What’s Wrong With Protein as a Processed Food

What’s the value in consuming protein shakes and protein bars? To get more protein in our diets, you say. We all know by now that we need to focus on getting more protein if we want to feel satiated and lose fat, build muscle and strengthen our immune systems.

What if I told you that’s bullshit?

Not that we need more protein. We definitely do. Not that protein does all these vital things for our bodies. It does. What’s bullshit is thinking you need to consume processed protein. These shakes and bars are processed food no different from any other processed food you’re told to avoid.

Most likely, you feel you need to consume processed protein because you aren’t getting enough in your meals. Why is that? Because you’re filling up on carbohydrates. You have a palm-sized portion of meat and two or more sides of some carb-heavy foods. And for snacks, there’s not a protein gram to be found.

So you have three choices:

  1. eat more protein between meals
  2. eat less carbohydrates during meals so you can eat more protein
  3. decide you don’t really need that much to begin with

Yes, You Need To Consume More Protein

Most of the knowledge about health effects and ecological effects of diet that you have relies on memes and/or the recommendations of political entities, not research. Very little of your knowledge is based on reliable research. In fact, not much of mine is based on reliable research, either. Nutrition research is notoriously unreliable due to how it’s done. But there have been a few good studies and more in the last decade, and the evidence is making meat look damn healthy for us and the planet.

Did you catch that? I said meat. I didn’t say protein. They are not synonymous. More on that later.

My first response to anyone who warns against “too much protein” is that very very very few of us are at risk for “too much protein” and saying this just puts people in the wrong mindset. So stop saying it. Most people do not get enough protein. What do I mean by “enough”? I mean enough protein to repair and build lean body mass, strengthen your immune system, and satiate you so you don’t have cravings. Even by the standard of the USDA, which is meant to be a BASELINE minimum not a healthy target, most people fail to get enough. The RDA is .8g protein for 2 pounds of body weight, which averages to 46g for women and 56g for men daily. Daily.

If you’ve done any sort of reading on your own, you likely know that the target for protein each day is more along the line of 1-1.2 grams per pound of body weight (more than double the RDA). You’ve also probably read that your body processes only about 20-30g per meal and the rest is wasted. Well, there is more to it than that. The advice that suggest you should limit your intake per meal and per day were based on the anabolic processes of young men. In other words, this oft-quoted study is looking at a population that utilizes protein very efficiently and is measuring only the results of building muscle with the assumption the rest of the protein was wasted. The picture is more complicated.

Other studies show that:

  • Protein slows down digestion, so we can absorb more than average digestive processes suggest
  • Daily protein metabolism was not affected by when and how much protein was consumed (1 meal of 100g protein vs 4 meals 25g)
  • Amino acids can be stored short term
  • Protein can be converted into energy
  • As you get older, your body is less efficient at utilizing protein so you need to consume more
  • If you do intense activity you need more protein than when you are less active

And Yet 60% of Your Plate is Carbohydrates?

Invariably, the moment someone finds out I eat mostly meat (I call myself carnivore for simplicity, though I try to avoid labels), they warn me about getting “too much protein.”

The fact is that protein and fats are vital macronutrients, while carbohydrates are not. If you eat nary a single carbohydrate, you will not diminish your health. So why are we so drawn to them, so much so that we’ll give up health to have them? (Diseases are now being linked to high-carbohydrate consumption independent of the comorbidity of obesity.)

Current thinking in an evolutionary context is that a craving for sweet things was an advantage in cooler climates. If we were driven to eat ripe fruit in summer, we’d put on fat that would supply energy for us through the leaner winters. Sure, your body can convert carbohydrates for quick energy, too. But reflect on this: one gram of carbohydrates provides 4 cal of energy, while one gram of fat provides 9 cal. Which do you suppose evolution would prefer? Well, evolution prefers what works, of course, so we have evolved to adapt. However, burning carbohydrates has a cost. Relying on carbohydrates as a main fuel source means:

  • regular insulin spikes, which inflame blood vessels and damage organs (long before you’re diagnosed with diabetes)
  • creating oxidative stress because converting carbs is “dirty energy” with free radicals as waste
  • upregulating enzymes that create cravings for more “easy” fuel

If you were to utilize fat for fuel, you would:

  • reduce oxidative stress because converting fats is “clean energy” creating ketones that cause less oxidation
  • avoid blood vessel and organ damage from insulin spikes
  • have a source of energy that lasts longer
  • remove enzyme-caused cravings

Insulin is not the bad guy here. Insulin is the building hormone. You can’t build muscle without it, but many of us experience its fat-building to excess. And insulin protects us from death by spiking when we consume carbohydrates. That’s right. You get a high insulin response when you eat carbohydrates because you would die without it. Your body quickly converts carbohydrates to glucose and dumps this sugar into your blood, but too much sugar will send you into a coma. Whole food carbohydrates cause less of a spike, but consuming flours and sweeteners would mean your death without a dramatic insulin response.

So, you’re likely eating less protein than you could because you’re eating more carbohydrates than you should. But that’s your choice, of course. Eat as much carbohydrates as you want to store fat on your body. Simple as that.

What About Fiber, Antioxidants, and Other Supplements?

“Supplement” is another word for “processed food.” Supplements are diminished pieces of whole food. They are nutrients you can get from whole foods, but you choose not to eat them that way.

Fiber is not pushed as much as it once was because there is now overwhelming research that it was never something we needed more of. It does not reduce heart disease. Does not reduce constipation. And it does, in fact, lead to more diverticulitis. So don’t worry about putting scoops in your shake or eating a “hearty” cereal. But that would mean you must quit eating processed food.

Vitamin C (and other antioxidants), fluoride, iron, and other supplements are encouraged because a diet high in grains blocks the absorption of these nutrients from foods. Digesting grains uses the same enzymatic pathways and binding sites that your body uses to process these vital nutrients. That is, you could just quit eating so much grain and your body would absorb the nutrients it needs. Also, the antioxidant vitamins are so-called because they contribute an electron to change free radicals, to “anti-oxidize” them, so they don’t travel around damaging cells. Your body has plenty of its own antioxidants. And as I mentioned about burning fats for fuel vs burning carbohydrates for fuel: fats don’t leave free radicals behind. So, instead of adding vitamin supplements, just quit the grains and simple carbohydrates. But that would mean you must quit eating processed food.

Do you know why you’re encouraged to take fish oil supplements or eat more salmon? Because the average American diet has an imbalance of omega 6/omega 3 fats. So, instead of reducing the omega 6 you’re eating, diet agencies encourage you to add more omega 3. What are the omega 6 foods that you might want to quit eating instead of adding fish oil pills? Foods with chemically-altered fats from seed oils such as canola oil, soybean oil, vegetable oil, corn oil. But that would mean you must quit eating processed food.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

What About Meat?

protein-oxidation-graphic personal trainign coralville iowa city

I was reading one study today discussing the effects of protein oxidation in aging and disease, and holy shit this is just one graphic

If you eat a “variety” of foods each meal or “eat your colors” or whatever else is a euphemism for limiting the meat on your plate, you likely get more carbohydrates than anything else. And carbohydrates are entirely unnecessary. So you are limiting the most important macronutrient for building lean body mass and a strong immune system for a macronutrient that is unnecessary for, and damages, health.

Now, about meat vs protein. This is something I don’t see addressed often. Meat provides more than protein.

Meat is a whole food, and as such, it provides a variety of essential nutrients in a balance that we evolved to utilize: proteins, fats, vitamins, and other chemicals. This post is about protein, so I’ll try not to stray far, but let me mention that fats — particularity saturated fats — are vital to health and maintaining lean body mass and provide the best source of sustainable energy. Here’s something you likely don’t know: beef has more monounsaturated fat than saturated fat. Right, the same stuff in nuts and olive oil. It also has less saturated fat than coconut oil. Does that make you wonder about all the “healthy” alternatives you’re told to consume? And certain vitamins can only be found in animal foods. So acquiring essential nutrition without relying on meat requires supplementation — again with processed foods.

So, if you’re consuming protein shakes and protein bars to add more grams of protein to your diet, I have to ask why.

  • You’d rather have sweetened proteins (with sugar or fake sugar)?
  • You’d rather pay a corporation to mechanically and chemically tear a whole food apart and repackage it with lab-created additives before you eat it?
  • Or maybe you just didn’t realize that you’re wasting your hunger on stuff that isn’t really food and is doing more harm than good.

If you made animal foods like cow, pig, chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, and dairy the bulk of your diet, you would likely get all the satiating lean-building and repairing protein, all the sustaining energy and cell-building fats, and all the process-aiding repair and regeneration vitamins that you need.

But listen, the story of protein is enormously complicated. I didn’t even touch on forms of protein (animal vs plant, etc). There is a lot to discover, but at least since the grassroots paleo movement started in the 90s, we have more people confronting the nutrition authorities and their lobbyists.

Keep reading. Keep questioning.

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4 Responses

  1. amanda says:

    Excellent article!. I read every word. Thanks for reminding me!

    • Teresa Heitman says:

      Thanks for reading! I know it’s along article, but I tried to add bullets where I could. LOL

  2. Jan says:

    Too much protein causes kidney damage and chronic consitpation

    • Teresa Heitman says:

      These two statements come from thought experiments not research or even anecdotal evidence. No amount of protein can cause kidney disease. If you already have kidney disease, a high protein diet can cause problems. Risk factors for kidney failure are high blood pressure and diabetes—two things that increased consumption of protein has been shown to fight. As for constipation, no research backs that up, either. And every person I know on a low carb diet has improved bowel movements, usually lesser volume and less frequently. After all, half of the bulk of the average stool is plant matter that can’t be digested. Meat can be entirely digested by your own body without waste (no microbes needed in your gut as they are needed for digesting plants).

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