Does Eating Too Much Protein Cause Cancer?
Think a high-protein diet is good for you? Think again. On this episode of The Sitch, we’re talking about why eating too much protein may increase your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Take a peek around the grocery store. Everywhere you look, they’re packing protein into another product. It started with bars and shakes and has moved to cookies, crackers, pasta, peanut butter, coffee, and even water — because what you really need with a refreshing glass of H2O is 20 grams of chalky protein powder.
I used to believe the protein myth too.
I shudder remembering the hard, waxy Quest bars I’d stockpile, in the name of “health” — 20 grams of protein, no carbs, and no sugar.
“Yum! Tastes just like strawberry shortcake (insert eye roll).”
Not only are those insanely processed protein bars not appetizing, they are also totally not good for you. And that’s without even mentioning the fake sugar — a topic for another day.
Today’s post is about the harmful effects of a high-protein diet.
This post could be so much longer because there is so much to say on the topic, but I tried to condense it down to the most essential parts of the argument against high protein consumption.
AVERAGE PROTEIN NEEDS
I’m going to let you in on a little secret about protein – you don’t need as much as you think.
Despite what your gym buddy, or your trainer, or The Rock told you – you’re likely already eating plenty of protein.
The average person needs about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Got that? Kilogram, not pound. One kilogram is equal to 2.2 pounds — meaning those recommendations you’ve heard from bodybuilders to eat 2 grams of protein per pound are more than 5 times the recommended amount. This is not only outrageous and totally unnecessary but also potentially harmful to your health, as you’ll see in a bit.
In fact, your body can only use about 15-25 grams of protein at one time for muscle building. The rest of that protein gets broken down and used as fuel – or like everything you consume, it gets stored as fat.
Basically, it doesn’t matter if you’re eating cookies, or broccoli, or a T-bone steak, if your body doesn’t immediately need the energy, it gets stored as fat.
The adequate amount of protein to support all of our bodily functions and muscle mass is only 47 grams for the average 130-pound man or woman and 65 grams for a person who weighs 180 pounds.
That’s not a lot.
However, the average American male consumes about 102 grams of protein a day and the average woman consumes around 70 grams.
You may be thinking, “Big deal. So what if some of the protein I eat gets burned off? It’s better than eating carbs right?”
PROTEIN, CANCER, AND AGING
For decades now, research has been pointing to the detrimental effect of a high protein diet.
One study showed that adults age 50-65 who consumed 20% of their diet from protein had 4 times the risk of developing cancer compared to people who only consumed 10% of their diet from protein.
When researchers controlled for the type of protein, they found that plant protein was not associated with mortality. However, high protein consumption from plants still carried 3 times the risk of cancer compared to low protein consumption.
In the “Blue Zones,” which have the largest population of people living over 100 years, protein intake is closer to this 10% rate, unlike the typical Western diet.
Animal studies support this association between protein and longevity showing that rodents placed on low protein diets live longer.
Side note – we’ve known for a long time that putting mice on a low-calorie diet makes them live about 40% longer, but this is even more remarkable.
By specifically restricting just protein or certain amino acids like methionine and the branched chain amino acids, but not total calories, the mice still live longer and have less disease than those fed a normal chow diet.
So why is this happening?
PROTEIN AND INSULIN-LIKE GROWTH FACTOR 1 (IGF-1)
Researchers believe it’s due to the fact that protein increases our bodies’ production of a hormone known as IGF-1, insulin-like growth factor 1.
High levels of this growth-promoting hormone have been associated with higher rates of chronic diseases like breast and prostate cancer.
The more protein you eat, the higher your IGF-1 level.
Meanwhile, people with low IGF-1 levels have extremely low rates of cancer and diabetes. For example, there’s a group of people living in Ecuador with a rare condition known as Laron syndrome. These people are unable to produce IGF-1.
A recent study of this group showed that out of 99 adults, only one was diagnosed with cancer over a 22-year period and none of them developed diabetes. Their relatives, however, with normal IGF-1 levels, had rates of cancer and diabetes of 17% and 6% respectively – similar to the general public.
So you see, eating a ton of protein isn’t all its pumped up to be.
But what about weight loss?
PROTEIN AND WEIGHT LOSS
I know some of you may not give a damn about chronic disease but I’m here to tell you, you still don’t need a high protein diet.
The majority of research shows that when dieters eat the same amount of calories, it doesn’t matter if those calories come from carbs or protein, they lose the same amount of weight.
What matters is the sustainability of your diet.
I don’t know about you but I don’t want to live in a world where I have to avoid bread and pasta and subsist off chicken breasts and protein powder.
No, thanks. I’ll be over here happily eating a balanced diet.
To sum it up, for a strong healthy body and proper metabolic functioning you only need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight or about 0.36 grams per pound.
Athletes typically need a little more – 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.54 to 0.81 grams per pound.
Remember this is athletes we’re talking about, not weekend warriors. The average person doing a few studios workouts a week likely only needs slightly above the RDA.
More important than total protein intake though is protein timing.
You want to get in that 15-25 gram dose of protein we talked about earlier, between 30 minutes and 2 hours after your workout for optimal muscle building.
Finally, pregnant women and the elderly also have increased protein needs while people with certain chronic diseases may have higher or lower needs.
Talk to a dietitian if you have questions because intake should be individualized.
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Want more info on diet and health? Watch these videos:
- The Truth About Soy and Cancer
- Plant-Based Diets and Weight Loss
- OMG, GMOs! The Risks + Benefits of Genetically Modified Food
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Weigh in: How much protein do you eat? What do you think of the high-protein craze?