Counseling Sheet

Dangers of a High Protein Diet

Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.
Preventive Medicine

Many people are aware of the sudden deaths that occurred because of the unbalanced diet used in weight reduction - a liquid, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. The deaths were the result of an irregular rhythm of the heart, caused by such severe derangement in the nutritional balance of the body that proper electrical impulses could not be maintained by the heart.

While sudden death is a dramatic and urgent matter, there are also disabling disorders of a chronic nature that come from a high-protein diet. It can be readily stated that a high-protein diet is toxic to the body. A high-protein diet puts a tax on the liver, breaks down protein tissues, triggers a loss of calcium from bones, and leaves toxic residues which must be eliminated. Before elimination of these toxic residues, however, the body is often damaged so that it is more susceptible to a variety of diseases, including cancer and arthritis.

One might question what a high-protein diet represents. In a completely primitive society, an individual will receive about 10% of his calories from protein, about 10% from fat, and about 80% from complex carbohydrates. From studies on the human body, it appears that this kind of diet is handled the most easily by the body, since both fats and proteins are far more difficult to metabolize than are carbohydrates. Since almost 100% of carbohydrates can be converted to energy, these are most efficiently used in digestion. They represent the least expensive form of body fuel, and have the smallest amount of residue left over to act as waste product. Protein is an expensive fuel, only 58% being available for "burning," and it leaves much waste material for disposal. Only 10% of fats can be converted into fuel. Since the production of heat, the performance of work, and the forerunners for many other nutrients are obtained from carbohydrates, it is plain that carbohydrates should represent the major portion of food eaten.

Many people have a fear of eating "starches," thinking that the use of starches or carbohydrates will cause them to become overweight. This is a misconception. It is fats and proteins that stimulate one to become overweight, rather than unrefined carbohydrates. Individuals who use the high carbohydrate foods will not become overweight unless high-fat and high-protein sauces, gravies, and other companion foods are used with them. In fact, the reverse of that idea is nearer to the truth. If one uses a high carbohydrate diet from natural sources, it is highly unlikely that one will become overweight.

One should differentiate between complex carbohydrates and refined carbohydrates. The refined carbohydrates are absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream, put a strain on the pancreas, liver, stomach, and other digestive organs, and often result in imbalanced biochemistry in the blood. Generally speaking, all refined or concentrated foods should be taken quite sparingly.

A high-protein diet has been shown to cause excessive loss of calcium in the urine. Five overweight but otherwise healthy men and women volunteers were studied. All five were given a free choice of their regular diet for two weeks. After that time a high-protein diet was used for several weeks. Each individual took a vitamin-mineral capsule both during the first two weeks as well as during the test period. When the volunteers were on the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet there was a significant increase in their blood of an enzyme from the liver, a strong suggestion that protein tissue was being broken down in their bodies. These volunteers also lost a lot of calcium in their urine. When a high-protein diet is used, a high-calcium diet must also be provided to make up for urinary losses of calcium. If an extremely high protein diet on the order of 140 grams a day is taken in, researchers found that it was impossible to maintain calcium balance regardless of the extra calcium given.

A balanced diet is one that takes no more than about 10% of its calories from protein, no more than about 15-20% of its calories from fats, and the rest in carbohydrates.

Too much protein causes harmful amounts of ammonia to accumulate in the body. Ammonia has the quality of slowing the growth of cells in cell cultures. It appears clear that in a given tissue, ammonia will slow the growth of normal cells, but hardly affects the growth of cancer cells, apparently giving cancer cells an advantage over normal cells. It may be that the ammonia production from a high protein diet is the very thing that increases the risk of cancer from a diet high in protein.

It can be readily understood that a high-protein diet for an elderly person would be particularly detrimental. An elderly person may easily lose bone matrix, resulting in osteoporosis, the thinning of the bones that causes pain and much discomfort in elderly individuals. In addition to loss of calcium, there is also loss of iron, zinc, and phosphorus from the urine during a high protein diet. It is known that zinc is needed to balance other minerals in the blood.

The best dietary is a very simple one consisting of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Apart from these three food groups, all other foods should be used sparingly. Some nutrients should be used sparingly, such as salt. The recommended salt allotment each day is around 1/2 teaspoon in all that one eats. Oils should be severely restricted, as they may cause an increased susceptibility to cancer and heart disease. No added protein should be used, and the very high protein foods such as animal products should be used very sparingly.

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