Protein generation (and why you should skip it)
Suppose you walk into your local health food store, and find that the shelves are bursting with mysterious jars labelled ‘fat powder’. Suppose that each jar is filled with a powder created artificially in a lab, intended to blend easily into your daily meals. Suppose that the powdered fat tastes so bland, that it has also been flavoured artificially in order to be palatable. Does it sound appealing? I didn’t think so. Now, substitute the word ‘fat’ for ‘carbohydrate,’ and imagine the same scenario. In this latter case, the jars might as well be filled with pure sucrose, or table sugar. Does it sound appealing? I didn’t think so! So, ladies and gentlemen, how did we enter a generation in which jars of ‘protein’ powder are flying off the shelves as though an apocalypse is nigh?
In this post I’ll attempt to explain why, before I debunk the view that protein intake correlates positively with health status.
First of all, some geeky stuff: proteins are aggregate polymer chains of amino acids tied together by peptide bonds, which break up into smaller chains upon digestion. This digestive stage is crucial as it allows for the synthesis of essential amino acids, which is a process that the body cannot otherwise initiate. Once these essential amino acids are produced (in the form of lysine, tryptophan, valine, isoleucine, leucine, histidine, phenylalanine, methionine and threonine) the body can use them for bodybuilding purposes, from generating the muscles keeping your eyes open right now (I know, it’s hard when the content is this geeky), to the heart muscle keeping you alive at this moment.
Notice that I used the word ‘bodybuilding’ in the last line of the previous paragraph. I did this deliberately to emphasize the core role of dietary protein, which is indeed to build the body in such a way that keeps it in an optimal condition, with the muscle groups under the most stress undergoing the majority of said ‘building.’ It begins, to put it bluntly, by you tearing yourself apart – for instance, say you lift an unusually heavy weight for a few minutes. During this time you’ll feel pain upon exertion, which is literally the ‘tearing’ of your tissues as your muscles strain from the movement. As soon as the movement terminates, your body will ‘build’ back what was torn from synthesized amino acids, and then overgrow it slightly in order to prepare for any future tearing of a similar (or more intense) sort. This is why, if you’ve ever done any weight training before, you notice your shape ‘building’ up in accordance with the muscle groups you exercise the most often. This is also is also why you ‘deflate’ when your exercise is terminated for a long period.
Based on the above, it is reasonable to assume that a higher intake of protein will lead to more ‘building.’ However, the assumption is incorrect. The body requires around 50 grams of protein in order to avoid a state of deficiency (a.k.a. no ‘building’). According to the scientific majority, the maximally worked body requires a maximum of around 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of weight in order maintain an optimal state (a.k.a. efficient ‘building’). For an average-sized female of 5’7 (a.k.a myself) that puts my maximum recommended daily protein at around 95 grams, assuming that I’ve worked out to maximum capacity. Now, 100 grams of meat tends to contain around 20 grams of protein, so that allows me a maximum of around 3 chicken fillets for the day. Furthermore, the body utilizes a maximum of around 30 grams of protein in one sitting for ‘building’ purposes, so that allows me a maximum of just 1-and-a-bit chicken breasts at a time. So how do I make ‘gains?’ Well, evidently I don’t actually need to eat that much protein. What I need to do is to tear my tissues, so that they are encouraged to rebuild and overgrow. How do I make this as efficient as possible? By consuming the most energy-dense foods in order to enhance my metabolism: fats, or carbohydrates.
Now, if the mistaken assumption that a higher protein intake will lead to more ‘building’ is responsible for most protein powder sales, we can conclude that consumers are not getting value for money. I will now show that consumers can also end up worse off due to their purchases.
Warning: more geeky stuff. Meet MTOR, which is short for the mechanistic target of rapamycin. This is a protein that acts as a sort of pathway within the body. It signals that the body has been fed with plentiful nutrients, and initiates cell division and proliferation. In a body with a healthy level and distribution of nutrient intake, MTOR processes are a good thing. However, when MTOR is over-activated, it can initiate and catalyze cancer, obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes, neurodegeneration, and even conditions like acne. To give you an example of how it does this, consider the following:MTOR increases angiogenesis – this is a process by which new blood vessels form from pre-existing vessels, and therefore helps cancers to grow. Consider another example: MTOR catalyzes glycolisis, and cancer cells are glycolytic. The takeaway? MTOR can influence cancer in more than one way, and it can do a hell of a lot more than that. Therefore, you want to keep it as low as possible (especially methionine, which is the amino acid most implicated with regard to MTOR.) How do you do this? Keep the protein intake low, ladies and gentlemen.
Now, if we forget MTOR for a second, there are still reasons to restrict protein. One is that it is very thermogenic, and requires a lot of thyroid output in order to be processed efficiently – this tax on metabolism is an unnecessary burden, and distracts the body from undergoing other, more important processes (like keeping the immune system in check). Second, is that protein stimulates insulin release. In fact, did you know that a meat steak triggers more insulin than a bowl of white rice? This means that in a body with a high level of insulin (such as a body that’s just consumed a lot of protein at once), fat metabolism is hindered, and storage is facilitated. We can therefore conclude that consumers of protein powders (where the powders cause the exceeding of their daily protein requirements) are indeed worse off due to their purchases.
So, the burning question: do these arguments necessitate the conclusion that veganism is the way forward? The short answer is no. The long answer is not possible in this article (else I will be writing forever) but I will give you some brief insights. Whilst vegans tend to have lower protein intakes, and are thus more often inversely correlated with chronic diseases, there are some benefits to meat-derived amino acids. Take glycine for example. It is an amino acid bound up with collagen and therefore most often found in gelatinous meats and bones. It enhances insulin sensitivity (a good thing) and has an effect on melatonin, tryptophan and seratonin synthesis such that it acts as a brilliant sleep-inducer. Glycine is just one example, but there are many more examples of beneficial meat-derived amino acids.
I hope that this article has given you some insight into what protein actually is, and how it works. I also hope that this article has put you off jumping on the protein-powder/protein-loading bandwagon. Our generation is being conned, and whilst the rationale of its victims is reasonable, it is mistaken nonetheless, and allowing it to perpetuate any longer is dangerous. Merry christmas.