Debunking some protein myths


  • Health
  • Sunday, 23 Nov 2003

By Rajen M.

PROTEIN has somehow developed a very bad reputation, probably due to its unfair association with the popular “high protein” diets people have been using to lose weight.  

It has to be stressed that protein is the most important of the three major nutrients, the other two being fats and carbohydrate diets. I want to defend protein as part of a low carbohydrate diet where little or no refined carbohydrate is consumed. Refined carbohydrates are foods like rice, bread, noodles and roti canai.  

This is perfectly healthy. All our ancestors seemed to have lived well (and long) while on it. Even today, primitive tribes like the Masai are doing well on it. The Japanese who take a higher protein intake and thus, a low refined carbohydrate intake, are the longest living of the civilised societies.  

Yet, perceptions and myths die hard. Here are some common myths that you have to confront when you tell people that you are on a low carbohydrate (and thus higher protein diet): 

Eating more protein causes calcium and bone loss 

According to this myth, increased protein intake should cause increased acidity of the blood as a result of an elevation of protein breakdown products. To maintain the proper acid level, the body must therefore neutralise the acid excess by leaching calcium out of the bones to act as the buffer. The calcium would come out in the urine, at the expense of the bones.  

While all sounds very convincing, this is just untrue. Dr Herta Spencer, considered the foremost calcium research expert in the world, has published a number of papers showing absolutely no correlation between protein consumption and loss of calcium in the urine. Last year a Harvard Medical School study also showed the same result: eating more protein protects the bone.  

Anthropological evidence also goes strongly against this myth. A close study of the bones of our ancestors shows that although their consumption of proteins was some two to three times higher than that of ours, they had stronger and bigger bones. In fact, their outer bones were much thicker. 

Protein intake causes cholesterol to increase 

Protein sources come with fat, especially cholesterol, like eggs or meat. So the thinking goes that “eating more protein is bound to push up your cholesterol”. There have been numerous studies to disprove this entrenched notion. In a very well done Canadian study, two groups of patients with relatively high blood cholesterol levels were randomly assigned to follow a low- or high-protein diet for five weeks and then switched to the alternative diet for another five weeks.  

Fasting blood samples were drawn and tested on a weekly basis. The results showed that when dietary proteins were exchanged for carbohydrates, the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or what we commonly refer to as “bad” cholesterol, was significantly reduced. In addition, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol, was significantly increased. Additionally, fasting total triglycerides were reduced by 23% as well.  

This study is significant because it supports protein intake and not carbohydrates, as a means of reducing atherosclerosis. (Canadian Journal Of Cardiology 1995; 11 – Supp G: 127G-131G) 

Eating more protein elevates uric acid and causes gout 

Gout is a metabolic disease that results in the build-up of uric acid levels in the blood. This can lead to uric acid crystal formation in joint tissues leading to severe inflammation and pain. While scientists have long suspected a genetic link in the disease process, the cause has been largely unknown until recently.  

While many overweight people are known to suffer from the disease, the underlying connection between the disease and excess weight remains unclear. With the exception of the link to high alcohol consumption in some patients, the role of diet has been at best uncertain. However, the standard dietary prescription has been the avoidance of purine-rich foods such as anchovies, sardines, some seafoods and other organ meats.  

New findings have been providing exciting insights into the genesis of gout. These revelations appear to explain both the obesity-gout connection as well as alcohol’s role in this disorder.  

Work by Dr Facchini and his colleagues have found that insulin resistance leads to increased uric acid concentrations. The more the insulin resistance, the more the uric acid build up. Dr C.H. Tseng and Dr T.Y. Tai in their three-year follow-up study also found that raised insulin levels themselves were linked to higher uric acid levels. It’s logical that overweight individuals are more likely to get gout: the very hormonal imbalance that can cause one problem can also cause the other. 

Other research has clarified that diet may indeed play a central role in the development of the disease. Not surprisingly, high carbohydrate foods, like fruit or foods that are metabolised along carbohydrate-like pathways, like beer and other alcoholic beverages, have been shown to bring on gout attacks. These findings further support the insulin link in the development of gout. 

Apart from, avoiding purine rich foods, you should also reduce your refined carbohydrates like rice, bread and noodles.  

Protein and kidney disease 

On the other hand, there is a popular myth that proteins are supposed to be a burden on the kidneys. Dr Miriam Blum laid to rest the myth that higher-protein diets damage the kidneys in a classic paper published in the Archives Of Internal Medicine, 1987. Her research team identified adult subjects who ate and had eaten a high-protein diet – including meat of all kinds for most of their lives and matched them by age and sex to a second group of adults who were long term vegetarians.  

The second group (who had been vegetarians for an average of 13.3 years) consumed very little protein.  

The team then measured the natural “age-related decline” in kidney function (a condition that occurs in all humans as we age) and found that there was absolutely no difference between the two groups across the entire spectrum of ages. 

A more recent study by the German research team of Remer and Mantz, published in the Journal Of Nutritional Biochemistry’ in 1995, showed that weightlifters who consumed excessive amounts of protein actually experienced improved kidney function.  

However, patients in acute or chronic renal failure should heed their doctor’s advice and watch their protein intake.  

You cannot fill up on proteins 

Actually the opposite is true. Proteins fill you more. It tends to be more satisfying. You cannot binge on proteins. Also, they digest slowly and cause blood sugar to rise and fall slowly. Thus, protein foods keep you satiated for a longer time.  

A study has found that eating a meal high in protein content leaves subjects feeling more satiated. It seems that foods with higher protein content produced the highest sensations of fullness when compared to high-fat and high-carbohydrate meals. The nutrient composition of higher protein meals seem to influence physiological as well as physiological sensations that occur while you eat. (European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition 1997; 52: 482-488

Carbohydrates are for energy and performance 

The most common myth about exercise is that you have to load up on carbohydrates in order to achieve optimal performance. The “carbo-loading” myth has lead to the explosion of a multi-million dollar industry for makers of such foods.  

However, a recent Swedish study found that a high protein diet provided a higher energy turnover during physical exercise than did a high-carbohydrate diet. (American Journal Of Physiology 1999; 276: E964-E976

When you come to think about it, protein is the fundamental part of the human body. Your lean body mass is all protein. Your skin, hair, tissues and organs are all protein. Your immune system is all protein. Your body breaks all these down as part of living. They must be re-built and replaced. You must eat proteins to replace it. It has been the case for millions of years of our evolution.  

Only in the last few thousand of years has this trend changed. Along with it, comes the tremendous decline in health that we have seen. Now, you can reverse this trend and restore your health by simply taking more proteins instead of carbohydrates. The science is increasingly coming behind it. Anthropological data is validating it. It is the way nature intended it. Indeed, the word protein comes from the root Greek word, proteios, which literally means “of primary importance”. They must have known something. 

References: 

1. Eaton, S.B., Eaton III, S.B., et al. An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements. J of Nutr, 126:1732-40, June 1996. 

2. Blum, M, et al; Protein Intake and kidney function in humans: Its effect on Normal Aging. Arch Int Med, Jan 1989;149:211-12. 

3. Renal function and protein intake among weightlifters Journal Of Nutritional Biochemistry, 1995 

4. Lieb, CW; The effects on human beings of a twelve-months exclusive meat diet. JAMA, 1929;93(1):20-22) 

5. H. Spencer and L. Kramer; Factors contributing to osteoporosis. J of Nutr, 1986, 116:316-319.  

6. Further studies of the effect of a high protein diet as meat on calcium metabolism. Amer J Clin Nutr., 1983, 37:6: 924-9. 

7. C. Cooper, and others. Dietary protein and bone mass in women. Calcif Tiss. Int., 1996, 58:320-5.  

8. Carpenter, KJ; Protein requirements of adults from an evolutionary perspective, Amer J Clin Nutr, 1992;55:913-7 

9. Remer, T and Manz, F; Dietary protein as a modulator of the renal net acid excretion capacity: Evidence that an increased protein intake improves the capability of the kidney to excrete ammonium; Nutritional Biochemistry, 1995;6:431-37.  

10. Protein intake and arteriosclerosis. Canadian Journal Of Cardiology 1995; 11 - Supp G: 127G-131G 

11. Protein and carbohydrate in energy and performance. American Journal Of Physiology 1999; 276: E964-E976 

12. The role of macronutrients in satiety. European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition 1997; 52: 482-48 

Rajen M. is a pharmacist with a doctorate in holistic medicine. Write to him at starhealth@thestar.com.my. The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely that of the author’s. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information. 

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