Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Protein: the latest killer lurking in your food

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Image by noodles and beef on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Image by noodles and beef on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Oh good, just what we all need, more fear mongering. That’s one thing we certainly don’t get enough of as part of our current diet. So, what’s the latest to spark fear into the tummies of eaters everywhere? Protein. Yep, apparently, our “obsession” with protein is actually making us sick. This according to Garth Davis, a surgeon, and author of the forthcoming book Proteinaholics. Cute name, no? Right up there with Grain Brain and Wheat Belly.

Davis proposes that we’re all eating too much protein and that it’s having dire health consequences. According to the article an average 150 lb adult in the US consumes the equivalent of more than 6 eggs worth of protein in a day. I’m not sure how the math was done to obtain this conclusion (I guess that “more than” must be integral) as I have six large eggs clocking in at 6 grams of protein a piece which would be 36 grams of protein for the day which is actually less than the recommended 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day. In fact, it leaves our “average adult” about 18 grams of protein shy of the recommended adequate intake. Not to mention the fact that while the AI is expected to meet, or exceed, the needs of most individuals, it doesn’t account for those who have increased nutrient needs such as athletes, those who are injured (particularly people suffering from burns), pregnant women, the elderly, etc. To the article author’s credit, she does go on to mention that there are some researchers who believe that the AI for protein should be increased, providing some balance to the article if you manage to read the whole piece.

Another good point made in the article is that we get protein from many foods, particularly foods that people don’t think of as protein sources. Things like grains and vegetables. However, this is undermined by the example provided comparing the protein content of a packet of Mr Noodles with the protein in a Clif Bar. An unfortunate choice because your standard Clif Bar isn’t a protein bar, it’s an energy bar. This may sound like a minor quibble but when most protein supplements provide around 20 grams of protein per serving, comparing an energy bar with 11 grams of protein (still nothing to sniff at) to Mr Noodles (which have 10 grams in the chicken flavour used for comparison but as few as 4 grams in some other flavours) is rather foolish. To digress from protein for a moment… While the Clif Bar is also high in sugar (about 5 teaspoons!) it does contain other vitamins and minerals and fibre while your packet of Mr Noodles will give you more than half a day’s worth of sodium. I know that the focus of the article was protein but it’s important not to make the focus of nutritional comparisons single nutrients.

Onto the dangers of our proteinaholic diets. Ketosis. Which, based on the article, you would think occurs after consuming a single protein supplement (sans carbs) and leads to nausea, fatigue, and headaches. Apparently feeling miserable is why you lose weight, you’re simply less inclined to eat. While I’m not a supporter of ketosis for weight loss (I love carbs and I don’t think that very-low carb diets are sustainable) I think that there may be some confusion between ketosis and ketoacidosis here. Ketosis is the result of following a low-carb diet (not necessarily a high-protein diet) and may initially result in symptoms such as frequent urination, dry mouth, and headache. People who are in ketosis often report a sense of euphoria and a lack of hunger once these initial symptoms pass. Nausea and vomiting may occur in the case of ketoacidosis which is when ketones build-up in the blood, making it acidic. This can happen to people with diabetes, during starvation, and in conjunction with other medical condition, not on a low-carb diet.

Animal proteins apparently also make you fat, cause cancer and diabetes. Also, the amino acids (which are building blocks of proteins) leach calcium from muscles and bones. To address the first statement: animal protein might cause you to gain weight, if you consume too much of it. So might cookies. Consuming excessive calories from any source can lead to weight gain. Animal protein might be a factor in cancer development, certainly processed meats and burnt meat have been identified as risk factors. As for diabetes, there has been an association noted between higher consumption of meat and type 2 diabetes; however, there has been no causal link made to date. To address the second statement: this myth has been around for a number of years. Recent research indicates that protein consumption does not reduce bone density, in fact, it may actually help to boost calcium retention.

“Although it’s necessary for us to grow, it also helps grow cancer cells. It’s instructive that breast milk, which humans consume during the fastest growing period of our lives, derives just five per cent of its calories from protein.”

Funny, I thought it was sugar that was feeding cancer. If you believed all of the fear mongering out there you wouldn’t be able to eat anything. Do I really need to tell you that infants are different than adults? If breastmilk was the optimal way for humans beyond the age of 2 years to obtain nutrition then we’d all be drinking breastmilk on the daily. As we age, our nutrient needs change; in connection with increased caloric needs we also see increased protein needs.

We’ve seen so many diets purporting that this or that macronutrient is evil. I’m not saying eat more meat, most Canadians could certainly benefit from consuming less. However, it seems to me that people like Davis are conflating protein with meat. You can’t paint all protein-containing foods with the same brush and his message only serves to scare people away from protein in general. In my mind, this is not promoting a healthy way of eating. Nor am I saying that protein supplements are necessary, sorry Vega, they’re really not.

Davis says, “If I can’t convince you that protein is bad for you, I can’t convince you that water is wet.” Awesome. I’m looking forward to no longer having to towel off after I shower.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

6 thoughts on “Protein: the latest killer lurking in your food

  1. Aren’t the “ketosis symptoms” you mentioned direct symptoms of abruptly lowering carbs, rather than ketosis itself?

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    • I’m not sure if you mean the symptoms that I mentioned (fairly minor) or the symptoms that were mentioned in the article (much more serious). I don’t think that either would be simply a result of lowering carbs. Although, as ketosis itself is a result of a very low-carb diet it’s hard to separate the two.

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  2. Excess protein turns into sugar via glyconeogenesis. If the aim is to achieve ketosis then it is important to not over eat it. If however someone just follows a normal diet than eating a bit more protein problably has no negative side effects.
    There might be some correlation with protein and cancer though as it promotes the production of insuline-like-growth-factor (IGF1) which is associated with the disease like excess processed carbs are. More research is definately needed in this area.

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    • Provided you’re not consuming sufficient carbohydrates your body can convert some amino acids into glucose via gluconeogenesis. However, this is a very costly process from an energy standpoint so will only be done when necessary. It’s not a result of consuming excess protein but a result of consuming a very low carb diet.

      As we know, correlation doesn’t equal causation. More knowledge is always better though so I’m not going to argue against researching this subject.

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    • But during the first few weeks of a ketosis the brain doesn’t yet adapt to using ketones as an energy source for itself, and will produce carbs via gluconeogenesis from protein. Which is why it is actually recommended to increase protein intake on a keto diet.

      Also if eating protein promotes cancer, than so does breathing air.

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      • Ah, yes, it can take awhile to enter ketosis. I’m not sure what the physiological mechanism would be for experiencing “carb withdrawal” symptoms but I suppose if a person was experiencing these symptoms before entering ketosis that there would have to be an alternative explanation.

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