There’s a lot of nonsense making the rounds of mainstream medicine and the media these days about high-protein diets. You may have heard it.
The latest theory goes like this…
Over-50s who regularly eat diets rich in animal protein are four times more likely to die from cancer than those who eat low-protein diets. Protein is blamed because it boosts the production of a growth hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).
Consumers of high protein diets also fAce a 75% increased risk in overall mortality, so goes the claim.
All of this is extremely misleading and dangerous – and I recommend taking it with more than a pinch of salt, as well as a healthy dose of skepticism.
The source of this highly publicized snippet of misinformation can be traced back to a 2014 joint study by scientists at the University of Southern California and the Institute of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Reproduction in Quito, Ecuador.1
The research, which was conducted among indigenous subjects with a rare genetic mutation in a remote area of southern Ecuador, also claimed that high-protein diets increase the risk of diabetes.
But the conclusions that the Media drew from the study – which have now spread into mainstream medicine – couldn’t be more wrong.
Sidestep the Media’s Disinformation Campaign
Protein, especially when it comes from pastured or wild animals, is the wisdom of your ancestors. You are the descendant of thousands of generations of protein eaters, and it’s exactly what your body needs to stay mobile, healthy, and independent far into old age.
The study itself noted that protein is essential for people over 65 – but this has been largely ignored by the media and mainstream medicine.
You see, protein is a key macronutrient and a critical building block of muscle mass. It’s composed of 20 amino acids, eight of which your body can’t make Itself. You must eat them every day to stay healthy.
Protein is also essential for fighting illness. When you’re sick, your body withdraws protein from your muscles to help produce the antibodies that battle infection. The less protein you consume, the more vulnerable you are to illness and diseases of aging.
An important study from Tufts University also directly links our modern lack of protein with the rise of sarcopenia – the frailty that is associated with modern old age. The Tufts researchers showed that older people who consumed low levels of protein lost muscle mass in just eight weeks. But the opposite happened when they increased their protein consumption.2
Protein itself wasn’t the only victim of the medical misinformation that emerged from the UCLA-Ecuadorian study. The IGF-1 hormone isn’t your enemy, either.
IGF-1 is a crucial hormone in the development of babies and children, and adults need it to maintain healthy body composition and to ward off many of the common diseases of aging.
And researchers have shown that adults with an IGF-1 deficiency are often fatter and have much less muscle mass. IGF-1 is also essential for bone miNeralization, and is an essential protector against osteoporosis and kidney failure.3
It’s also known that IGF-1 promotes the cytotoxicity of Natural Killer (NK) cells that destroy cancer cells, and that deficiencies can increase cardiovascular and mortality risk.4,5
The real problem is that we consume less protein than at any time during all human history.
Focus All Your Meals Around High-Quality Protein
All the best sources come from animals – eggs, beef, fish and whole milk. I always recommend eating whole foods, like pastured beef, lamb, chicken and other properly raised organic foods, as well as wild-caught fish.
Unless you know the source of the meat and the practices of the ranch or farm, the safest foods are USDA-certified-organic foods. If your grocer doesn’t carry them, let them know you’ll shop elsewhere.
You can also supplement with protein – but not all prOteins are created equally. If it’s not grass-fed, you may be consuming protein from pesticide-treated, grain-fed animals.
I also suggest steering clear of sugary, carbohydrate-laden protein shakes and protein bars that often masquerade as health food in supermarkets.
Instead, I recommend grass-fed whey protein as the best protein supplement. Whey is a by-product of cheese production and contains a wealth of the amino acids and other vital nutrients we need from protein. It’s widely available online and in health food stores.
To Your Good Health,
Al Sears, MD, CNS
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- Levine ME, et al. “Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population.” Cell Metabolism. Volume 19, Issue 3, P407-417, 2014
- Fielding RA. “Protein nutrition mediates lean body mass homeostasis in the aging warfighter.” J Nutr. 2013 Nov;143(11):1857S-1861S.
- Locatelli V, Bianchi VE. “Effect of GH/IGF-1 on Bone Metabolism and Osteoporosis.” Int J Endocrinol. 2014;2014:235060.
- Ni F, et al. “IGF-1 promotes the development and cytotoxic activity of human NK cells.” Nat Commun 4, 1479. 2013
- Higashi Y, at al. “IGF-1 and cardiovascular disease.” Growth Horm IGF Res. 2019;45:6-16.