Myth Busting: Protein
Sunday, March 20, 2011
LifeTime WeightLoss in Nutrition, Protein, Tom Nikkola

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Protein consumption continues to be a hot topic among athletes — and it’s becoming more heated for the rest of us who are trying to reach our health and fitness goals. Here, we’ll sift some of the facts from fiction so you can enjoy your meat, eggs and other protein without fear.

Excess protein just turns to fat

The reality? Replacing carbohydrate in the diet with protein helps reduce body fat levels when calories are kept the same.[i] The process of converting protein to fat requires many metabolic steps that utilize a lot more energy than converting carbohydrates or protein to fat. In addition, protein has a significant effect on the hormones that control appetite.[ii],[iii]  This doesn’t mean you should go hog wild on eating protein — there’s a point of diminishing returns for everyone.

That said, if the main protein sources in an individual’s diet also include extra carbohydrates, like cheeseburgers, hot dogs or tacos, it’s certainly easy to gain unwanted body fat.

Too much protein is bad for bones

Protein digestion takes place in the stomach, where enzymes help break down protein into the amino acids the body uses. Because acid is involved in protein metabolism, some have speculated the acid could disrupt metabolism and cause the leaching of minerals from bone. The body uses minerals to help buffer the increased acid production, lending to the idea, a diet high in protein makes the body more acidic and may contribute to mineral deficiencies. In reality, the body maintains a very tight control of its pH (acid-base) level. An individual’s diet is unlikely to cause such a significant shift in the body’s pH value.

In fact, one study showed no difference was found between low protein and high protein diet for absorption of calcium in postmenopausal women, a population most concerned with the retention of bone mass.[iv] Another study reviewed data from the Framingham Osteoporosis Study and found dietary acid load did not have an effect on bone health, other than an association with older men.[v] The same study also found those who consumed the most protein had the lowest risk of hip fractures, a major concern for aging adults.

Plant protein is healthier than animal protein

It’s a popular idea these days.  Meat eaters may eat significant amounts of processed meats such as cold cuts and hot dogs, which are often loaded with preservatives, or conventional meats which may have hormones and lower quality fats in them. 

The truth is, those who focus on a plant-based diet , or who are vegetarian, tend to make better overall healthy lifestyle decisions (like not smoking and limiting alcohol), and make better food choices — such as avoiding processed foods.

However, the research also does not show that animal proteins are unhealthy.

In large, population-based studies, it’s difficult to separate those who avoid processed meats and consume only natural or organic meats. Ethics aside, animal-based protein sources have been shown to be a superior source of protein due to the amino acid profile they possess.

For those looking to maximize their protein intake while still following a vegetarian diet, a combination of rice protein and yellow pea protein can be a good choice.  Organic or non-GMO soy can also be a reasonable replacement as long as it’s not overused. Since soy is one of the most common allergens, it can be better to use it periodically rather than daily.

In the end, studies showing those who eat vegetarian-based diets may be healthier for reasons beyond the lack of animal protein itself. To date, all that's known is that populations who consume more of a plant-based diet tend to be healthier. Since they also make other positive lifestyle choices, it may be these other choices that enhance health.

More protein equals more muscle

Protein provides the building blocks for muscle tissue, but overloading on protein isn’t the main key to muscle growth. Individuals who are on calorie-restricted diets have an increased need for protein, but simply eating more won’t automatically lead to more muscle. Adding lean body mass requires an intense strength training program, proper rest and recovery, and the right nutrients in the diet. Though there is benefit to eating more protein than the average person consumes, eating more than a gram per pound body weight, or target body weight, probably isn’t necessary for most people. If more calories are needed for supporting lean body mass, they should come from natural fat or healthy sources of carbohydrate.

Another myth we could have reviewed is the idea that an individual can only absorb a certain amount of protein in a given meal. While this idea makes for a good excuse to promote eating many times per day, there’s actually little support for the idea.

Summary

It's difficult for the average person to know what's accurate when it comes to nutrition. Many health and fitness magazines tend to keep repeating the same myths, like the ones above, without looking into the data to support the claims. Hopefully the sections above help to overcome some of the confusion. Protein is a very important part of a solid nutrition plan. While it's possible to eat protein in excess, it isn't likely, and when you consider the average person's diet, he or she can usually benefit from eating a little more. If you’re unsure about how much is ideal for you, connect with a knowledgeable registered dietitian or nutritionist.

Do you have some other myths you hear on a regular basis? Share them below and continue the discussion.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


 

[i] Layman DK, Evans E, Baum JI, Seyler J, Erickson DJ, Boileau RA. Dietary Protein and Exercise Have Additive Effects on Body Composition during Weight Loss in Adult Women. J Nut. 2005;135(8);1903-1910

[ii] Weigle DS, Breen BA, Matthys CC, Callahan HS, Meeuws KE, Burden VR, Purnell JQ. A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;82(1):41-48

[iii] Layman DK, et al. A Moderate-Protein Diet Produces Sustained Weight Loss and Long-Term Changes in Body Composition and Blood Lipids. J Nutr . 2009;139(3):514-521

[iv] Cao JJ, Johnson LK, Hunt JR. A Diet High in Meat Protein and Potential Renal Acid Load Increases Fractional Calcium Absorption and Urinary Calcium Excretion without Affecting Markers of Bone Resorbption or Formation in Postmenopausal Women. J Nut. 2011;141(3):391-397

[v] McLean RR, at al. Dietary Acid Load Is Not Associated with Lower Bone Mineral Density Except in Older Men. J Nutr. 2011;doi:10.3945/jn.110.135806

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