A New Protein Prescription Needed

A health question for everyone: How many of you would be satisfied with your doctor prescribing Aspirin if you needed open heart surgery? Or how about a doctor telling you to watch your salt intake if you needed a kidney transplant?

I don’t think any of us would accept such general, ineffective advice when presenting a very specific health concern.

So why when someone needs to lose weight, do dietitians and doctors continue to refer people to the food guide?

It’s the physiological equivalent of telling someone who has just cut off their arm to take a couple of Advil. To put it kindly, it borders on malpractice.

Right now in North America, about 2/3 of the population is overweight (that’s over 350 million people if anyone is counting). Carrying excess body fat has been shown to increase your risk for such chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, numerous cancers, stroke, and hypertension to name but a few.

Given the huge economic and social cost to obesity, you’d think we’d be trying to give people the best possible nutrition recommendations to help them beat the battle of the bulge, only we aren’t. In fact, as you look through our nutritional recommendations, it seems they are much closer to a prescription for obesity than anything else.

Coke-SugarNot only do most government issued nutrition recommendations suggest consuming 50-60% of total energy in the form of carbohydrates, but there has been very little education or distinction made about “better” vs. “suboptimal” carbohydrate choices.

As an example, the National Academy of Sciences’ Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) suggests that it’s ok to eat up to 25% of your daily calories in the form of simple sugars. On a 2000 kilocalorie diet, this computes to about 125 grams of sugar per day.

In the eyes of our ‘health experts’, they see nothing wrong with people consuming the equivalent of 3 cans of pop every day, or 25 tsp of nutrient-devoid sugar!

Maybe this is solid advice if you earn a living looking after people’s teeth, but for anyone struggling with excess body fat, it’s metabolic suicide.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of educating people on nutrition. After all, it’s how I make my living. But we need to drop this charade about our current food guide.

What we need to do is a food guidance system that is based on science and optimal human physiology, not one that appears to have been edited for scientific accuracy by a 5-year-old.

Wait, that’s terribly offensive… I’m sure my 5-year-old niece could actually spot the glaring inconsistencies in our current food guide. It’s really that bad.

One of the most telling inconsistencies lies in the current protein recommendation. Protein is prized by some, reviled by others and universally misunderstood.

But what causes the usual state of confusion surrounding protein intake?

Much of the confusion stems from people incorrectly extrapolating the research. The majority of nutrition research deals with protein needs, but no work is ever done on “protein optimization.”

This obsession with requirement has led to an insufferable amount of bickering over something that is really a minimum standard. Ultimately, these debates have done little to advance our understanding about how best to use protein, resulting in a massive disservice to our health.

Currently, the National Academy of Sciences recommends 0.8 g of protein/kg of body weight. They claim this amount is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of 97% of the population, assuming they are largely sedentary.

But aren’t we supposed to be exercising daily? Doesn’t exercise change our protein requirements? It sure does.

Research suggests that people involved with intense training have a greater protein need, ranging from 1.2 g – 1.8 g of protein/kg of body weight (to account for tissue turnover, as well as protein metabolized as fuel during exercise).

I’ll use myself as an example, a man weighing 90 kg (200 lbs), therefore my sedentary protein needs are 72 g/day, whereas my exercise protein requirements would be 108 g – 162 g/day.

Does this mean I have no need for anything more than 162 g of protein a day?

Technically, this is true; I don’t have a NEED for any more than 160 g of protein per day.

However, this amount is likely well below the amount I can use to OPTIMIZE my function.

You see, I’m not someone who wants to get through life just being “average”. I demand the best out of myself and that includes my health and performance.

weightlossWhile there isn’t time to extol all the health and performance benefits of dietary protein, a recent review published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease, concluded that high protein diets are more effective than high carbohydrate diets in helping people lose fat and keep it off for up to two years1.

Why is this so significant? Simple answer: most dietary strategies we’ve studied in the lab involving energy restriction (i.e. conventional dieting) are effective for the short time while a researcher is standing there watching over you.

But as soon as participants leave the lab, all the weight tends to come right back. But when people are counseled to substitute protein in exchange for some of the carbohydrates they typically eat, they tend to lose weight and keep it off for several years.

Finally, a strategy that works as well in the real world as it does in the lab – now that’s the kind of science I endorse!

With obesity costing us billions of dollars every year and 2/3 of North Americans being overweight, obviously our nutrition recommendations would be telling us to exchange those simple sugars in our diets for more animal- and vegetable-based proteins because, well… that would just be a logical assumption to make. Sadly, our food guides have little to do with logic or the promotion of optimal health.

In the 2007 revision to Canada’s food guide (I’ll use Canada’s guide since I am Canadian, but rest assured the US version is equally poor), males 19-50 years of age require 3 servings of meat or alternatives per day.

An all-encompassing age range from 19-50 strikes me as more than just a wee bit inadequate. Males in their late teens and early 20’s are still actively growing either taller or more muscular. Both types of growth require significant amounts of protein and energy. Males of this age also tend to be fairly active, which again indicates a greater need for protein and total energy.

Contrast this to your average 45-50 year old. Generally pretty sedentary and the only direction they grow is bigger around the midsection.

Hmm… does having identical recommendations for both 19 year olds and 50 year olds make sense to you? Because it sure doesn’t make any sense to me.

Let’s call this strike 1.

It gets worse.

On a positive note, our food guide is now recommending Canadians partake in 30-60 minutes of moderate physical activity on a daily basis. Score one for government finally endorsing the importance of exercise.

But wait… if we are now endorsing daily physical activity, shouldn’t our protein recommendations increase to account for the greater protein needs of habitual exercisers?

Ooops, it doesn’t seem like our “nutrition experts” felt the need to increase our protein recommendation from earlier versions to account for this so we’ll chalk that up as strike 2.

Before we call a definitive strike 2, maybe the recommendations of 3 servings of meat and alternatives and 2 servings of dairy are actually enough to meet the exercise-induced protein requirements of a 29 year old, 200 lbs male.

Remember, we had calculated my exercise protein needs at anywhere between 108 and 162 g/day. Let’s split the difference on this one and say I need 135 g of protein a day. So if I ate 5x/day, I would need to average 27 g of protein at each meal.

Perusing through the food guide I find some lovely pictures of representative serving sizes. Finally, something that is actually useful.

But wait!

Something is very, very wrong here. When I actually calculate how much protein is in each of their recommended servings I get something like this:

protein servings

2 ½ oz cooked beef/chicken = 22 grams protein
¾ cup cooked legume = 10 g protein
150 g tofu = 12 g protein
2 eggs = 12 g protein
2 tbsp peanut butter = 8 g protein
¼ cup nuts = 8 g protein

Am I missing something?

Did our “nutrition experts” fail basic arithmetic?

I don’t know if I need a graduate degree in exercise nutrition to tell me this but those servings of protein aren’t anywhere close to being equivalent.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard an overweight dietitian tell someone that adding peanut butter to a bagel is a good way to get protein at breakfast… I could retire right now to the Cayman Islands.

Peanut butter as a good source of protein?!? Great advice if you are a hamster, not so hot if you are someone trying to lose excess body fat.

But maybe our food guide makes a comeback with the protein content in dairy. Can the 2 recommended servings of dairy per day save me? Again, a quick analysis shows that a typical food guide serving provides:

1 cup milk = 8 g protein
1 cup fortified soy beverage = 11 g
¾ cup yogourt/kefir = 10 g protein
50 g cheese = 12 g

At least those servings of protein are equivalent, if somewhat meagre. But I’ll reserve judgment until I put together a sample meal plan.

Taking the food guide’s advice and incorporating my 5 combined servings of dairy/meat and alternatives per day, I could eat something that looks like this:

Breakfast: 2 eggs
AM Snack: ¾ cup of yogourt
Lunch: peanut butter sandwich
Afternoon snack: 50 g piece of cheese
Dinner: 2 ½ oz of chicken

Totaling up my protein from dairy, meat and alternatives brings me to a whopping daily total of… drumroll please… 64 g!

Of course I would get some protein from vegetables and grains. However given most servings of vegetables or grains contain anywhere from 1-3 g of protein, there’s pretty much no way in hell I could get the additional 70 g of protein to hit my exercise requirement of 135 g/day.

Sorry food guide, but that’s strike 3 and out you go!

Shocking to think that “read the food guide” is the advice being given to people who want to lose weight.

When is our medical profession going to acknowledge that when it comes to weight loss and long-term weight management, high protein diets routinely outperform high carbohydrate diets (like those recommended by our food guides).

Not only are high carbohydrate diets (50-60% of total energy coming from carbohydrates; up to 25% of total calories from simple sugars) not cutting it in terms of weight loss, they are one of the prime contributors to chronic disease!

Clearly, I’m a firm believer in the value of increasing protein intake (at the expense of simple and starchy carbohydrates) to help manage your weight and improve your health.

It’s not the only effective long-term fat-loss strategy, but it’s one that has worked wonders for the majority of my clients who struggle to manage their weight.

If you are someone who wants to lose excess body fat but doesn’t know where to start – try taking in around 2.2 g of protein/kg of body weight (1 g of protein/lbs of bodyweight), spread out among 4 to 6 feedings each day.

You’ll be amazed at what happens to your energy levels, your mood and most noticeably – your waist line!

Remember, when it comes to our health and the way we feel – “good enough”, isn’t!

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References

1. Clifton P. (2009). High protein diets and weight control, Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 19, 379-382.