I have friends of mine tell me all the time that I eat too much meat. I have heard it for years. Eating that much meat has to be bad for you, they say. In this article, I am going to discuss some of the potential side effects of a diet too high in protein, and also a lot of the benefits. I want to write this article in an objective manner so you can see the facts written from numerous studies that I researched. Much of what I will talk about is comparing diets high in fat and protein compared to diets high in carbohydrates.
A question you need to ask yourself before reading all of this is, “Why do I eat what I eat?” Is it because of convenience? Is it because of location? Do you eat a lot of seafood because you are near a coast? Do you eat a lot of meat maybe because you live in a farm community? Do you have your own garden and eat lots of vegetables because of it? Knowing the answer to this question about your geographic limitations and options can help you in understanding a lot of this article and relating it back to yourself.
The Amazing Study
In the study I am referring to--known as The Inuit Paradox--it was observed that the people in Northern Quebec that eat high fat and protein diets don’t die of heart attacks at nearly the same rates as other Canadians or Americans. Also, their cardiac death rate is about HALF of ours. Do I have your attention now? Are you now wondering what their secret is?
Simplicity and limited options!
The Hunters & Gatherers
The root of the “Paleo Diet” is really based on what the hunters and gatherers used to eat. The whole motto is that if you can’t shoot it or grow it, then you shouldn’t eat it. This basically means you should eat zero processed foods. This type of diet that I am mostly talking about is a high protein, high fat diet. Contrary to the Paleo Diet, this diet doesn’t include many fruits or vegetables. The carbohydrate intake is a lot lower, but the fat is a lot higher. Keep in mind that fat has over 2x the amount of calories per gram as protein, so it isn’t that hard to get a lot of calories from animal fat.
“But, you won’t get enough vitamins through high protein / high fat diets…”
This is a common misconception among a lot of people. You may not have excess vitamins in your diet, but you certainly will have an adequate amount of most of the essential vitamins. Let me just show you a few examples of some of the vitamins people are talking about.
Vitamin A is crucial for eye and bone health. We get most of it from colorful fruits and vegetables. It is also available in a lot of the cold water fish oils and other sea mammals (as well as in many animal livers).
These same meats also provide an adequate amount of Vitamin D. The reason this was so important for the Eskimos was because they have a limited amount of sunshine (the source of a lot of our Vitamin D). Many of the hunters and gatherers studied were farther north, and many were Eskimos.
Vitamin C & Scurvy
Vitamin C is maybe the most important vitamin of all. We all know a lot of fruits--especially citrus fruits such as oranges--contain a huge amount of Vitamin C. If you receive less than about 10mg of Vitamin C in your daily diet, you can develop scurvy. Scurvy is a disease that can kill you, and causes joint pain, rotting gums, leaky blood vessels and mental / physical breakdowns.
Many Europeans and Americans were plagued by it on their sea expeditions in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, many arctic people eating a lot of fresh fish and meat were free of the scurvy during that same time. Why? A lot of it has to do with the arctic people eating a lot of their meat raw and not overcooking it. That conserves a lot of the vitamins, which are lost when exposed to the heat used in the cooking process. Caribou and other meats similar to that have enough Vitamin C to prevent scurvy and keep people healthy, even with the absence of fruits.
More Animal Fat
Another key difference in this diet when compared to our western diet was that the hunters and gatherers got a significant amount of their calories from animal fat. The diet that reported such amazing results (half the cardiac death rate) contained over 50 percent fat! Keep in mind this was in its natural form of animal fat. Also keep in mind that fat has nine calories per gram, whereas protein has four calories per gram. Approximately 35-45 percent of their calories were from protein sources (again, all meat).
Not Getting Enough Fat
What happens when you eat just pure lean proteins and little to no fat or carbohydrates? You can overload the liver and cause protein poisoning, which includes nausea, diarrhea, wasting and death. America has found out first-hand about the results of that (as you may recall the pioneer stories of “rabbit starvation”). Back in the frontier days, many Americans were forced to eat a diet extremely high in rabbit meat--which is notoriously lean--and resulted in all the things we listed above as a result of a lack of fats and carbohydrates.
The key to the hunter-gatherers’ health and longevity was a lot of animal meat and fish. They got 50 percent or more of their calories from animal fat and basically ate zero fruits or vegetables. They kept their protein at about 40-45 percent of their calories. Eating too much protein can be harmful if it is extreme. But too many carbohydrates can be much more harmful and can result in diabetes, higher cardiac death rate, and possibly a deficiency in protein.
When you are eating your “high protein” diet, make sure to include a lot of fatty animal meats. Of course, your portion should contain at LEAST 2x more protein than fat (because 1g of fat = 9 calories and 1g of protein = 4 calories). So, be sure to have the right ratio of fats to protein and portion sizes.
I am not necessarily saying to cut out ALL fruits and vegetables from your diet. However, having them take up over 25 percent of your diet may be something you want to reconsider after reading this article. Keep in mind that the study shown is even a little bit different than your standard hunter and gatherer’s diet (which includes a lot of berries, vegetables, as well as tubers).
Gadsby, Patricia. The Inuit Paradox. Discover Magazine, December 2004 Issue. http://discovermagazine.com/2004/oct/inuit-paradox/article_view?b_start:int=0&-C=
Kent, Linda. (July, 2010). The Hunters & Gatherers’ Diet. http://www.livestrong.com/article/188089-the-hunter-gatherers-diet/
Jared Enderton – Jared is a weightlifter, personal trainer, nutrition consultant and a nationally ranked weightlifter in the United States. He has earned his Bachelor’s Degree (with honors) in Exercise Science from the University of Northern Iowa. His certifications include: ACE-PT, CrossFit Level 1, and USAW- Sports Performance. He is also a former State Champion and All-American wrestler in the state of Iowa. In addition to working as a weightlifter and a personal trainer, Jared also has an extensive background in researching and selling sports supplements.