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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Our Bodies Tell Us How Much Protein We Need

Here's another excerpt from my book Minimal Medication.

Just about everybody who has access to protein automatically eats the right amount of protein. Just about the only way you can get the wrong amount of protein in the modern world is to pursue an intentionally extreme diet. 

There are some vegans who don’t enough protein. (Dehydrated spinach has as much protein as steak, but nobody is going to eat a big old plate of dried spinach without soaking it first. ) Some bodybuilders and excessively enthusiastic paleo dieters get too much protein, more than their bodies can use, so the excess is turned into—horrors—sugar. Although it wasn't the case in much of the world even 50 years ago, and isn’t even now in a few places in Africa and Asia, just about everyone's diet today provides plenty of protein. Certainly in the United States and Canada, there is a real possibility of eating too much.

Our brains tell us we have eaten enough protein when we have eaten enough of both carbohydrate and protein. If we don't have carbohydrate-rich foods at our meals, our brains tell us to keep on eating protein until we eat enough for both our protein needs and our energy needs. That’s because the body can break down excess protein into sugar. If we have both carbohydrate and protein foods at our meals, our brains tell us we are satisfied when we have eaten a small amount of protein, since the body prefers to make glucose from carbohydrates.

High-protein diets cause high protein-hunger. But even on a high-protein diet, our brains tell us when we have eaten enough. Protein is the predominant determinant of appetite. If we ignore (or can't get) carbohydrate foods long enough, however, our brains eventually tell us that other nutrients are missing, and we typically become hungry for both protein and carbohydrate.

Whose diet in the twenty-first century is most likely to be protein deficient? It turns out that it is the modern hunter-gatherers, the very same people who eat a genuinely ‘Paleo diet’, who are most at risk of protein deficiency. These people, like the modern bush people of Botswana and Namibia, live an ancient lifestyle. They expend an enormous amount of energy tracking, killing and preparing food.

Animals don’t show up with signs saying “Please eat me,” so protein deficiency is a real problem. If you have to track an animal for several days, shoot it with a poisoned dart, run after it for miles as the poison takes effect, kill it, and then carry it back 10, 20, or 30 miles back to your camp, it is easy to become protein deficient.

Protein deficiency is rare in most of the modern world. It is common in the very same countries where the largest numbers of people actually follow hunter-gatherer lifestyles, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Namibia, in Paraguay, and in the most isolated parts of Indonesia.
When protein intake is deficient, the body still has to use protein to make enzymes that enable life. It will harvest protein from:

• The lining of the gut, making it more permeable to allergens, infectious microorganisms, and undigested components of food,
• The immune system, reducing resistance to disease, and
• The kidneys and liver, reducing their ability to “detoxify” and to process nutrients when eating is resumed.


An infant can die of protein malnutrition in as little as five days. Adults can hang on for six or seven weeks, in some cases, even with no dietary protein at all, as the body consumes itself to stay alive. 

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