Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Protein: the latest killer lurking in your food

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.


More on protein

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have been seeing a bunch of infographics such as these lately:


While the second one’s much better than the first (credit: Avery Muether Illustrations), it includes fairly accurate protein quantities (and some of these foods are reasonably high sources of protein), I still wanted to comment on them. I went through the foods included in the first infographic and looked up the protein in a serving of each. Here they are:

spirulina (1 tbsp dried) – 4g

goji berries (2 oz dried) – 8g

chia seeds (1 oz) – 4.4g

spinach (1 cup raw) – 0.9g

hemp seeds (2 tbsp) – 10g

barley grass (6g dried) – 1.5g

brazil nuts (1 oz) – 4g

broccoli (1 cup raw) – 3g

(bean) sprouts (1 oz) – 0.8g

figs (1 oz dried) – 0.9g

avocado (1 oz) – 3g

maca (1 tbsp powder) – 1g

kale (1 cup raw) – 2g

romaine lettuce (1 cup shredded) – 0.6g

For the most part, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of protein in these foods. Considering that a single serving of protein is considered to be approximately 6-7g. Even if you consumed all of these foods in a day you would be consuming only 44.1g of protein in total. This is quite close to the needs for many women. Protein needs are generally 0.8g per kg of body weight. However, more protein may be needed in some cases such as for athletes, pregnancy, wound healing, childhood, elderly, etc. Even so, most of us handily exceed the daily requirements for protein.

There is something else beyond total protein to consider, however. We also need to look at protein quality. High quality proteins are those that contain ample amounts of all nine essential amino acids. I’m sure you already know this but just as a refresher… Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are 20 (or 21 if you count cystine) amino acids, 9 of which are considered essential because our bodies cannot synthesize them and must, therefore, obtain them from food. Animal proteins (with the exception of gelatin) are considered to be high-quality as they contain all of the essential amino acids in ample quantities. Many plant proteins are considered to be low-quality as they are either low in, or lack, one or more of the essential amino acids. While it’s absolutely possible to obtain all of the amino acids we need from plant proteins it also takes more careful consideration than proteins obtained from animal sources. This is why we talk about complementary proteins. These are plant protein sources that, when combined, yield adequate amounts of all 9 amino acids. A few examples are: hummus and pita, rice and beans, veggies and polenta. Just to be clear, the complementary proteins needn’t be consumed together at the same meal (although they certainly can be) as long as they’re consumed throughout the day.

Generally speaking, aside from foods such as beans, nuts, and seeds, plant proteins are lower in total protein (not just essential amino acids) than animal proteins. Just a few examples: 3 oz of canned tuna has 21.6g of protein, 3 oz of chicken breast has 21.3 g, Greek yoghurt can contain up to 15-18g per serving.

Yes, it is possible to consume adequate protein without consuming animal products. It’s likely preferable if we do favour plant sources of protein over animal sources. However, it’s not as simple as those infographics make it seem. Most foods contain some quantity of protein. That second infographic especially irks me. Suggesting that romaine lettuce and figs are good sources of protein is ludicrous.

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Humans cannot live on bread alone

This tweet came through my feed last week: “Whole grains are approximately 10-12% protein. The exact percentage we should be eating. Nature knows best!” I started to respond via twitter but I couldn’t keep it down to 140 characters. Lucky you, you get to read my rant in response.

I’m not sure where the notion that 10-12% of calories from protein is optimal came from. Acceptable Macronutrient Data Ranges put protein needs at anywhere from 10-35% of total calories. The 10-12% is within this range, but it’s at the low-end. Also, I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “man cannot live on bread alone”. Even if this is the amount of protein that you’re obtaining from whole grains, they’re not going to be the only food that you’re consuming so you’ll need to eat other protein-containing foods to ensure that you’re getting enough protein.

I looked at the protein content of a few whole grains. 3/4 cup of cooked rolled oats contains 2.85 grams of protein. That means that of total calories in a serving, about 8% come from protein. About 9% of calories in long-grain brown rice come from protein. Quinoa fares better, coming in with 14.6% of calories from protein. Multi-grain whole-grain bread actually has about 20% of calories coming from protein (although this amount is likely to vary considerably depending on the recipe). My point here is that not all whole grains consist of 10-12% protein.

The last point that I want to make is that not all proteins are created equal. Proteins are made up of amino acids of which there’s a recommended pattern of consumption (we need more of some than of others). Grains do not generally contain the pattern of amino acids that we need, making it necessary for us to consume other sources of protein to ensure that we get all of the amino acids we need.

Sure, nature knows best. Nature also knows that grains are not our best or only source of protein.

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Picking protein

I get a lot of questions about protein. Hopefully this post will address at least a few of them.

Protein is a part of every cell in your body. It’s important for growth and cellular repair, as well as satiety. Protein is composed of amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids. These amino acids cannot be produced by your body and must be consumed through dietary sources.

Most of us consume more than enough protein in our diets. The average person only needs about 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That would mean an average man, weighing 182 lb, would need about 74 grams of protein a day. The average woman, weighing 153 lb, would need would need about 62 grams of protein a day.  Despite the perception that protein comes only from meat and alternatives, we actually get protein from nearly all of the foods we eat. Although the amounts will vary, as will the ratio of the essential amino acids.

If you aren’t getting enough protein from food you may wish to try protein supplements. People who are most likely to be lacking sufficient protein in their diets include: athletes, vegetarians, vegans, women, those who are injured or ill, people who are dieting or attempting to lose weight, people suffering from anorexia or alcoholism. How do you know which supplement is best for you? If you’re going for things like protein bars check the labels. Make sure that the calories are appropriate for your daily needs. Some protein bars provide the appropriate number of calories for a snack while others serve more as a meal supplement. You should also check other nutrients that are of concern to you, such as fat, sodium, and sugar as these can vary widely.

As for protein powders, there are a lot of different types available. From ones with added probiotics to fibre and varying amounts of protein. Check the manufacturer out online before you buy to ensure that they’re reputable. Unfortunately, these products are not well-regulated in Canada so you should know that you may not be getting what you’re paying for.

I took a recent trip to the grocery store to check out a few. I did a comparison of vanilla flavoured products (Proteins+, Vegan Proteins+, and Manitoba Harvest Hemp Protein). Initially, it appeared that the hemp protein was inferior to the other proteins as it had more calories and sugar but only a third the amount of protein. Then I realised that there was another hemp protein product (70) that contained the same amount of protein as the Proteins+. Which one is the best? It really depends on what you’re looking for and what you prefer. The Proteins+ contains slightly more protein than the other two (25 grams per serving, versus 20). The serving size for the Proteins+ was also slightly smaller so you’re getting more bang for your buck. It also contained the least number of calories, 110 versus 140 for the hemp and 118.5 for the Vegan Proteins+. However, it was also the only one that contained a caution stating: “Do not use if you are pregnant”. That makes me a little nervous. All three products contain all the essential amino acids. Although I was unable to find the exact ratios for any of them so one might be superior to another in that regard. Beyond taste, another factor to consider is digestibility. Despite the addition of digestive enzymes to the whey protein (i.e. Proteins+) some people find whey protein hard to tolerate. You might fare better with a vegan formula if that’s the case. One thing I did find a little confusing about the Vegan Proteins+ was that one scoop was 30.7 grams but the nutrition information was based on 35.5 grams. Make sure you read the label carefully before you make your choice.

Here’s my little comparison chart for the products I was referring to above:

Protein Powder Brand Serving size (g) Calories Fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Sugars (g) Protein (g)
Proteins+ 28.3 110 0.2 ? ? 25
Vegan Proteins+ 35.5 118.5 1.5 ? ? 20
Manitoba Harvest Hemp Pro 70 30 140 4.5 0.5 2 20