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The goal of optimizing dietary proteins is a recurring theme among health-minded people, including professional health practitioners and those involved in athletics at all levels. In this Natural Truth post, we will consider our need to carefully control or optimize proteins in our diet, and summarize what we believe are the most important and certain guidelines for this practice.
Proteins: The Right Amounts & Types Are Fairly Clear But Often Misunderstood
Today, it is hard to avoid advice to reduce, increase, or change the amounts and types of proteins in our diets. As with the other two major macronutrient groups – fats and carbohydrates – the topic of protein optimization is recurring in news pieces and scientific papers, and common in the counsel of physicians, dieticians, coaches, and well-intentioned friends. Indeed, the three topics of optimizing proteins, fats, and carbs naturally are a central dietary focus. Together, they form an interconnected macronutrient triad, notably where changes or assumptions in one area inevitably impact and inform the other two, especially at constant calorie levels.
However, unlike today’s highly contentious scientific, professional, and popular debates about optimal fat and carb consumption, our ideal intake of proteins, at least in amount, is comparatively uncontroversial – though even here, there is ongoing debate and now new suggestions of empirical uncertainty. By contrast, the optimal types of proteins is an area that is far less clear and certain to many people, even as science in this area is fairly straightforward and easily summarized. But again, there is also new questioning and seeming uncertainty here too, as we will discuss.
When we talk about proteins, we of course mean various protein-rich foods, including fish, meats, poultry, eggs, insects, nuts and seeds, most dairy, edible grains and legumes, and other selected foods. More technically, proteins are chain-shaped molecules made of amino acids, each rich in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. In general, proteins are broken down into their component amino acids during digestion, and then used in specific ways throughout the body.
Proteins and the amino acids they contain form much of the structure of our bodies, support our physiology and metabolism, and can be used as a fuel source (though sometimes deleteriously, and signalling either excessive protein or inadequate fats or carbs in our diet). Like carbs, but unlike more energy-dense fats and oils, proteins contain 4 calories per gram.
Though hundreds of natural amino acids have been cataloged by scientists, only nine have been demonstrated as essential in our diets, since our bodies naturally and normally can synthesize other required amino acids. Notably, when a dietary protein source contains all nine required amino acids, it is commonly termed a complete protein. Animal-derived foods are broadly protein-rich and normally contain complete proteins. By contrast, plant foods can be relatively protein-poor and frequently do not contain complete proteins in themselves (though their combination can create complete proteins and thus provide all nine essential amino acids).
As highlighted before, our needed minimum amount of daily protein and optimal mix of dietary amino acids are each well understood and uncontroversial in our time. That said, it is important to again emphasize that there exists both ongoing and new questioning of other protein standards, including ideal protein amounts and sources. Notably, much of this effort is led by health scientists and practitioners encouraging ketogenic and/or plant-free diets. Here, it is proposed that elevated proteins and/or fats may be highly desirable, especially when accompanying and enabling reduced or even eliminated carb-rich foods (see the links immediately above to explore this debate – which remains primarily supported by anecdotal data and hypothesis, and is not yet well-researched or empirically decided).
Reflecting broad international consensus across established public health institutions, governmental recommendations for protein intake (see here and here for examples) generally align and frequently cluster today around a daily standard of 0.7-0.8 grams of complete protein per kilogram of body weight (or roughly half this amount for body weight measured in pounds). Additionally, these guidelines typically recommend increased protein intake for active people, including athletes, and reduced protein consumption for those of us who are more sedentary or have selected pathologies or allergies.
Importantly, we want to highlight that many people in the developed world eat well in excess of this recommended amount of protein, whether daily or regularly. Sometimes, this is deliberate and seemingly produces beneficial results, again as in intentional low-carb, low-fiber ketogenic and carnivore eating. Though a safe upper-limit for personal protein consumption is not well-established and even has been hard to approximate, there are a number of potential disadvantages associated with a chronically high protein intake. In addition to potentially increasing food costs, these include risks of high physiological ammonia and urea, liver and kidney stress, increased risks of kidney stones, and the potential for elevated blood pressure and cardiovascular impairment. However, where increased protein is combined with significant carbohydrate reduction, this has been shown in some studies to be effective at reducing excess body weight, blood sugars, circulating insulin, and inflammation markers, all with potential positive benefits (though perhaps less so or less beneficially than increasing dietary fats instead).
By contrast, protein deficiency is a well-understood and recognized form of harmful malnutrition, and a near-certain path to reduced personal health. Key effects include decreased body weight and development, musculoskeletal impairment, mental retardation, emotional disaffection, inactivity and behavioral passivity, altered fat metabolism, increased eating and obesity, increased stress sensitivity, reduced fertility, cardiovascular impairment, and premature death.
Across all of the considerations above, we can see a strong and clear case for consuming sufficient protein, a critical one to avoid insufficient protein intake, and a more uncertain or contentious case for avoiding high protein consumption. Once again, these ideas reflect the relatively high scientific consensus on the minimum amount of complete proteins and range of amino acids we should eat each day, as well as new and now quite strident debate about the optimal mix of proteins, fats, and carbs overall within our natural macronutrient triad.
Looking past these issues to some extent, there is also less institutional, practitioner, and popular consensus on the optimal forms of protein we should eat in any case. This is especially true when the environmental and not only personal health impacts from different forms of protein consumption are considered, and more so still when animal welfare considerations are added to the discussion. As suggested, this latter set of controversies is unfortunate and largely needless, since the environmental and animal welfare effects of different forms of protein foods are quite clear, as summarized below:
> Naturally-raised land animals – protein foods in this category involve land-habitating animals of all kinds raised entirely or substantially in a historically natural manner. Examples include pasture-raised and 100% grass-fed beef and dairy, and forest-raised and foraging poultry and egg production. Overall, these protein and sometimes fat-rich foods appear personally healthy, especially amid a low-carbohydrate and high-fiber diet, though high consumption of red and especially processed meats may be less desirable. Environmentally, this method of generally perennial and polycultural food production is readily made fully sustainable, pesticide and fertilizer-free, carbon-sequestering, soil and groundwater-preserving, native ecosystem-leveraging, and local economy-supporting. While the approach can produce significant methane, a greenhouse gas, this amount is normally no more than natural background or pre-industrial levels – or ones these ecosystems would produce if abandoned – when production is conducted naturally and in a sustainable manner. From an animal rights standpoint, food animals in this mode of production would live a largely natural life and have a roughly natural average expected lifespan – though one achieved via reduced predation and overall mortality at and after birth, in conjunction with intentionally limited longevity and natural senescence.
> Unnaturally-raised land animals – crucially, nearly all the points in the previous section are reversed in this form of food production, which can be defined simply as the raising food animals in wholly or substantially unnatural conditions from a historical standpoint. Often, this will take the form of animals raised in close confines, rely on unnatural and relatively inefficient diets high in unsustainable annual plants grown in erosive monoculture (such as corn and soy), increase natural methane levels and reduce carbon sequestration as a result, employ widespread use of hormones and and feed supplements, require use of antibiotics as a consequence of unnatural animal confinement, and lead to the pooling and unnatural decomposition of animal wastes. The full result of this can be inferior food and health outcomes for people, greatly reduced long-term food supply sustainability, immediate environmental harm on multiple fronts, and unnatural and stressed living conditions for food animals.
> Naturally-raised fish – as you may know or have guessed, most or all of the above points regarding natural land animal production apply to the natural production or harvesting of fish, which we will define similarly as aquatic animals of all kinds raised entirely or substantially in a historically natural manner (including the provision of natural diets and freedom from modern pollutants). Broadly, these foods are extremely healthy personally (often even more so than land animals), are often readily producible in sustainable ways, are apt to have similar ecological impacts as abandoned or fallow natural fisheries, and tend to foster highly naturalized animal living conditions (once again, often with reduced senescence overall, whether wild caught or farmed, though with the potential for different population and average age dynamics in each case).
> Unnaturally-raised fish – once again, nearly all the above points are reversed when we consider the case of unnaturally produced fish, which we will define as aquatic animals raised in substantially denaturalized settings and fed unnatural diets (in practice, again often including soy and other unsustainably-produced monoculture foods). As before, this can produce lower quality food for us, significant environmental harm and reduced food supply sustainability, and a poorer quality of life for food animals.
> Perennial/polyculture plants – remembering that proteins, complete and not, can come from vegetable sources, it is important to consider these protein sources as well, which we will do here in two broad categories. The first category again is perennial or enduring plants, such as seed plants and nut trees, especially when they are grown in polyculture or diverse natural groups or guilds with other plants and/animals. Overall, these protein sources are quite healthy at a personal level, though their often elevated fat levels may or may not fit with your goals for fat consumption, and their routinely high phytate, oxalate, and fiber levels may limit the amount of these foods that you can eat healthfully on a regular basis. Ecologically, foods grown in this manner usually can be done so on a highly sustainable and even regenerative basis, are often naturally resilient and self-feeding and require no pesticides or fertilizers, are naturally water and soil conserving, and in general offer an ecological footprint similar to wild natural conditions. While there may be no immediate animal welfare issues here, we would point out that this form of food production can often synergistically create naturalistic habitat and shelter for both wild and domestic animals. Importantly, where perennial plants are grown monolithically or in monoculture, rather than in more natural polyculture, we should expect reduced ecological benefits, and overall performance somewhere between this and our next and final category of protein food production.
> Annual/monoculture plants – as before, almost all the points just raised find their opposite expression when we consider our second category and the other extreme in plant food production, that of unnaturally raising annual plants, or perennial plants grown as annuals, in large single-species or monoculture plots, a practice that is also called monocropping. While this practice readly lends itself to mechanised production, it also contains significant disadvantages. At a personal health level, annual monoculture typically produces protein foods that are high in carbohydrates as well, which may or may not align with our overall nutritional goals. These grain and legume foods are also often high glutens, lectins, phytates, and other allergens and inflammatories, which may result in chronically reduced health when eaten in significant volumes. More importantly, as with and often underlying unnatural animal food production, this form of farming is enormously destructive to the environment overall and to most local ecosystems – exposing and impairing soils and promoting erosion and desertification, often undermining local aquifers via high water use, requiring external pest control and fertilization because of the unnatural lack of plant diversity and progressive soil degradation, promoting carbon and nitrogen release into the atmosphere, and broadly displacing local plants and animals. But as before, where annual crops are instead grown in natural polyculture, this still uncommon practice can be expected to reduce these negative impacts and produce ecological results closer to the perennial polyculture food systems described in the previous, third, and first sections.
For many readers, and reflecting our often unsustainable modern food systems and societal norms, some of these ideas may be new and unfamiliar, even as they are all strongly supported by now longstanding and well-tested scientific research. You can explore the overall pattern of findings via the links above or via our summary articles here and here. In any case, we would urge you to consider all of the ideas we have presented, as you think about optimal protein consumption for yourself, your family, and your community.
With this full discussion in mind, we would offer the following guidelines for optimizing protein consumption. As you will see, all are based on current scientific understanding, and most will hold true regardless of how a variety of controversies in modern nutritional science are ultimately resolved:
> Use government total protein guidance for your age, gender, and lifestyle
> Adjust levels if instructed to therapeutically by a physician or professional dietician
> Understand risks from both excess and inadequate protein consumption
> Consider new proposals for higher proteins and fats, and especially reduced carbs
> Select protein sources that align with your overall fat and carbohydrate intake goals
> Limit proteins high in lectins, glutens, and other allergens and inflammatories
> Consider ecological impacts and sustainability when selecting proteins
As you can see, these guidelines are relatively simple and easy to follow, reflecting the fairly high scientific consensus regarding many aspects of protein consumption, and its personal and ecological effects. The guidelines do require you to have clear goals for your fat and carbohydrate intake – the other two macronutrients in our nutritional triad. But we would recommend this as part of your overall nutritional planning, and view it as at least as important as considering needed protein levels and sources. Our Personal Health Program can provide assistance in this and many other areas of natural health promotion.
Our Natural Truth Rating
Given our discussion, HumanaNatura rates the idea that careful control of proteins is essential to our long-term health an 8/10 (Strong Evidence) in our Natural Truth rating system.
We base our rating on the above referenced research, which broadly recommends care with proteins, and supports the dietary guidelines we have introduced. However, our rating is less than a perfect score because the optimal amount and mix of proteins in our diet is not yet precisely known, and also because understanding of the ecological impact of different protein food production methods is in flux today, though perhaps more so ideologically or conventionally than scientifically.
However, even with these caveats, the guidelines we have presented should help most people successfully consider and progressively optimize their protein consumption, and their diet overall, for superior personal health and fitness. For a more complete view of our overall Natural Eating guidelines, see The Twenty, HumanaNatura’s OurPlate healthy eating guide, and our comprehensive Personal Health Program.
You can also click the following link to learn more about our Natural Truth health information campaign and evidence-based 1-10 rating system. And we always welcome your comments and input on this or any other HumanaNatura Natural Truth review.
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