How important is protein in the diet?

by on 10/01/2013

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As a society we are obsessed with protein in the diet, and I believe we eat far too much of it. That’s a reason many kids are overweight. Kids under age three only need about one gram of protein per pound body weight per day, older children and teenagers need half that. Given the content of protein in a Western diet, these are extremely easy requirements to meet.

An important aspect of our eating plan is that protein is very difficult to digest compared to carbohydrates and fats. When present in significant quantities, protein not only slows down, but also blocks the digestion of carbohydrates and fats, leading to undigested food and obesity. Proper digestion is the key to being slim.

Even The American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child’s Nutrition, a home nutrition reference, declares that “protein is so abundant in the foods Americans eat, that most of us, children and adults alike, consume more than we need. Protein overload may be a more serious problem than protein deficiency.”

Despite this, we keep hearing that we need more protein. In fact, the current “pop” trend in dieting is to push protein. When asked what should make up a balanced diet, even my kids say that protein is good and fat is bad. And they add that you can’t ever get too much protein. Tell that to the kidneys of America, bombarded with all that urea nitrogen and creatinine to metabolize.

Our bodies are exquisitely designed to burn nutrients for fuel in a very specific way. Carbohydrates are the main fuel source. When they are depleted, the body chooses fats next, the one nutrient designed specifically for storage and reserve energy. When fats are depleted, protein, the body’s main structural component, is used, but only when severe depletion of carbohydrates and fats occur, a state commonly known as starvation or ketosis. Because protein for energy is primarily used to build cellular structures – not to create energy – metabolizing protein for energy is an incredibly inefficient way for the body to produce fuel.

People who go on high-protein diets are, in fact, starving themselves, which is why they are so successful in losing weight in the short term. But it’s downright dangerous for the long term.

When the body metabolizes fats and proteins in the absence of essential carbohydrates, toxic byproducts are produced. These by-products are known as ketones or ketone bodies. When these build up to a high enough level in the body, an abnormal state known as ketosis is created. Those on high-protein diets desire ketosis, although it is abnormal and unsafe. They can tell by the way they feel, in fact, that they are going into ketosis because they feel a “high,” and when they feel this “high,” they know their high-protein diets are effective. In actual fact, this feeling heralds the beginning of a state of starvation.

Physiologically, ketones behave very much like psychotropic drugs. At low levels, they create a sense of euphoria – the ketotic “high” well known to high-protein dieters. At high levels, they produce sleepiness and disorientation. At even higher levels, coma can result.

Diabetics who receive insufficient insulin can get into this state quite quickly. The coma seen in newly diagnosed diabetics is due to extreme ketosis, combined with the acidosis produced when the body goes too long without sufficient carbohydrates.

The difference between diabetics and high-protein dieters is that diabetics actually consume carbohydrates, but because they lack the insulin to drive glucose into the cells, they replicate starvation on a cellular level. The result is a break-down in fats and proteins producing ketosis, which can lead to the so-called diabetic coma.

Obviously, untreated diabetes represents the most severe example of carbohydrate deficiency. Yet, it is important to realize that high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets can also produce ketosis harmful to the brain and central nervous system. Many who have tried these fad diets have experienced the light-headedness and occasional fainting associated with this unhealthy approach to eating.

To recommend high-protein diets to children and adolescents is unconscionable. Complex carbohydrates must be the key to every child’s eating plan, as they are with the Slim & Fit plan. They are crucial for the rapid energy production required by active lives and allow for the proper balance of structure and function required by the developing nervous system.

Still the perpetuation of the protein myth continues. Even the mainstream media seems to have fallen victim to the advertising clout of the meat and dairy industries. I feel sorry for parents who must rely on what they read in popular magazines and see on television for their nutritional information. They look upon these sources as authoritative and therefore believe everything they read in them. Should they believe everything they read?

Not long ago Good Housekeeping magazine published a very misleading article by a reputable nutritionist stating that there wasn’t enough protein in The New Beverly Hills Diet. The author said that by concentrating on fruit and carbohydrates, people participating in the diet ran the risk of protein deficiency, scaring readers into thinking that their muscles and organs would begin to break down if they followed the diet. All this hysteria because the diet did not include that wonderful American dietary icon – meat – in every meal. It pleases me that at long last even Uncle Sam has given those who choose to be vegetarian “permission.” The federal government has recently updated its nutritional guidelines telling us that even vegetarian diets, as long as they are well rounded, provide Americans with more than enough protein to maintain healthy bodies.

Protein alternatives

While I’m not recommending you or your child become a full-fledged vegetarian, you really need to think seriously about the amount of animal protein you and your child ingest, and start looking for other sources of protein that are easier to digest and will compete less with the digestion of fats and carbohydrates – sources that may, in fact, be healthier than meat, given the insecticides, antibiotics, hormones and fertilizers present in most of the meat products we eat.

Soy, an excellent protein source, could, I think, provide the answer to many of our nutritional problems, particularly those of children. Soy can literally replace animal proteins in all areas of diet. In the short term, soy is extremely beneficial in that it provides carbohydrates, calcium and fiber. Over the course of a lifetime, there is evidence that soy offers protection against heart disease, osteoporosis and elevated cholesterol.

The soybean is a recent addition to our agricultural repertoire. It comes to us from the Far East, where it is considered almost sacred by some Buddhist vegetarians. In America, soy is attracting enormous attention because of its amazing versatility as a healthy, non-meat protein source.

Soy has other advantages, too. It’s a great source of natural zinc, an element that’s proving more and more important to healthy diet. It contains phytoestrogens, an estrogen receptor blocker, especially important since the estrogens found in meats have been connected to prostate and breast cancer. Phytoestrogens in soy can potentially block the effects of these chemicals and hormones providing protection against the carcinogens found in our other food products. Can soy also lessen the potential growth-promoting influences of these hormones? Ongoing research will hopefully give us the answers to these questions.

By Judy Mazel and John E Monaco MD

Extracted with kind permission from their book:
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