though most Americans already get too little of this vital nutrient.
While seasoned plant-based eaters may be aware of this common misbelief, it is presented in a wonderfully clear and succinct way that makes it impossible to argue in favor of non-plant-based ways of eating, at least from a nutritional perspective.
Walking the Line Between Reality and Utopia
From chapter five onward, the book delivers on the promise of its title, placing its focus on healthful, clean sources of protein, with an initial focus on beans and nuts. It is here, however, that an irksome tendency towards contradiction begins.
In the chapter entitled "Diversity," the authors manage to present both sides of the argument for and against combining sources of plant-based protein on one plate. On the one hand, they argue, it’s been proven to be unnecessary to get all of your essential amino acids in the same meal, as long as you're getting them all every day. On the other hand, they note, most vegetarian cuisines blend legumes and grains (beans and tortillas in Mexico or lentils and rice in India), and the authors encourage readers to do the same. In the same vein, they manage to jump from claiming that it doesn’t matter when you eat your food, as long as you’re eating enough, to showing that adding avocado to a carrot salad makes the beta carotene more absorbable. While the contradictions here can be excused given the lack of conclusive evidence for or against food combination, the authors' choices in presenting this information attempt to be diplomatic and come off as merely inconsistent.
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The contradictions don't end here. While the authors repeatedly (and repetitively) claim that just by eating plants, humans ingest more than enough protein, the authors also tout adding protein powders to their plant-based smoothies and focusing on protein sources when crafting meal ideas. Similarly, the authors make an example of the plant-based meat industry near the beginning of the book (albeit as part of a wider jab at the meat industry), even asking why there’s no similar “walnut-like” industry for people with nut allergies, only to spend later chapters singing the praises of Impossible Foods and other plant-based meat companies.
While these contradictions are somewhat problematic, they are also indicative of a larger issue that the authors are attempting to solve – and that they succeed in solving later in the book. While the authors are convinced of the superiority of a plant-based way of eating, they are also aware that most people won't make the change 100 percent. Despite the ever-increasing press related to the health benefits of plant-based diets, they note, only about 2 percent of the U.S. population never eats meat today. As a result of this, the authors are continuously attempting to walk the line between utopia and reality.
“While we share Bill Gates’ and Eric Schmidt’s enthusiasm for plant-based meat,” they write, “We think the analogues will take us only so far."
This dichotomy incites the the authors to follow their ample reasoning in favor of the switch to a whole foods plant-based diet with concrete suggestions that are tainted with convenience and processed food suggestions, and while the argument in favor of processed plant-based foods over meat can (and does) hold water, the authors don’t bring the necessary evidence to the table.
The most palpable example comes in the sidebar, “Not All Processed Foods Are Bad,” where the authors first point fingers at the processing that takes place in the meat and dairy industry before attempting to show that processed meat substitutes are the lesser of two evils. While this often is the case, their argument as presented on the page is so woefully biased that it makes it hard to believe: the “helpful chart” provided lists “Harmful Components” for plant-based meat including, “No animal protein or cholesterol, generally very low in saturated fat, no bacterial or drug residues,” ignoring the actual harmful components – like excess sodium – to help consumers make an educated decision.
But the authors' decision to toe the line between utopia and reality is fruitful in certain cases, the most palpable of which is their discussion of clean, lab-grown meat innovations.
The authors position this lab-grown meat as an alternative, not to plant-based meat, but to factory-farmed meat; while they note that clean meat will never be as efficient as plant-based protein, they also note that this innovation could solve the environmental problems linked to the meat industry and provide a viable alternative for those who just can’t give up meat – an astounding majority of the population. In providing an interesting comparison of this innovation to that of the car, the authors normalize the idea of clean meat and stir optimism and excitement in the reader.
A Guide to Plant-Based Eating
Many people who purchase this book will spend most of their time in the third section: prescriptive rather than aspirational, this section condenses much of the information provided in the first two into resources for beginning a plant-based way of life, including a shopping guide; easy, internationally-influenced recipes; and tips and tricks for transitioning to plant-based eating. This latter category includes everything from how to overcome the digestive discomfort that follows adding more beans (and generally more fiber) to your diet to ways to craft meals that feel as moreish and satisfying as those featuring meat (including succinct tips like: “Meaty texture + umami flavor = satisfied belly.”)
The section also explores how best to share your new plant-based way of life with friends and family and offers an easy-to-reference list of myths and ways to bust them, ranging from the ever-popular “Plant-based eaters don’t get enough protein” to the idea that clean protein must be more expensive than dirty protein.
The epilogue of 'Clean Protein' offers perhaps the best glimpse of what it sets out to accomplish: showing two possible scenarios for the future, one where we transition to clean protein, as a society, and one where we do not. It seems a bit utopian (or even dystopian…) but then again, it’s not entirely unrealistic.
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