Newsflash: Everything You Know About Protein is Wrong

Proteinaholic I’ve been a personal trainer for eight years and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of diet and exercise trends come and go. While most trends catch fire for a few months and then enjoy maybe a year or two of waning popularity, there’s one trend that’s been around much longer than I’ve been a fitness professional, and that trend is protein.

A quick scan of blogpost titles, best seller lists, and packaged food boxes will confirm protein’s unrivaled celebrity. Indeed, protein is considered by many to be the most important nutrient in our diet. I used to be one of the people who believed that.

In my book, Reboot Your Body, I advocated for a higher protein diet as one of several healthy alternatives for people who want to lose weight. Paradoxically, at the same time I was writing that section of my book, I was telling other clients to load up on protein if they wanted to bulk up.

The irony of that never hit me until I read Proteinaholic, by Garth Davis, MD and Howard Jacobson, PhD.

I’ve read many books and studies and seen several great documentaries all saying that our societal love of protein has been misplaced, but this book was different. This book really changed my mind.

Protein Does Not Lead to Weight Loss

For starters, Dr. Davis is a prominent weight loss surgeon. If there’s any one “fact” about protein that is universally accepted above all others, it’s that high-protein diets lead to weight loss, yet here was an expert in the field telling us otherwise. That got my attention right away, but it was Davis’ personal story that finally made me question what I had thought of as indisputable truths about protein.

In the first few chapters of the book, Davis recounts his personal struggles with keeping weight off in his 30’s, which culminated in a health scare when his optometrist told him she could see cholesterol in the capillaries of his eyeballs during a routine eye exam. Dr. Davis was also unhappy about the number of boomerang patients he was seeing – ones who had initially lost weight after surgery, but had gained back most or all of the weight over time. This prompted him to learn everything he could about diet and weight loss (surprisingly, not something most weight loss doctors are taught in medical school), so he began reading any bit of research he could find.

A few months in, Davis started to see a pattern emerge, so he decided to test a theory out on himself – he switched to a plant-based diet, just to see what would happen. He lost weight, felt amazing and his health markers improved dramatically. But he wasn’t convinced that this was something that would work for everyone, so before he started advocating a plant-based diet to his patients, he did more research. The further he dug, the more convinced he became, until the evidence was so overwhelming, he changed the basis of his medical practice and began writing Proteinaholic. While he still performs surgery on patients who have no other option, he now works very hard to intervene long before they get to that point. His intervention strategy is based on the strong recommendation that patients adopt a plant-based diet.

But What About…?

Everything Davis and Jacobson wrote made perfect sense to me, but there was still that voice in the back of my head, the one that said, “But what about…?”

But I’m very active, so what about getting enough protein to build muscle?
But I’m getting older, so aren’t my protein needs higher?
But I’m already vegan, so don’t I need to worry about getting enough protein?

Dr. Davis addressed all of those questions in his book. His answer? “You’re already getting more than you need.”

I was shocked to learn that the US RDA for protein is only 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men, regardless of age. Active individuals may need to bump those levels up a bit, but results from scientific studies on that subject are actually mixed.

At the very most, it appears that athletes and adults over 65 may benefit from getting somewhere around 1.0 – 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. If I could call myself an athlete, that would put my own daily requirement somewhere around 65 grams of protein per day, while a 200-pound bodybuilder would need no more than 110 grams per day. That number – 110 grams – is right around the average amount of protein most American men consume every single day. How many of them are 200-pound body builders, I wonder?

Every Food Manufacturer’s Best Friend

A quick google search yielded dozens of articles, many published by and for the food industry, all confirming one thing: Americans are crazy about protein. Manufacturers know they can get a significant boost in product sales by changing nothing other than putting the word “protein” somewhere on the product label. Most consumers do, in fact, seek out foods with higher protein content, whether it’s good for them or not.

As it turns out, it’s not.

Too Much Protein Is Bad For Your Health

In their book, Davis and Jacobson cite nearly 700 sources backing the assertion that consuming too much protein leads to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Davis in an interview I conducted for NextAvenue. What struck me most was the honest conviction with which he spoke. Here was a doctor who stood to lose business if people followed his advice, and yet he was eager to answer any question I put to him. He genuinely wanted to help me understand the truth behind our widespread, misguided beliefs.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll follow up with a few posts elaborating on some of the specific topics Dr. Davis and I talked about, but for now, I will say this: Three years ago, I switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons, and nearly every day I worried about whether I was getting enough protein. After reading Proteinaholic, I don’t worry about myself any more. Now I worry about everyone else.

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