Tag Archives: Inuit Paradox

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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Protein Ceiling: Not As High As You Think

Okay so let’s say you’ve made an effort to reduce or eliminate your grain and sugar consumption. Let’s look at what kind of a calorie deficit that might have created for you:

REMOVE:

  • 1 cup oatmeal (250 calories)
  • coffee with 1 tsp sugar (16 cal) – keep the coffee, eliminate the sugar!
  • 2 slices of sandwich bread (200 cal)
  • 7 crackers (65 cal)
  • 1 cup brown rice (210 cal)
  • 2 cookies (100 cal)

= 841 calorie “deficit” by eliminating those foods.

I don’t really rely on calorie requirements, but calories are at least a useful tool. We can probably agree that you are not getting enough food if you eat less than 1000 calories a day, and that you are getting too much if you are eating more than 3000 unless you are doing manual labor or serious physical training. (The early Canadian loggers were said to eat between 5000-8000 calories/day).

But what happens in between those brackets doesn’t necessarily depend entirely on your level of exercise, but also largely on what the calories are from – carbohydrates, fats or proteins (and then it will also depend on the quality of each).  To really delve into this topic, read the authority Gary Taubes’s epic Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health. 

The point I’m getting to is that if you suddenly have a calorie deficit of over 800 calories (or more) from cutting out grains and sugar, you will probably feel compelled to replace those calories with something. In simplest terms: you’re going to be HUNGRY. VERY, VERY HUNGRY. And in general, most people initially fill that void with protein.

I WANT TO EXPLAIN WHY THAT MIGHT BE A MISTAKE

protein platter

Humans actually have a protein ceiling, a maximum amount of protein that can be effectively utilized before the excess protein is oxidized and excreted through the urine. First of all, generally the body can’t process more than 50g of protein at a time – so definitely space out your consumption. Secondly, the body cannot store extra protein, so the kidneys get overworked and fatigued dealing with getting rid of all the excess. This is manageable in the short term, but fatal if you already have kidney disease.

Although protein is acid-forming, it actually increases the body’s ability to excrete acid. The acids in proteins are not buffered by bone loss (which is the incorrect assumption behind the Alkaline or pH diet), they are buffered by bicarbonate ions in the blood and kept at a very stable pH around 7.4. (You can change the pH of your urine by changing your diet, but you can’t change the pH of your blood. And if you make your urine too alkaline you open yourself up to bladder infections.) This bicarbonate reaction produces carbon dioxide, which we exhale, and salts, which get excreted by the kidneys. Healthy kidneys have their own sustainable cycle whereby they create new bicarbonate ions as they excrete excess salts. But when someone already has kidney disease or previous stones, this cycle is compromised – these people should go really easy on protein and acidic foods. They should also go really easy on green vegetables that are high in oxalates though – so an “alkaline diet” could do more harm than good for kidney stones.

When most people start reducing their carbohydrates by eliminating grain and sugar (and then legumes, beans, starchy vegetables and tropical fruits), they assume the most logical replacement would be protein because people have a misplaced bias against and fear of fat – especially saturated fat. The problem is that if you replace your carbohydrates with protein without increasing your fat consumption, you can end up with “protein poisoning” or rabbit starvation which just means your body starts to literally starve on protein without fat.

CALCULATE THE PROTEIN CEILING

An average person needs about 1g of protein per kg of lean body mass.

So let’s say you are a 125 pound woman. Divide that by 2.2 to get your weight in kg = 56.8kg.

Now let’s estimate your lean body mass, maybe 80% if you are a pretty lean woman but not ripped exactly. See these photos for a quick visual guide to body fat percentages. Google for more photos because people love posting this stuff. Multiply your weight in kg by 80% = 45.5 kg. You need 1 g of protein for every kg of lean body mass.

This is generally how much protein an 125 pound moderately active woman will need every day – about 45g. Now if you are pregnant, nursing, or really into exercise, manual labor or training you will obviously need more. If you are really into sitting, Netflix and knitting you might need a tiny bit less.

But you will never need drastically less. Too little protein leads to malnutrition, mental retardation, fatty liver, flaky skin, edema of the belly and legs so that you look like those hungry African kids.

You can get 45g protein by eating 2 eggs, 2 cups of kale, and a 4-oz piece of salmon.

So you don’t need to also eat a bowl of cottage cheese and a cup of walnuts or whatever. You don’t need to stress about protein shakes. Those are for vegans to worry about! But you? You’re already there.

But then what to replace your calorie deficit with? Hopefully you’re already eating lots of vegetables, so we don’t want to gorge; preparing even more vegetables in new ways gets pretty tiring, expensive and labor intensive quite quickly. Mainlining vegetables is great in-season and when you have the time or a chef, but it’s probably not sustainable – or even necessary. The answer (unfortunately for people who are afraid of fat) is that you must replace your carbohydrate deficit with calories from fat. Obviously I mean non-industrial, traditional fats. Pay attention or something.

HOW ABOUT ADDING ANOTHER 500 CALORIES A DAY FROM FAT?

You could get 500 calories JUST from adding 2 TBS grass-fed butter and 2 TBS coconut oil to your life every day. Go ahead and add the whole 841 calories from fat if you feel like it – all it will take is another few TBS of fat, maybe olive oil this time. But when you eat so much healthy fat, you just won’t feel hungry enough for the extra calories. You’ll see.

You’re still reading? Maybe you should also read this interesting article from Discover Magazine about the Inuit Paradox: How Can People Who Gorge on Fat and Rarely See A Vegetable Be Healthier Than We Are?

Indeed!

BUT BUT BUT WILL IT MAKE ME FAT?

Didn’t you read the Gary Taubes book yet that I recommended 15 paragraphs ago? You need to keep up. He explains it quite simply in under 600 pages.

Obviously I’m not going to recommend something that is going to make you fat! Coconut and pure MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oils actually increase the metabolism and love to burn fat. Adding them to your diet induces your body to burn it as energy, and then to delve into the body’s stores of fat as well. Everyone who switches their calorie ratio percentages from the recommended 10% from fat daily to 50% from fat daily – loses weight (unless they are also eating sugar – then all bets are off and the fat accumulates as fat and the energy burned is only from the sugar and carbohydrates).

Another problem with eating “too much” protein is that excess protein essentially acts as glucose. That’s not to say that it is converted to glucose, because it isn’t. However excess protein will stop fat-burning the same way that consuming carbohydrates will (say more than 50 – 100g of carbohydrates/day will arrest fat-burning potential). Excess protein is converted into metabolites that will enter the KREBS cycle and displace ketones. More on this later.

I consider it a really lean day if I am only eating 50% of my calories from fat. That usually indicates to me that I’ve been hitting the bottle, or else got a little crazy with the fruit and dairy, and also found my way to the dessert trolley. I prefer to keep my calories from fat at about 65% – 80%. Am I breaking your brain?

So just go ahead and absorb this and then change absolutely everything you’ve been doing.

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