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Eat food, not too much, mostly plants: Is eating too much protein a problem?

Updated: Jun 14

THE PROTEIN MYTH



Proteins, carbs, fats …  most people understand what the last two are. Carbs are sugars, and fats are, well, fat. It's protein that’s so important to our diets but so often misunderstood — by the general public, that is.


Many people obsess over meeting the Recommended Daily Amounts (RDAs) for protein, but this isn't necessary. In essence, the RDAs for nutrients, including protein, are set at levels that ensure almost nobody ends up with too little. This means the listed RDAs on food labels are typically higher than what most individuals actually need, providing a safety margin to prevent deficiencies across the population. Instead of fixating on these numbers, focus on a balanced diet that meets your overall nutritional needs. Your body will get the protein it requires from a variety of sources without the need to stress over specific amounts.


Christopher Gardner, who earned his PhD at UC Berkeley, described initial trials conducted at this institution in the 50s and 60s to establish protein requirements. In Morgan Hall, conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War volunteered to live under observation. They wore blue zoot suits, and their protein intake was systematically reduced to zero and then gradually increased. All bodily waste and shed cells were meticulously collected and analyzed for nitrogen, allowing us to calculate protein intake and output. These nitrogen balance studies revealed individual variations in protein needs, leading to a bell curve distribution. The average protein requirement, called the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR), was determined, but recommending this would mean half the population would be deficient. To ensure adequacy for 97.5% of the population, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is set two standard deviations above the EAR. Consequently, nearly everyone consuming the RDA exceeds their actual protein needs.


The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein in Australia is set at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight to ensure that nearly everyone gets enough protein. This typically translates to about 40-60 grams of protein per day, depending on body weight. However, most people in Australia consume about double this amount just through their regular diet. The RDA is designed as a population health measure, not an individual requirement. It accounts for variations in needs among different people, ensuring almost no one is deficient. This often surprises people who think they need to consume more protein than recommended.

Eating more protein does not directly help with weight loss. Proteins are fundamental for the structure of our body, including cells, organs, hair, fingernails, enzymes, and many hormones. Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids, which can be thought of like letters in the alphabet that form words of various lengths and functions. Our body cannot absorb whole proteins; it breaks them down into individual amino acids, which are then used to build the proteins our body needs, regardless of whether they originated from animal or plant sources.


Amino acids are categorized into essential and non-essential types. The body can synthesize 11 non-essential amino acids by modifying molecules from carbohydrates and fats, but the remaining 9 essential amino acids must be obtained through diet. Consuming a variety of foods ensures an adequate intake of all essential amino acids. Most people consume more than enough protein, as it is present in all plant and animal foods. Therefore, as long as sufficient calories are consumed daily with a balanced diet, protein needs are generally met.


Many people believe they need to consume more protein than recommended, often due to advice from fitness trainers who suggest at least a gram per kilogram of body weight to see benefits from gym workouts. However, the actual recommended daily allowance is 0.8 grams per kilogram, which is sufficient for nearly everyone. This discrepancy creates confusion and pressure to consume more protein than necessary. This misunderstanding stems from a lack of awareness that the RDA already accounts for variations in individual needs, ensuring almost no one is deficient.



On an average day, people often consume more carbohydrates than they need. When this happens, the body prioritizes its use: first checking if the brain needs it, then the muscles. If neither requires it immediately, the excess is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. This storage is limited, typically around a kilogram. In contrast, the body can store fat almost indefinitely, accommodating hundreds of pounds in various body parts.


For protein, the body uses what it needs for enzymes and hormones, and any excess is converted into carbohydrates and fats, as the body cannot store protein. This process involves removing the nitrogen from the protein, which the liver converts to ammonia, and the kidneys excrete it. While excess protein isn't usually harmful to healthy individuals, those with kidney impairments are advised to limit their protein intake to avoid overburdening their kidneys.


So, when consuming products labeled as "no carbs, 10 grams of protein" or "no sugar, 10 grams of protein," if you are already consuming more protein than needed, your body will convert this extra protein into carbohydrates and fat. Given that most people already consume sufficient food, any additional intake will likely be stored as body fat.


In the end, it all comes down to calories. A preliminary study at Stanford involved 22 graduate student recreational athletes, split evenly between runners and weightlifters, and balanced by gender. Over four weeks, participants followed an omnivorous diet, a vegan diet, and a diet with plant-based alternative meats. Performance measures included pushups, pullups, bench press, lat pulldowns, leg press, and a 12-minute run for distance.


Despite consuming less protein during the vegan phase, participants maintained their performance levels. This suggests that even without protein supplements, a vegan diet can meet protein needs for athletes. Other research supports this, indicating that while recommended protein intake might be higher than the commonly cited 0.8 grams per kilogram, most people already consume enough protein through a varied diet without needing additional supplements. The study aims to be expanded for further validation.


For children, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein varies by age and is higher than the standard 0.8 grams per kilogram because they are growing. Pregnant women also require more protein than the standard RDA due to fetal growth. The question is whether these higher protein needs can be met through diet alone. Generally, with a reasonable variety of foods, it is quite feasible to meet these requirements without needing extra protein sources.


For people with impaired kidneys, even a severely restricted protein diet of 0.7 grams per kilogram is challenging to maintain. This highlights how difficult it is to consume too little protein, as most diets naturally provide sufficient amounts.


The estimated average requirement for protein is around 40 grams per day, but this doesn't mean an equal distribution of all 20 amino acids. Some, like glutamate and glutamine, are needed in larger amounts, while others, like tryptophan and methionine, are needed in smaller quantities.


This can be compared to Scrabble tiles, where some letters are more common than others. Similarly, the amino acid profiles of proteins from eggs, chicken, pork, fish, and beef are strikingly similar. Contrary to popular belief, plants also contain all 20 amino acids, with distributions comparable to those in animal proteins. Grains might be low in lysine and beans in methionine, but this is only a concern if protein intake is very low.


Most people consume around 80 grams of protein daily, ensuring they get enough of all amino acids, even from plant sources. This analogy demonstrates that a varied diet provides sufficient protein and amino acids without the need for supplements, even for vegetarians and vegans.


When people consume more protein than needed, the excess is broken down into carbohydrates and fat. Given that plant proteins don’t have the ideal distribution of amino acids, eating more than the required amount generally covers any gaps. The concept of complementing proteins, such as combining grains and beans, addresses these deficiencies, making the amino acid profile closer to that of meat.


Ultimately, you can meet all your protein needs on a completely plant-based diet without obsessing over protein intake, especially if you consume around 80 or 90 grams of protein daily.


For the healthiest and tastiest source of protein, beans, hummus, three-bean soup, and three-bean salad are excellent choices. Plant proteins like tofu and tempeh are also recommended. Unlike animal proteins, which have a perfect amino acid distribution and better digestibility but come with saturated fats, hormones, antibiotics, and lack fiber, plant proteins offer numerous health benefits. They contain less saturated fat, more phytochemicals, antioxidants, and plenty of fiber, which is beneficial for the microbiome.


Additionally, the definition of protein quality should consider the nutrients accompanying protein-rich foods. While meat might provide high-quality protein, it also comes with negative components like saturated fat and no fiber. In contrast, beans and grains provide antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients. Furthermore, from an environmental perspective, legumes and grains are more sustainable, requiring less land and water and producing fewer greenhouse gases, which helps preserve biodiversity.


You can enjoy a wheat berry salad with nuts and whole grains, and incorporate hummus regularly. There are many delicious Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Latin American, and South Asian dishes centered around grains and beans, offering a global fusion of flavors. You don't have to search hard to find these options.


Even if you're focused on athletic performance, such as running or weightlifting, you don't need to consume steak daily to meet your protein needs.

Protein, unlike fats and carbs which fuel us, creates our body's structure and is derived from 20 amino acids, similar to letters forming words. The required protein amount is much lower than commonly believed, with a maximum need of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. People in the developed counties typically consume double this amount. For those not consuming animal protein, it's not an issue since plants contain all amino acids, though some are in lower amounts. However, given overall protein intake, this isn’t a problem. Foods labeled as "extra high protein," like bars and shakes, are generally unhealthy. Instead, the recommendation is to eat beans, legumes, pulses, and to color your plate like a rainbow.


Is Eating Too Much Protein a Problem?


While protein is an essential macronutrient, consuming it in excessive amounts can lead to potential health issues. Here are some reasons why overconsumption of protein can be problematic:


1. Kidney Strain: High protein intake can put additional strain on the kidneys, especially in individuals with pre-existing kidney conditions. The kidneys have to work harder to filter out the byproducts of protein metabolism, which can lead to further complications over time. I see this in people who consume protein shakes.


2. Dehydration: Protein metabolism requires more water for the kidneys to excrete waste products like urea. This can increase the risk of dehydration, particularly if adequate fluids are not consumed.


3. Nutrient Imbalance: Consuming too much protein often means less room for other essential nutrients in your diet. This can lead to imbalances and deficiencies in important vitamins and minerals, which are crucial for overall health.


4. Digestive Issues: Excessive protein intake can cause digestive discomfort, including constipation or diarrhea, depending on the source of the protein and individual digestive sensitivities.


5. Bone Health: There is some evidence suggesting that very high protein diets, particularly those high in animal proteins, may increase calcium loss through urine, potentially impacting bone health over time.


6. Weight Gain: While protein can aid in weight management, consuming too much can still lead to weight gain. Excess calories, regardless of their source, can be stored as fat in the body.


7. Heart Health: Diets very high in animal protein can also be high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which may increase the risk of heart disease over time.


Balancing protein intake with a variety of other nutrients is key. Most people can meet their protein needs through a well-rounded diet without the need for excessive supplementation.


Finally

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants"

Michael Pollan's author

"In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto."


Famous individuals across various fields who have adopted plant-based diets, including boxers, other sports figures, celebrities, and politicians:


Boxers

1. David Haye: Former world champion in two weight classes, Haye transitioned to a plant-based diet in 2014, crediting it for his improved fitness and recovery.

2. Timothy Bradley: Former two-weight world champion, Bradley adopted a plant-based diet for health reasons and performance benefits.

3. Bryant Jennings: Heavyweight boxer Jennings follows a vegan diet and has praised its positive effects on his athletic performance and overall well-being.

4. Cam Awesome: Amateur heavyweight boxer Awesome is a vocal advocate for veganism and its benefits for athletes.



Other Sports Figures

1. Venus Williams: The tennis superstar adopted a raw vegan diet to help manage her autoimmune disease and has seen significant health improvements.

2. Lewis Hamilton: The Formula 1 champion switched to a plant-based diet for health, environmental, and ethical reasons and credits it for enhancing his performance.

3. Novak Djokovic: The tennis world No. 1 follows a plant-based diet, attributing it to his stamina, recovery, and overall health.

4. Chris Paul: The NBA star adopted a plant-based diet, noting better recovery times and overall health.

5. Kyrie Irving: Another NBA star, Irving switched to a plant-based diet and experienced improved energy and performance on the court.

6. Scott Jurek: An ultramarathoner, Jurek is a dedicated vegan and has won numerous ultrarunning titles on a plant-based diet.

7. Tia Blanco: The professional surfer and two-time World Surfing Games gold medalist is a vegan and credits her diet for her athletic success and recovery.


Celebrities

1. Bill Clinton: The former U.S. President adopted a plant-based diet after his heart surgery and credits it with improving his health and helping him lose weight.

2. Ellen DeGeneres: The comedian and talk show host has been a prominent vegan advocate, promoting animal rights and a plant-based lifestyle.

3. Ariana Grande: The pop star follows a vegan diet and often speaks about her love for animals and the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle.

4. Joaquin Phoenix: The Oscar-winning actor is a lifelong vegan and a passionate animal rights activist, known for his advocacy through speeches and documentaries.

5. Natalie Portman: The actress is a long-time vegan and uses her platform to advocate for animal rights and environmental issues.

6. Woody Harrelson: The actor has been a vegan for many years, emphasizing the health and environmental benefits of the


Politicians

1. Cory Booker: The U.S. Senator from New Jersey follows a vegan diet and has been vocal about its environmental and health benefits.

2. Eric Adams: The Mayor of New York City adopted a plant-based diet to combat diabetes and has since promoted plant-based nutrition in public health policies.

3. Al Gore: The former Vice President and environmental activist shifted to a plant-based diet for its lower environmental impact.

These individuals from diverse fields have found that a plant-based diet supports their health, performance, and ethical values.



What about the 73 yr old vegan Chef Babette?





Dr Purity Carr

GP & Menopause Doctor

Harvey WA 6220

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