The Drama-Free Truth About Protein

bitmoji aimee beef hamburger eat

Recently I had the experience of visiting a local personal training studio and trying out a 21 day jump start. I thought it would be a great way to ‘try before I buy’ a gym that was close to me and to see what my peers were doing in business and for the local community.
I don’t want to be an a-hole, but this was a truly disappointing and occasionally frightening experience. While there were several things that were embarrassingly questionable, what drove me over the edge was the nutrition information being spouted off by people who obviously knew little to nothing about nutrition for humans.
I knew this day – and this post – would be coming, but thought I had another year or two before it got bad. I was wrong. Even with the notable increase in veganism and the popular documentaries like “What the Health”, I did not realize protein demonization was already well underway and even being promulgating in the fitness industry – an area that has always historically been enthusiastically enamored with protein.
Here is an important truth: Food fads circle back around *JUST LIKE FASHION*. 
After almost 27 years of studying nutrition I can tell you this beyond any shadow of a doubt. Let’s pause for a brief history lesson:
This looks like me in high school, except I never wore shorts or exposed my midriff in Alaska. My father would have *killed* me.

The uptick in recycled 90’s garb (tell me you’ve noticed the flowing bohemian skirts, collared necklaces and plaid flannels?) is coming in conjunction with a resurgence in vegetarianism – much like the late 80’s and early 90’s. My introduction to nutrition was during this decade, and the information I learned was recycled from the vegetarian movement of the 70’s …. do you see a trend here?

Just as the keto crowd and the carb demonizing folks had it wrong, the protein demonizing folks do, also.

The trendy carb-bashing days that we are leaving behind us are just a recycling of Dr. Atkin’s low carb movement, which began in the 70’s and came back in the mid to late 90’s when he republished his book. Since he died of a blood clot in 2003 and *that* doesn’t bode well for his dietary theories the trend needed new faces and new theories for this new generation of protein fanatics to feel good about loading their plate with bacon, eggs, and a steak first thing in the morning. So it has been for the last 10-15 years.


So we are now entering a protein-demonizing trend, as we were in the late 80’s/early 90’s (think Pritikin, Ornish and McDougall) and the late 60’s/early 70’s before that (Think Frances Moore Lappe, Moosewood Cookbook, etc.) …. we will do this for 10-15 years, and then likely demonize fat, because that was the trend in the early 80’s and we haven’t really seen it since the mid-90s.

Okay – let’s move on from the history lesson and onto the meat of the matter (HA!):

In italics is quoted the nutrition information I received as part of this 21 Day Jump Start.
“The first two days are definitely geared at cleansing, hence the no caffeine and tons of veggies. We’re looking to flush out the system a bit for a fresh start 😉and remember that veggies have protien (sic) too!”
48 hours is not enough time to ‘cleanse’ from much of anything so I have no idea what the point of this was, although a justification for rapid water loss leading to the appearance of rapid progress makes some sense.
Note that ‘veggies have protein, too” was in response to a question about a green salad with no protein or fat that was found to be unsatisfying as a meal. According to My Fitness Pal, 4 cups of green salad has about 3 grams of protein. Even if you believe we need no more than 10-15% of our calories from protein you can recognize this is not enough for a meal.
While this caused me to raise an eyebrow, I just let it go. However, when the following email came into my inbox, I lost my shit completely.
“Tip #3: Consume an adequate amount of protein (but not too much)!  Protein is an absolutely essential macronutrient, however it’s very easy to overdo it.  When we consume more protein that we can utilize the body is very good at taking that extra protein and converting it into body fat!  It’s a metabolic pathway known as “gluconeogenesis” and it can be a major roadblock for those of us who’s goals include toning and reducing body fat.  In regards to how much to consume, I would recommend consuming somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-60 grams per day, even on days that you come to boot camp!  For a more exact recommendation feel free to reach out to me and I can do some more precise calculations based on your overall size and body composition.”
bitmoji aimee dog facepalm
Okay – first off, gluconeogenesis is the creation of glucose, not fatty acids, from non-carbohydrate sources (see any dictionary to confirm this). One could speculate that excess protein could be converted to glucose and then from glucose to fat – but when you look closer, this seems unlikely.
A) Protein doesn’t actually contribute much to circulating glucose levels (see this piece of research as well as this study) so even if the body had extra protein around, it isn’t likely to convert it into glucose.
B) Of all macronutrients, protein is the most ‘costly’ to digest. Dietary fat to body fat requires very little extra effort. Carbohydrate to fatty acids requires about  5-10% of the energy/calories you’d find in those carbs and protein can take up to 30% of it’s caloric value to be digested (this is known as diet-induced thermogenesis). The folks at Precision Nutrition discuss it in this great article.
Basically the only way that dietary protein is going to be converted to glucose and then converted to fatty acids to be stored as body fat is if the person is consuming an excess of calories. In this instance, any carbohydrate or dietary fat consumed would also be converted to fatty acids and stored for later use. However, protein is the least likely to be utilized in this way because, calorie per calorie consumed, less of it can be stashed away due to diet-induced thermogenesis. Anyone who was following the menu plan offered as part of the program was in a caloric deficit. They don’t need to worry about this. Based upon what I saw them write in the Facebook group, they were actually not getting enough food, because they were complaining about crashing hard after exercising, having cravings, and being outright hungry all the time.
Secondly – protein is so darn important and women do not need to be skimping on it – ESPECIALLY women who are dieting. Dietary protein offers a protective factor against muscle loss in low calorie diets (see Dietary Protein, Weight Loss, and Weight Maintenance). Protein also protects against bone loss.
Encouraging 50-60 grams of protein per day for exercising women is ultimately a set up for increased hunger, cravings, muscle loss, and ultimately dietary failure due to unsustainability. If they are hitting the gym hard or, as some were, running and engaging in high intensity activity in addition to their bootcamp workouts, they are losing even more muscle mass and therefore losing the only source of metabolic control they have.  Muscle is metabolism.
What I have seen after 15 years in the fitness industry is women who get too hungry, get injured, get fatigued, lose muscle mass, and quit a diet or fitness program because it is unsustainable.
Or – like the trainers at this gym will probably see after a short ‘jump start’ like this challenge – they come off it with a cheat weekend, are filled with shame, and undo all their hard work in the fourth week.
Shame cycle initiated, they gain all the weight back and more because they have less muscle, feel even more horrible about themselves, and think themselves failures.
When we eat MORE protein and lift heavier weights (yes, ladies – I am talking to you) we get the “toned” look mentioned in the email, we maintain muscle mass and a healthy metabolism, get stronger, build self-esteem and aren’t as hungry.
Now, all diet trends do have their grain of truth, and this would not be a fair post if I did not acknowledge the truth in the negative things you are going to be hearing about protein.
Here is what the protein-bashers are correct about:
1)  The meat industry is pretty evil. The United States has a inethical, disgusting agricultural industry that makes us obese and ill. There are many reasons for this, and it isn’t just protein that is the problem.
Crowding animals close together, feeding them antibiotics so they manage to survive long enough to get fat enough (thanks to extra hormones) to command a good price does not make for a healthy product, just like rapid growth on minimally fertilized soil with extra pesticides doesn’t make for nutrient-rich produce and grains.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) are where most of our meat comes from, and to see it would change how you ate in a heartbeat. Learning about this is what turned me into a vegetarian 25 years ago (Full disclosure: I have eaten meat since 2007).
2) Americans get too much protein. This is true for some people, but not everyone. As a 5’2″ female, 50-60 grams of protein daily might be enough if I was totally inactive. It would certainly prevent me from developing kwashiorkor.
However, we each have different metabolic needs and some people need more protein than others. Those who are consuming too much protein are probably also consuming too many calories from fat and carbohydrates as well.
This is a legitimate problem in a country where concentrated calorie sources formulated to be addictive (ie – processed foods) are heavily subsidized by the government.
3) The Paleo/Keto People have it wrong.  Any dietary modality that demonizes an entire food group (fats are bad, protein is bad, carbs are bad) is wrong, period.
Just as grains aren’t all evil and lectins won’t kill you neither will chicken give you diabetes (I don’t even know what the hell that dude on “What the Health” was thinking when he said that – oh, wait; he’s a comedian dispensing nutrition info… maybe he was joking?).
Some people feel remarkably better when they avoid grains and some people feel remarkably better when they avoid meat. That doesn’t mean we all need to do what they do. The longest-living cultures on the planet (in the Blue Zones) include both animal protein and grains in their diet and have the highest percentages of centenarians, so we cannot objectively categorize either meat nor grains as innately ‘unhealthy’.
4) Meat causes cancer.
Epidemiological studies show a connection between meat consumption and cancer. Epidemiology is one of the least rigorous forms for research because there are SO MANY variables that impact large populations that we cannot say “this causes that”. The consumption of nitrate-rich processed meat has the strongest link, and yeah – I’m willing to say that if you have bacon daily you aren’t doing yourself any favors, especially if you aren’t getting enough vegetables (which over 90% of Americans aren’t).
Keep in mind that the populations with greater access to high amounts of meat and processed meats also have the highest amount of industrialization, where factors such as sedentary living, pollution, and stress compound any ‘cancer-causing’ agent in beef.
When I look at this research I wonder, “What would happen if they teased out CAFO meat from grass-fed meat? Would that correlation still be there?”,
“Is it the nitrates that are the problem with processed meat or the meat itself?” and “Is this an issue of too much meat or an issue of not enough vegetables?”
If your meat consumption is crowding out your vegetable intake (like it does in many developed, industrialized nations) maybe that is the bigger problem.
5) Meat is a Class 1 carcinogen. WHO says so! Asbestos and Cigarettes are too!
Sort of. The World Health Organization classifies processed meat as a class 1 carcinogen. But what does that mean exactly? It means that the WHO is recognizing that a diet high in processed meats has evidence that it is carcinogenic to humans. HOWEVER, Class 1 means research shows a strong link, but does not specify how strong that link is. So to say that smoking is the same as eating meat is absurd. The likelihood of cancer being a result of one is not equal to the other, but both demonstrate carcinogenic tendencies.
Red meat is labeled a class 2 carcinogen, which means it is probably linked to cancer. Again I ask – is this an issue of meat or an issue of lack of vegetables? Certainly if someone is eating a lot of processed meats like hot dogs, lunchmeat and bacon they probably are not wrapping their hot dog in an organic chard leaf. They probably are consuming a lot of processed starches and sugars as well. So OF COURSE they are going to have poor health and an increased risk of cancer. See the variables at play?
Here are the World Health Organization’s own words on the matter: Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat
As we embark upon the shift in nutrition (mis)information that is coming down the road I encourage you to experiment.
See how it feels to go vegetarian if you are compelled to. If paleo or keto is working for you, by all means, stay at it! It is important, however, to remember your body is a dynamic, evolving organism and your dietary needs change over time. Monitor your hunger, your moods, your energy and use lab data as well to confirm your decisions.
Unfortunately, vegetarianism did not work for me in the long haul.  A lot of things went missed in my labs for a very long time because the medical community is not educated in nutrition. I can look back and see that as an active teenager in an area of the world where sunlight was scarce and winters were long my body did not do well. I was young and pumped full of caffeine and believed my struggles were unrelated to my diet.
I *needed them* to be unrelated to my diet, because my veganism was as deep an ideology as any religion could be. It wasn’t until I recognized that my own body was an animal that was suffering due to my beliefs that I was open to changing my diet. That is a story for another time, though.
What do you think about all the hullabaloo about the ideal diet that you hear in the media? Have you found what works for you? Comment below and let me know!
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  1. Well done Aimee. This was a great “response” piece.

  2. Great post, Amy! I abandoned vegetarian to eat meat again when I got diagnosed with leaky gut and had food sensitivities to pretty much everything I regularly ate. I don’t lift/exercise enough as a 5’2 40 y.o. woman, but think it’s crazy that anyone would recommend 50-60 grams protein while boot camping! I did try Ideal Protein for a while, with some results, but couldn’t sustain the cost/eating packaged foods long enough to get to where I wanted to be, plus meat is giving me terrible acid reflux/heartburn lately. Still trying to figure out what works for me…have had most success with WW, and experiment with IF; now looking into Brightlines. LOVE your stuff and following you on your own journeys, keep it up!

    1. I was lucky that I did not have my food intolerances diagnosed until after I began eating meat. Psychologically it was much easier for me than it would have been had I been the raving animal rights activist who discovered she could no longer have seitan, bread, or tofu.

      In considering what works for you, go back to your diet history and pull out key aspects of plans that were positive. This can help you eliminate programs that don’t work for you. Good luck!

  3. I think this post is brilliant!

    1. Thanks, Jan! IMO, Bitmoji makes everything brilliant. 😉
      Feel free to share the post with active women you know. This message cannot be overshared, especially with the protein bashing trend resurging yet again.

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