Forget what you think you know about protein and health. Despite the raging success of the Paleo Diet, Atkins and other high-protein plans, most Americans are very wrong about how much protein they should eat, where it should come from and the safety of eating large amounts.
The truth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that most of us in the United States get more protein than our bodies need. And far too much of that protein comes from animal sources like meat and dairy.
Only 10 to 35 percent of your calories should come from protein. By eating more than that, you may create an excess of ketones, toxic substances your body produces when it doesn’t have enough carbohydrates and burns fat instead. Ketones can cause kidney damage as well as dehydration as your body tries to expel them through urine.
Along with ketones, your body also secretes calcium with that urine, which may lead to bone loss and osteoporosis. In the Cornell-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health and Environment, researchers found that people who ate larger amounts of meat were more likely to get osteoporosis than those who ate plant-based diets. And despite boatloads of hype from the dairy corporations, adults have no bone-building benefit from drinking milk.
To dispel one more myth, eating too many calories from protein is just as fattening as eating too many calories from carbs. When presented with more energy from food than it needs, your body converts the excess to body fat.
The healthiest protein sources also have carbohydrates and an assortment of other nutrients. Beans, peas, brown rice, tempeh, quinoa and nuts are all great choices. Although most plant foods don’t have all of the essential amino acids (and are so called “incomplete proteins”), eating a range of these foods each day provides all of the amino acids you need. Plus, soy and quinoa are complete proteins if that makes you feel better.
The Ethics of a Protein-Based Diet
Your health may be a personal matter, but choosing animal products — typically the richest protein sources — also harms others. Factory farms debeak chickens and squeeze them into cages so tight they can’t turn around. Hens may be starved for weeks to promote egg-laying. In the beef industry, calves are ripped from their mothers and mutilated by dehorning, castration and branding before being artificially fattened and slaughtered. And pigs crammed into gestation crates for life suffer foot damage that sometimes renders them lame. The smart, curious creatures develop mental illnesses in this confinement, sometimes biting endlessly at the cage bars.
The bottom line is that with every hamburger, chicken wing or slice of bacon you buy, you’re supporting cruelty. No protein is worth that, especially in a civilized society.
For the sake of health and justice, it’s time to stop looking at protein as a miracle nutrient, and to rethink our food sources. Yes, you need some protein each day — but it just doesn’t deserve to sit on a pedestal any longer.