While food controversies over the last few decades tainted public opinions about carbohydrates and fats, protein survived with reputation intact. With help from food marketing, protein has arguably achieved rock star status as the macronutrient of choice. It’s noticeable how many foods promote their protein content as if it should be our most important concern.
To understand why controversies over food rage in the public arena while scientists look on at a confused public in bewilderment, you need to appreciate the force food marketing exerts on public perceptions. Being generally aware of the breadth and reach of food marketing should give you a clue.
For example, let’s say a scientific advisory panel issued a statement that supplemental vitamins may be helpful but whole foods are a better source of biologically available vitamins and minerals. From this statement, someone selling vitamins would typically get away with a suggestion that their product is helpful for health. Just one problem here, there is no evidence that vitamin supplements are as good as vitamins from whole foods. To the contrary, there are many studies showing that when micronutrients are obtained from whole food sources health outcomes are better. Unfortunately, truth in labeling doesn’t require that you know the whole truth nor does it require that you be told that the supplement you are buying is inferior to what you would get from whole foods.
Like vitamin marketing, accolades for protein originate from scientific advisory statements taken out of context. In the hands of clever marketing departments, half-truths can easily be manipulated to create a halo of goodness that encourages people to buy and over consume more protein than is good for their health.
Dr. Garth Davis, in his book, “Proteinaholic,” shares an awakening he experienced upon realizing that he was gaining weight and beginning to have many of the issues his patients complained about. As his health began to suffer it became clear that his medical education had inadequately prepared him to care for himself or his patients.
As he studied the problem more closely, it became clear that lifestyle, and in particular diets high in animal protein, resulted in much higher rates of chronic disease. From his exhaustive review of peer-reviewed research, he began to fill in the missing gaps in his knowledge of nutrition. His quest led him to understand that:
- Protein is not the key to weight loss – rather excess protein is one of the biggest reasons for the expanding waistline epidemic in the United States.
- Animal protein is not the healthiest food available. In reality, it is strongly associated with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, and cancer.
- A variety of plants can easily provide all of our protein needs.
- A lower protein diet that provides sufficient protein is healthier than a high protein diet.
- A plant-based whole food high carbohydrate diet that has adequate protein and adequate fat is the ideal diet for weight loss.
In Dr. Garth’s search for answers, he reviewed thousands of original studies and hundreds of meta-analyses. From his study, he concluded that excessive protein consumption fits the definition of addiction. The difference is that the effects of protein are slower than the effects of alcohol and drugs. As an example, he offers a typical patient-doctor dialog.
Doctor: So last time I asked you to include more fruits and vegetables. In particular, we talked about having an apple for a snack and starting dinner with a salad. How did that go?
Patient: I thought about it, but realized if I ate the apple or salad I wouldn’t have enough room for the protein.
Doctor: But, we talked about this at length. You don’t need so much protein. In fact, too much protein is the main reason you are in my office.
Patient: I know, but I was scared of not getting enough protein.
It’s simply amazing how food marketing has set people up to panic when they don’t believe there is enough protein on their plate. This withdrawal symptom is much like those seen in alcoholics when a behavior change is suggested with reactions like – just leave me alone or I don’t have a problem. And, yet, despite their denial, protein-related diseases rage on.
While food advertisers have been big players in selling America on the notion that more protein is better, they didn’t get this idea all by themselves. As often happens, the Government sets well-intentioned guidelines that are all too easy for advertisers to misrepresent with half-truths and innuendo. One example is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein which was set at a level that would meet the needs of 99% of people. At this level, everyone gets as much protein as the biggest hardest working person in the country. If like most, this subtle statistical element of the RDA probably never caught your attention. Unfortunately, statistics are not everyone’s forte and most end up interpreting the RDA as being just enough to survive. With the perception that you are on the road to malnourishment, who wouldn’t be expected to load up on ever more protein foods. For an average person living a moderately sedentary life, meeting the RDA for protein far exceeds their need. As most are inclined to do, supplementing their diet with animal protein only adds to the nutritional imbalance. As for correcting the public’s misconception about the RDA for protein, don’t expect a solution anytime soon. For now, the meat and dairy industries have well-funded lobbies ready to pounce should their interest be challenged.
Think about your perception and consumption of protein.
Do you worry that you aren’t getting enough protein?
Do you worry that you aren’t getting the complete protein you need?
Do you find yourself reading food labels to ensure a portion of food has enough protein?
When shopping, do you find yourself reaching for the product that claims to have extra protein?
Do you feel like you might let your family down if there isn’t an animal protein dish on the table?
If this describes you, then you qualify as what Dr. Garth Davis would call a proteinaholic.
If ready to begin a recovery take a line from AA with the introduction, “My name is _____ and I am a proteinaholic.” With luck, you will get a laugh and an opening to share your understanding about the health concerns associated with consuming excess protein.
Till next time here are a few myths about protein to keep in mind.
Myth 1. A diet high in carbs is the cause of diabetes. As for carbs, in the form of whole foods, they are not the enemy. However, processed carbs will worsen or contribute to the development of diabetes. The truth is that meat and fat are the primary contributors to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Myth 2. A high carb diet can set us up for heart disease. The fact is that carbs have no cholesterol. Carbs in the form of whole foods can help reverse some types of heart disease.
Myth 3. A diet high in carbs will lead to weight gain. Again, carbs from whole foods are not the problem. Refined carbs, excess meat, and excess fat consumption are behind the weight gain epidemic in the country.
Myth 4. Meat is only a problem if raised on factory farms with antibiotics and growth hormones. While it’s true that factory farmed meat is particularly bad for health, even the most ‘organic’ meat should come with a health warning label. All large epidemiological studies show that cancer risk rises as animal protein consumption rises. Currently, the only studies showing a reversal of heart disease are plant-based whole food diets that eliminated animal protein.
Myth 5. Many cultures, past and present have eaten high protein diets and survived. While many cultures eat high protein diets, none thrive on the diet aside from a few unusual people. In every population, a few will defy the averages by having the worst possible lifestyle and yet live on in good health till 100. Ignoring these rare outliers, no society that eats a high protein diet has good health into old age. Today, America is the poster child for what’s wrong with a high protein diet.
If feeling this message about protein has turned your beliefs upside down, then know you are not alone. Changing beliefs takes self-education and time to change old habits. Should you want to kick-start your new understanding of protein, consider reading the book “Proteinaholic” by Garth Davis.
Nancy Neighbors, MD