Protein-Deficiency Paranoia


Today I was reading the weekly nutritional advice column in our local paper.  Unsurprisingly, amidst otherwise innocuous advice was this obligatory bait for protein-deficiency paranoia:  “Be sure to include protein in every meal.”

Do you get the subtle hint?  Let me spell it out.  “Be sure to include protein” is code wording for “you probably aren’t eating enough protein, and, all too often, you are probably skipping protein in some of your meals.”  Oh my God!  Not that!  What will every happen to me?

Well – despite this subtle warning that you may be facing deadly protein deprivation – you’re not.  In fact, if you are not currently facing starvation, then you are most likely consuming far more protein than your body can safely process – certainly this is the case if you are eating some variation on the SAD (standard American diet).  And unless you are in the midst of some very extraordinary muscle-amassing regimen, your body can probably use no more than 15 percent of its caloric intake in protein.  If you are consuming more protein than your body can use, you are hurting that poor body.

Oh – and let’s be clear about another hidden meaning in that nutritionist’s warning.  She knows that most of her readers equate the word “protein” with the word “meat.”  Hence the often heard question of vegetarians:  “But how do you get your protein?”

If you’ve been reading this blog, then you may remember that most vegetables contain a higher protein percentage of total calories than our bodies are able to use.  Here are a few random examples:

Cooked bok choi        32 percent protein

Edamame                    33 percent protein

Swiss chard                 23 percent protein

Snow peas                   27 percent protein

Pinto beans                 22 percent protein

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  Even if you restrict your eating to vegetation, you will have to work to keep your protein intake at a safe level.  And, yes, of course, you get a higher percentage of your calories from protein from most meat:

Hamburger               41 percent protein        (58% fat)

Cooked salmon       46 percent protein       (54% fat)

Boiled egg                35 percent protein        (62% fat)

Yes – those items that you associate with “high protein” sources are even greater sources of dietary fat!

Hence we call these last three examples “junk” in our vernacular – junk because they are calorie rich and nutrient poor.  Dangerous junk because they contain up to 5 times the level of dietary fat than is optimal, and because they contain animal protein, which compelling science has shown to be a catalyst for the growth of cancer cells.

Once again our conventional wisdom, nurtured by a “media for sale” ethic, has us worrying about the wrong thing:  that we aren’t eating enough protein — when we are, in fact, eating way too much!