The High Protein Gamble


Do you feel lucky?  Well, do ya, punk?  Imitations of Clint Eastwood aside, you may not realize that, like it or not, you’ve taken a gamble.   I have too.  The gamble being, whether or not all those high protein meals you’ve been eating are beneficial for your long term health.

Right now, protein is IN, with most packaged foods on grocery store shelves making claims of added protein.  In previous decades, it was the words “low fat” that increased sales.  More recently, it’s been “organic”, or “gluten-free”.  And while those claims may still turn heads, you can see there’s a newcomer in town.  Sales of high protein products, including protein powders and protein-enriched snacks reached $8 billion in global sales this year.

This is largely due to claims that a high protein diet increases weight loss by allowing you to break down fat more quickly, and by increasing sensations of satiety so you eat less.  Of course, people are also hoping to build muscle mass, and protein is required for tissue growth.  Studies have also shown that protein supplements help the elderly maintain muscle mass as they age, making them less likely to fall and injure themselves, while also keeping their immune system strong.

It all sounds good, and for those whose diets tend towards protein deficiency, like the elderly or teenaged girls, some extra protein powder, or some powdered whole milk, may do some good.  However, most healthy North Americans, and particularly men, are not protein deficient.  In fact, they already eat roughly 100 grams daily, which is twice the recommended amount.

While it is true that a high protein diet does speed up weight loss, this effect is short term.  Studies have shown that when a high-protein diet is compared with a high-carb diet, both can stimulate weight loss, as long as fewer calories are consumed overall.  More importantly, people on a high protein diet tend to gain the weight back faster.

It’s also important to note that protein is dense with calories – and fat – especially animal protein.  This is why it makes you feel full faster.  Extra protein may be beneficial if you are an athlete and highly active, but most people today lead sedentary lives, so any extra protein consumed only causes unnecessary weight gain.

Excessive protein consumption can also make your body more acidic, leading to loss of calcium in your bones.  The extra calorie load will lead to fat storage in cells, causing insulin resistance and an increased risk of diabetes.  And the IGF growth factor in protein, which is what helps it build tissue, can also stimulate cancer cell growth.  And this is before we even discuss how excess protein stresses the kidneys.  Those who already have weakened kidney functioning can cause significant kidney damage.

“It’s an experiment,” says Dr. John E. Swartzberg, at the University of California.  “No one can tell you the long-term effects [of excessive protein consumption], and that’s what worries me as a physician. No one can tell you what the results are going to be in people’s bodies 10 or 15 years later.”

In short, we’re all taking a gamble.  It could be that this sudden increase dietary protein will be beneficial as we age.  Perhaps it will allow us to maintain our strength and balance, so we can still hike, climb, and enjoy our lives well into our eighties.  On the other hand, it may just make us chronically sicker, as most of our other food fads have done in the past.

In the book, The China Study, T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M Campbell, use statistics from rural China to show that increased consumption of animal products increases the rate of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.   Of course, not all protein sources come from animals, but even so, this unprecedented consumption of all-things-protein puts us squarely in undiscovered country.  There’s really no telling how this drama might play out.

About the author: Rebecca Wong has an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Waterloo, and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

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