Updated: Jun 5, 2019
Protein is America's most celebrated nutrient. This time of year, millions of Americans are increasing protein from lean meat and low-fat dairy to lose weight and gain muscle. This embodies our nation's confusion about protein. When entire industries are built around the provision and supplementation of a single nutrient, the marketing messages prevail common knowledge.
Unfortunately, these messages of the necessity for more protein for stronger muscles and better health have made their way into the minds of many healthcare providers as well. These misconceptions are based on the centuries-old theory that protein is the most important nutrient, and animal sources are the "highest quality". In the early 1800's Gerhard Mulder named protein, derived from the Greek word "proteios" meaning "of prime importance."
In the late 1800's Carl Voit established 52 grams of protein per day as the "requirement of man," but he recommended 120 grams per day for no apparent reason. Back then, Royalty were the only ones who could afford animal proteins and diet-related disease often plagued them. The modern-day king of the high-protein, low-carbohydrate movement, Dr. Atkins was obese when he died of Heart Disease.
Contrary to common belief, when it comes to protein, more is not better. In fact, the typical American is consuming excess, and it shows. Americans as a whole are chronically ill and overweight due to excess calories, including protein calories and the fat that comes with them. Protein does not turn into pure lean muscle magically once you consume it. In fact, if you consume large amounts of protein, your body actually converts the amino acids into its preferred primary fuel - carbohydrates - through a process called Gluconeogenesis.
Often protein is referred to as the "building blocks" from which a healthy body is built. One of my favorite analogies is by Dr. Garth Davis, Author of PROTEINAHOLIC: How Our Obsession With Meat Is Killing Us And What We Can Do About It. He explains,
"What if your house were built, and in fine repair, but a dump truck kept dropping loads of bricks on your front lawn and a forklift kept leaving pallets of bricks on your kitchen floor. At that point, those bricks would go from valuable building materials to dangerous nuisances."
The Standard American Diet is approximately 30-40% protein which has directly led to our chronic disease epidemic. Protein intake in excess of the metabolic requirements has been linked with development of diseases such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, kidney stones, heart disease, diabetes type 2, and osteoporosis. This increased disease risk is due to the increase and activation of the biochemical pathways IGF-1, TOR, and S6K which promote aging at the cellular level.
All nine essential amino acids are present in both plant and animal proteins. Animals humans consume are primarily herbivores, they build the protein we consume entirely from plants. It is now understood that we need not worry about "complete" proteins versus "incomplete" proteins. When protein is consumed it is digested into amino acids which pool in the blood plasma to be used as necessary in protein synthesis and repair. Therefore, it is not necessary to combine foods to formulate a complete protein, this completion occurs in the blood at the amino acid level.
There are three nutrients in varying levels in nearly all foods we consume in their natural form: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Plant proteins have the added benefit of providing fiber, which 97% of Americans are deficient. In addition, plant proteins are free from artery-clogging cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat contained in even the leanest meat and dairy. The truth is, while considered "proteins" by many, and therefore sought-after, many meat and dairy foods are actually higher in fat calories than protein calories. This explains why studies show that those that consume the most meat are the most-likely to be overweight or obese and diseased with cancer, diabetes type 2 and heart disease.
So the next time you're hungry for protein, consider the fact that there is protein in every plant food available in varying amounts, and animal proteins are a secondary source of protein from plants. There is a growing movement of people that have decided to skip the middle-animal, because plants have protein too! High protein plant foods include spinach, beans, peas, oats, quinoa, brown rice, broccoli, soy products, potatoes, nuts, and seeds like pumpkin, hemp and chia. Fill up on whole and minimally-processed plant foods that contain plenty of protein and fiber to keep you full without filling you out while promoting health, not disease.
Trey Bennett, NP is Certified in Evidence-Based Nutrition from the Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell and the Founder of Integrative Health Providers, Kansas City's only Board-Certified Lifestyle Medicine Specialists. If you're in the Kansas City area and are suffering from any of the above diseases or you're interested in preventing them, we are now accepting new patients.