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High Protein Diets – Myths, Half-Truths and Outright Lies
Without question, protein is the king of all nutrients. It provides the building blocks for enzymes and hormones, allows nerve and brain cells to communicate effectively with each other, and promotes the repair and growth of muscle tissue. Every cell in your body contains protein; life cannot go on without it.
Protein consumption, however, is perhaps the most controversial of all nutritional topics. Unfortunately, many nutritionists do not keep up with the latest research and continue to support outdated theories on the subject. This has led to various myths which, in turn, have been taken as gospel by the masses. Here are some of the more common misconceptions about dietary protein intake:
Myth: A high protein diet makes you fat.
Facts: There’s no doubt that eating too much protein will pack on the pounds—but so will eating too many calories from carbs or fat! Weight gain is governed by the laws of thermodynamics: if you take in more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. As a result, it is not protein per se that causes weight gain; it is excessive caloric intake. No matter what you eat, if you eat too much, you will eventually get fat.
In fact, if you eat a meal that contains only protein, carbohydrates or fat, the protein meal will cause the least weight gain. You see, a large percentage of calories from protein are burned in the digestion process. This is called the thermal effect of food. Of all the macronutrients, protein has the highest thermic effect, burning about 25 percent of protein from calories consumed. By comparison, only 15 percent of calories from carbohydrates are burned in digestion; fat has almost no thermic effect whatsoever. Therefore, all other things being equal, a high-protein diet is less likely to cause fat deposition than a high-carbohydrate or high-fat diet.
Also, unlike carbohydrates, protein does not stimulate a significant insulin response. Insulin is a storage hormone. Although its main purpose is to neutralize blood sugar, it is also responsible for moving fat into adipocytes (fat cells). When carbohydrates are ingested, the pancreas secretes insulin to clear blood sugar from the circulatory system. Depending on the quantity and type of carbohydrates consumed, insulin levels can fluctuate wildly, increasing the likelihood of fat storage. Since the effect of protein on insulin secretion is negligible, the potential for fat storage is reduced
Moreover, protein intake tends to increase the production of glucagon, a hormone that counteracts the effects of insulin. Since glucagon’s primary function is to signal the body to burn fat for fuel, fat loss, rather than fat gain, tends to be promoted.
Myth: A high protein diet damages your kidneys.
Facts: Protein metabolism requires a complex sequence of events for proper assimilation to occur. During digestion, proteins are broken down into their component parts, amino acids (through a process called deamination). A byproduct of this event is the production of ammonia, a toxic substance, in the body. Ammonia, on the other hand, is quickly converted into the relatively non-toxic substance urea, which is then transported to the kidneys for excretion.
In theory, a large accumulation of urea can overload the kidneys, affecting their ability to carry out important functions. This has been supported by studies on people with existing kidney disease. It is well documented that a high protein diet worsens uremia (kidney failure) in those undergoing dialysis (i.e. an artificial kidney machine), while a low protein diet helps alleviate the condition. Proteinuria and other complications have also been observed in this population.
However, there is no evidence that a diet high in protein has any adverse effects on those with normal kidney function. Healthy kidneys are able to filter urea; any excess is simply removed in the urine. Consider the fact that, over the past century, millions of athletes have consumed large amounts of protein without incident. Of course, if a high protein diet caused kidney disease, this athlete would be on dialysis by now. However, in healthy individuals, not a single peer-reviewed journal has documented any renal abnormalities resulting from increased protein intake.
In addition, it is beneficial to drink an adequate amount of fluids when consuming a high protein diet. This helps to cleanse your system and facilitate the excretion of urea from the body. For best results, a daily intake of at least one gallon of water is recommended, drinking small amounts throughout the day.
Myth: A high protein diet results in an excessive intake of unhealthy saturated fat.
Facts: The majority of Americans get their protein from red meat and dairy products—foods that have a high percentage of saturated fat. High-fat protein sources such as bacon, T-bone steak, hard cheese, and whole milk are staple foods for Americans. Moreover, ketogenic “diet gurus” like Dr. Robert Atkins encourages the use of this product, touting it as a viable diet option. Thus, high protein diets have become synonymous with artery-clogging fat intake.
However, there is no reason that high protein intake must come from cholesterol-laden foods. There are many sources of protein that contain little, if any, saturated fat. Skinless chicken breasts, egg whites and beans are all excellent low-fat protein options. By simply choosing the “right” foods, a high protein diet can be maintained with minimal impact on fat utilization.
In addition, it is important to realize that certain fats, especially unsaturated fatty acids, Omega, are actually beneficial for your well-being, helping in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and facilitating the production of various hormones, cell membranes and prostaglandins. These “essential” fats cannot be produced by the body and must therefore be obtained through dietary means. Cold-water fish (such as salmon, mackerel and trout), tofu and peanut butter are protein-based foods that are also great sources of essential fats. Their consumption has been shown to have a positive effect on cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of several types of cancer.
Myth: A high protein diet is not necessary for athletes.
Facts: If you believe the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there is no difference in protein needs between athletes and couch potatoes. This is reflected in the RDA for protein, which is the same for all individuals regardless of their activity level.
However, contrary to the USDA’s position, studies have shown that athletes actually need more protein than sedentary individuals. When you exercise, protein stores are broken down and used for fuel (through a process called gluconeogenesis). Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), in particular, are preferentially mobilized as an energy source during intense exercise, such as alanine and glutamine. It has been shown that when athletes consume a low-protein diet (equivalent to the RDA for protein), there is a decrease in whole-body protein synthesis, indicating muscle tissue catabolism.
On the other hand, it is unwise to drink large amounts of protein in the hope that it will improve athletic performance. Bodybuilders often subscribe to this “more is better” philosophy and indulge in protein-rich foods and supplements (one popular bodybuilder claims to ingest 1000 grams of protein a day!). Unfortunately, the body only has the capacity to use a limited amount of protein. When the saturation point is reached, the extra protein is useless to the body and is either used as energy or converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. In general, optimal protein synthesis can be achieved by consuming one gram of protein per pound of body weight. Therefore, to maximize strength and performance, a 150-pound person should consume about 150 grams of protein per day.
It is also important to realize that, by itself, protein has no effect on muscle gain. Contrary to the claims made by various supplement manufacturers, protein powder is not a magic formula for building muscle. You can’t expect to just grab a protein shake, sit back, and watch your muscles grow. This may make for good ad copy, but it doesn’t translate into reality. Only through intense strength training can protein be used for muscle repair and promote the development of lean muscle tissue.
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