Protein Ceiling: More to the Story

In my last post I explained a pretty simple way to estimate your protein ceiling, as if it was a totally fixed concept. Now let’s make this a little less cut and dry, as that was just too straightforward. The protein ceiling concept is still going to work for most people and most situations to keep them out of trouble (read: protein excess).

But maybe you are not most people. There is a way to eat more protein and not end up with kidney damage or stones or protein starvation. But it is slightly more complicated in that it involves ratios. And also slightly less complicated in that it replicates the hundreds of thousands of years of human hunter/gatherer evolution of consuming and digesting food.

THE ARCTIC EXPLORERS FIGURED IT OUT

Protein Ceiling: More to the StoryIf you’re still interested, I’ll tell you the story of Harvard anthropologist-turned-Arctic-explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. In the early 1900s, he went up to northern Canada and Alaska to live among various native tribes and out of necessity, adopted their food cultures. All of their diets were made up of about 50% caribou meat, 30% fish, 10% seal and the last 5 or 10% made up of polar bear, rabbits, birds and eggs. They did not consider fruits and vegetables to be “proper human food”, though they gathered medicinal herbs and also sometimes ate partially digested vegetal contents of animals’ stomachs.

Stefansson was blown away by the level of health of the native tribespeople, their high levels of energy and also the surprising lack of deleterious effects by ignoring such staples as vegetables, fruits, starches and fiber. Instead of leading to deficiencies, these absences appeared to make them flourish. And while Stefansson was on the same diet, he flourished in all the same ways. Back in New York in 1928, he and a fellow explorer Karsten Anderson enrolled in a year-long study through Bellevue Hospital where they would prove they could thrive eating nothing but meat. Partly this was to show that the Inuit were not just exclusively adapted to a high fat, “high” protein diet – that it was the same for everybody.

FIRST MISTAKE

For a short 3 day period, the doctors monitoring Stefansson and Anderson wanted to experiment with an all protein and no fat diet. Stefansson was to be on the no fat diet, Anderson was to be the control on the fat and meat diet. After only two days, Stefansson became ill with diarrhea and an overwhelming feeling of “baffling discomfort”.

HIGH FAT FOR THE FIX

As soon as fat was returned to the meat diet, the symptoms disappeared. In order to mimic the Inuit diet, it was necessary to eat an average of TWO POUNDS OF MEAT per day, an average of 2600 calories, and to copy the macronutrient profile of 79% of calories from fat, 19% from protein and roughly 2% from carbohydrate (which is from the glycogen contained in muscle meat). The amount of carbohydrates was strictly limited to 50 calories/day, or about 12g.

So even though they were eating an all-meat diet, it was technically not a high protein diet. It was quite clearly an ultra-high fat diet, with an average amount of protein (by ratio of calories) and a very restricted amount of carbohydrates. But in no way was it a high protein diet, as protein only made up 19% of the calories (even though it was 123.5g protein).

The year-long experiment was a success. The explorers did not develop kidney damage, kidney fatigue by reduced function, or stones. They did not develop vitamin or mineral deficiencies, even though logic tells us that an acidic meat-rich diet should leach calcium from the bones. It should also be noted that even at 2600 calories, the meat diet contained only a quarter of the calcium we are supposed to require. Stefansson remained strong and lean and his blood pressure remained low at 105/70, though he lost 6 pounds over the year. Anderson lost 3 pounds and his blood pressure fell from 140/80 to 120/80.

So in the previous simplified calculation of protein ceilings, a tall, fit 200 pound explorer would probably have a limit of about 90g protein.

However Stefansson and Anderson proved that they could eat about 40% more than that – HOWEVER, their high protein consumption was mitigated by an ultra high fat consumption. What I am saying is that if you are a tall, strong 200 pound explorer, you can probably eat 125g of protein/day or so, so long as you are also eating 230g fat. See if you can wrap your head around that much fat!

If you do not think you can handle quite so much fat, you could always eat less protein. Which sort of takes us back to the original protein ceiling concept.

I just wanted to be clear that there is a way to eat more protein safely, and it requires carbohydrate restriction and ultra high fat consumption. You probably don’t need to be as intense as Stefansson and Anderson at 70% fat to 19% protein to 2% carbohydrates, but you wouldn’t want to veer to much below 55% fat or above 25% protein and 20% carbohydrate.

So good luck with that.

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2 thoughts on “Protein Ceiling: More to the Story

  1. markwbell says:

    What about scurvy??

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