The Protein Obsession
Since the first discovery of proteins, we have been obsessed by them. Hailing them as a major player in growth and repair, which they are, but we have lost the perspective around their place in the diet.
Most nutritionists wheel out the 1950's idea of protein need, with no idea of its excessive connection to gout, or obvious connection to acid-forming foods. Most haven't even realised it is a product of the genes - more to the point is it ALL the genes do - build proteins.
However, as always, when we see them in the context of the animal kingdom, through comparisons to our closest kin, myths are replaced by truths.
The word ‘protein’ actually comes from the Greek word ‘proteios’, which means ‘of prime importance’.
Because of this, and their early association with meat, vegetarians have been encouraged to bulk up their protein supplies now that they have foregone the standard protein supply. Grains and beans have been popular for generations because of this.
The model that supports this suggestions is that grains themselves don’t supply all the complete proteins for human cells. The few remaining are supplied by beans.
The is referring to the reality behind proteins: They are in turn build from smaller compouds called Amino Acids. Your body can produce many amino acids itself, but there are a few that it cannot, and thus must derive them from the proteins that we eat. This terms those amino acids as ‘essential’.
Proteins are the main building block that make up our cells – composing much of the structure of all aspects of every cell, and they are the building blocks of all enzymes and hormones. So they are therefore very important if you are to build, regulate and repair all the cells that make up the body.
And so far this is all true – within a context – and as with all things biological, context is everything.
So, the first thing to get is that we simply cannot lack them, as long as we are eating. This is so true that there isn’t even a medical word that means ‘lacking protein’. If you are, then you are lacking cells in your diet – lacking food in other words, and that has a term – malnutrition.
Historically it was possible to lack one or two amino acids, and thus symptoms arise because certain proteins or enzymes could not be built. But given a broad diet and sufficiently endowed digestive function, these fears are mostly confined to poorer countries, where the problem is more akin to malnutrition.
It is not just that every cell in the body is made of proteins, or that every cell in plants is dominated by proteins, but that every cell in nature is built in major part from proteins.
For example, aside from being a wonderful vision of the complexity of every cell, this animation points primarily to how every part of every cell is built predominantly by proteins. Listen for the countless names we have given to map of endless variety of protein structures built by every cell.
This entire sequence describes happens when a Leucocyte comes across Cholesterol in it's journey through the blood. Cholesterol signals damage somewhere closeby, and the Leucocyte needs to stop rolling along the innerside of the vein so that it can go to work on the damage. In order to stop rolling it has to create new protein 'legs' that will stick to the vein wall. This show the signalling events inside the Leucocyte that make that possible.
Protein use in Animals
All animals have the capacity to digest proteins because of their essential nature for building cells. They do so by secreting phenomenally acidic and corrosive peptides into the stomach. This acid bath initiates breakdown of the proteins in the cells that they eat.
Miraculously, the stomach itself (also made of cells made, of proteins) does not dissolve. This is due to the parietal cells that protect the stomach lining from the acids it secretes.
The proteins then begin their long journey through the digestive system and slowly break down into their component amino acids, which are then pushed through the bowel wall into the blood. Then delivered to the liver for distribution to all the cells of the body – as individual amino acids – so that the cells can synthesise exactly the proteins they need from the information contained in their genetic code. They build cell parts, hormones, messenger proteins, enzymes, and alike according to their own requirements.
In short, none of the proteins we eat are used in the body as they are. They are all broken down into the components and rebuild by every cell according to its needs.
Closer to Home
The bigger – mostly unspoken - part of this scenario so far, is where other animals find all of their protein requirements in their diets. Most relevant to us are, obviously, those closest to us in the evolutionary chain.
Apes, being the closest to us in the evolutionary chain are the best example. They have a diet top-heavy with fruit and leaves – almost nothing that we would consider a protein-food, and yet they possess strength far in excess of their protein-obssessed cousins – humans. Some reports have put chimps as 7 to 10 times stronger than us.
This is also reflected in human breast milk. At a time when the human baby is growing its fastest and should theoretically require more protein than any other time in its life, breast milk is very low in it. Notably high in sugars (if you’ve every tasted it, you’ll concur) and rarified fats, but very low in protein.
Exactly opposite to cow’s milk – high in protein, moderate fats and low in sugar – because it is built for a calf.
Breast milk exactly replicates the ape diet – unsurprisingly – showing not only our remaining affinity to apes, but also our native forest diet. Nothing has changed.
While we now saturate ourselves in up to 10 times as much protein as our closest relatives, we are showing no increase in strength or health from it.
Incidentally, a biproduct of protein digestion is Uric acid. Even if proteins digest perfectly, they leave behind this poisonous acid, which we have developed a technique for dealing with.
It is one that we share with all animals. Uric acid becomes Urea and eliminated from the mammalian body as urine.
Increasing our protein intake has elevated our uric acid levels far beyond what the urinary system can handle, so we have become saturated with this powerful acid. It gives human’s their pungent and offensive smell – causing to do something no other animal does – we wash. Other animals lick their fur to remove excess hair, but even the few other naked animals only bath for pleasure, they don’t scrub their skin in the way we do.
You get a keen sense of this if you go to a gym where the air conditioning is broken – that high-end, sharp smell is the uric acid being forced our of these acidic bodies to survive. If most people do not wash regularly (using all manner of foul petrochemistry to keep them smelling acceptable – their skin starts to break and become infected – surely that says something!)
A huge sector of investment in protein-rich foods comes in from those attempting to build bigger muscles.
And it does appear to work, but this is because of the binding of uric acid necessary for the body to survive, rather than anything muscular.
With increased protein intake – recommended for building muscles – we find elevated uric acid – of course.
This cannot be elimiated by the already over-taxed urinary system, and so the body looks to store it. It has an affinity for muscles structure, and once they are saturated, it starts to crystalise. This pushes the muscle fibres apart, giving the impression of larger volume, tissue for tissue, they are actually the same.
The downside of this approach is that those muscle fibres are now working against the friction of moving around uric acid crystals – making them much less efficient – but bigger (which was the point).
The lesson here is that muscle is built by workload, not protein supplies.
Going back to our closest relatives, ape muscles is far greater in strength than ours, but also much smaller – IE: more efficient. Because it is not saturated with masses of uric acid crystals. They’re skinny little guys really, but they’ll tear your arms and legs off without breaking a sweat.
And if they did break a sweat, it wouldn’t smell of decompossing uric acid !
Closely associated with this same phenomenon is when uric acid crystals accumulate in the tendons and more painfully, within the joints themselves.
Commonly known as Gout, this symptom can manifest as a mild agrevation of the joint, or a full on inflammatory scenario that can leave the join fully disfigured if unaddressed.
However, I have seen decades of gout disappear in just a few days of fasting - as the uric acid is displaced from the joint and expelled from the body.
Of course this is not a cure, because if no change takes place in the diet, then the underlying cause - acidosis will rise again and the symptom will reappear.
Elevated uric acid in turn increases the acidic nature of the body, and is the root of much of the acidic / alkaline balance that is becoming popular. All attempting to reduce the acidic nature of the body by increasing the fruit and veg content - our native diet!
One of the strongest statistical impacts upon human health is the dissolving and eliminating of our alkaline minerals – calcium, magnesium, potassium, etc. They are all involved in the regulation of pH across the whole body. The first hit happens when they are used up by the liver to neutralise the acids poured into the stomach to digest proteins. They make their way through the bile duct to counter against the nature of stomach acids, so that the intestines do not dissolve (the intestines don’t contain parietal cells). Once the stores of the liver are finished, the blood starts to dismantle the solid stores of these minerals to meet this vital need. Bones, teeth, and nerves are a rich source, and while that causes the obvious problems of osteoporosis, etc, you’ll live longer that way than if your intestines dissolve !
And so, yes, we have a protein requirement – as all biological systems do.
But if we look to our closest relatives, we see are far more efficient, effective and balance view of this nutritional need.
Get your proteins from the same places they get theirs – plants - namely fruit and veg.
If you are feeling the urge to eat denser foods, then it is probably more about your emotional relationship with food. Being fed heavy, mostly indigestible foods as kids, we seek that ‘homey’ feeling of falling asleep in front of the TV after a Sunday lunch. And this has huge value for us fragile humans, but once again, it is nothing to do with nutrition.
Another aspect worth flaggin up (but I don’t feel the authority to write on it is detail, as it is more of a counsellor’s job!) is that we tend to eat in ways that suppress our emotions.
Eating lighter foods, brings our emotional lives closer to the surface, whereas the traditional foods (mostly assigned such status in times of lack, or war – when emotionality was a light-afforrded privilege) are typically heavy and sustaining, but emotionally repressive.
Eating lighter foods has a notable effect, that may cause its own revolitions in your life – friends, relationships and the whole picture of what you put into your life comes ito question.
Eating less heavy foods will increase you alkalinity, your vibrance, your lightness, and your health, but you may pay for it at the checkout. Cutting out grains and meat often increases foods bills and this points to a historical, cultural and financial reason for eating such heavy foods. They take a long time to digest – thus you eat less of them.
So, the question is what you want your life to be:
A cheap, 3-meals-a-day standard on indigestible, congesting grains and beans, or unnecessary, putrifying meat.
Or a more expensive and time-consuming culinary existence, feeling fantastic and light, but definitely eating more.
And who doesn’t love to eat !
Choice, as always, is yours.