Sensational headline right? We’ll get to that a little later on, but for now I wanted to start with a little of my story.
Protein protein protein. My life dead set seemed to revolve around getting enough protein or I’d waste away, I’d lose all my muscle. I would calculate in my head how much protein this had, how much protein that had, was I getting at least 30 grams of protein in this meal? How much protein cumulatively have I had today, and how much more do I need to have? I need to buy this protein bar because it’s been over 3 hours since I last had protein…. and so on.
This image is from 2014, when I tried and failed at monetizing a Facebook Fan Page centered around fitness and muscle growth. I was full on into this. I talk all about it in one of my IGTV videos which you can check out by heading to @4yhealth_ or just click the Instagram social link in the top right of your page. It’s where I share most of my content so don’t be missing out!
Ok back to protein and muscle… Once I learned about the potential negative effects of excessive protein consumption long term and specifically animal protein (you can skip ahead to the facts if you like), I began to question why I was so obsessed with keeping my protein intake so high...why I was so determined to be and look muscular.
I realised there was no real justifiable reason. I’m not a bodybuilder, I don’t need to be big for any sports I play, in fact, I play football (soccer), I needed to be fast and nimble... so it was vanity, plain and simple. I wanted to look good. I wanted to look muscular and attractive to impress others and most likely to cover up some insecurities I hold.
Having a certain level of muscle growth is still important and healthy, and I certainly don’t want to discourage working out and strength training. Personally however, I realised I could achieve my health goals and maintain a healthy level of muscle mass with a much lower protein intake. I cut back from about 180g or protein per day (250+ at its peak) and meat or eggs at every meal, to about 80g/day now and meat only once a day at dinner, if that.
Now I’m not here to tell you that wanting to get big and look muscular is bad and that you shouldn’t be doing it, that’s not how I operate. Everyone has their own goals and reasons for doing things and if your goal is to pack on the muscle, then yes, having more protein and having more meat is going to help with that. The fact is, vegans and vegetarians can grow a very muscular body still, but if that same vegan/vegetarian started eating meat they would be able to become even bigger. Meat is just more anabolic, that’s a fact. Anabolic foods help the body to grow, they increase IGF-1 (natural growth hormone) hormone levels in the body, they increase testosterone, but that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy thing to do. In fact, its this anabolism that can be part of the issue when it comes to long term health.
When it comes to this topic, we need to differentiate between health and body transformation. You can look in fantastic shape, be big and muscular, or even just lean and athletic, but still be unwell. This is so important to understand. Everyone at one point in their life has either said it themselves or overheard something along the lines of, “He/she just eats whatever they want and they’re still skinny/look great, it’s unfair.” Let me repeat, just because someone is skinny or “in shape” does not mean they are healthy. Our bodies are not so different that that some can negate the effects of not having the nutrients they need to function properly. You cant escape how the body works. You eat poorly for long enough, I don’t care how you look on the outside, it’s going to catch up to you on the inside.
So yes, eating a lot of protein and meat can pack on the muscle and make you look like an Adonis, but the health and longevity consequences are real. If you’re interested in fitness and the gym and familiar with the popular media around it you’ve likely seen recommendations such as 1 gram of protein per lb of bodyweight, or 30-40% of your calories from protein… and they’re not wrong, BUT that is the recommendation for their goal of body transformation and muscle growth, not health. Everyone else apart from the bodybuilding community, all the experts largely agree (and most major cultures throughout history), that for optimal health and longevity we should be looking at 10-15% of our diet coming from protein. I’m just talking about protein here, not meat specifically, but I’m going to get to some of the evidence against meat now.
I’m just going to present you with the evidence. My goal is not to tell people what they should or should not be doing but rather to educate. I aim to arm people with the knowledge and information that allows them to make more informed decisions for themselves. So this is where that sensational headline comes into play… a big, respected study out of the University of Southern California* (I’ll link it up at the bottom) has the following factors and conclusions about meat and dairy consumption:
Over 6,000 adults over 50 years old split into low (below 10%), moderate (10-19%), and high (over 20%) diets. Percentages were based on total protein (animal or plant) of daily calories.
People who ate high protein diets were 74% more likely to die before the end of the study, than those that ate in the low protein group… 74%.
Decreasing protein from MODERATE to LOW decreased early mortality risk by 21%.
The team found that plant based proteins were not as detrimental to health as animal based proteins.
Over 2000 of the participants had their IGF-1 levels recorded, and it was found that those who ate the highest levels of animal protein were 4x more likely to die of cancer than those who had a low protein diet. This 4x increased rate is similar to the increased risk of cancer between smokers and non-smokers.
Almost everyone is going to have a cancer cell or many cancer cells in them at some point, you may even have some right now, it’s quite normal. The question is, does it progress? When our body is functioning healthily and properly it eliminates the cancer cells before they have a chance to proliferate. When our body is not healthy, when there is a lot of inflammation and our immune system is compromised, is when these cancer cells can progress to become Cancer. This is where meat comes into the equation, that anabolic food. You see, it doesn’t just make our body and our muscles grow, it can make cancer cells grow too. More meat > more IGF-1 > more risk of aiding in cancer cell growth. So if there is some level of inflammation or immune system weakness AND we have a high protein/meat intake, we’re really providing an environment for cancer cell growth.
Studies of an Ecuadorian subset of the population, along with studies of the Japanese Okinawan populations have shown that genetic differences in these populations resulted in lower than average levels of IGF-1. These populations are very short in stature because of that lower IGF-1. They don’t grow as much, they’re about 5 ft. tall on average. Guess what? They also have much much lower levels of cancer than the general population.
Studies on mice comparing low and high protein diets shave shown that those on high protein diets are more likely to develop cancer. If mice on the low protein diet did happen to develop cancer, the tumours were 45% smaller than those developed by mice in the high protein diet.
So whether you eat meat or not, that is up to you and it’s not my decision or my job to tell you whether you should eliminate meat or not. My job is to spread information I think can help people, and bring to people what the evidence it pointing to. The evidence is pointing to this: LOWER the amount of protein you’re eating on a daily basis, LOWER the amount of meat you’re eating if you’re interested in living longer and increasing your chances of avoiding cancer and early mortality. If you love your meat and you can’t live without it, at least look to lower your intake of the processed meats, the cured meats, burnt meats. These have been shown to be carcinogenic without a doubt. You might not get cancer, you might be one of the lucky ones, and I hope that’s the case, but do you really want to take that chance? Is meat worth that much to you?
If you find yourself objecting to these suggestions, you might want to ask yourself, why are you so attached to meat? What is it about people suggesting you should eat less meat that gets you upset or riled up? Is meat a religion of yours? Why do you believe so strongly in it? Maybe you just love the taste, or how it makes you feel, or you just don’t want to have to worry about what you eat all that much, and that’s totally understandable. I just ask these questions because I had to ask myself the same questions once I learned this information. Trust me, I was the ultimate meathead. Meat was always the priority in my supermarket visits, I had with just about every meal, and A LOT of it. However, it was largely just based on false beliefs, and I just got in to the habit of doing it, and so it just became what I did and what I believed in. Now that I’ve cut my meat intake wayyyy back, I don’t miss it, I’m happy not to be spending so much money on meat all the time, I got over my stubbornness and I DO FEEL BETTER. I still do eat meat and I still enjoy it, but I’m now armed with the knowledge about over-consumption of it and I eat accordingly, 10-15%.
So now lets look at this practically so you can actually implement this if you want to. What does 10-15% of protein look like? Well, think about your plate, how much space does 10-15% take up? Not a lot right? I still want you eating protein at every meal, but your portion should be a garnish to your meal, not the main serving. If you’re into numbers you can use 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Study after study has confirmed this guideline and it really hasn’t been debunked, for the goal of wellness and longevity. Sure some will need a little more, some a little less depending on their body type and individuality, but by and large, 0.8g/kg is where you want to be.
In terms of body types, ectomorphs are going to require more protein than average because they are naturally more catabolic (they break down muscle tissue more). That does not mean that protein has to come from meat however. If you’re more of the endomorph, you can get away with a little less protein because those body types are naturally anabolic and grow more easily.
So there you have it, I know this was a long one and I commend you if you’ve made it this far and truly thank you for taking the time to read my content. I hope you’ve found some information you can use to make some more informed decisions 4 Your Health. As always, hit me up in the comments or on any of my social channels which you can find in the top right or the bottom of any page, if you have any questions.
*Morgan E. Levine, Jorge A. Suarez, Sebastian Brandhorst, Priya Balasubramanian, Chia-Wei Cheng, Federica Madia, Luigi Fontana, Mario G. Mirisola, Jaime Guevara-Aguirre, Junxiang Wan, Giuseppe Passarino, Brian K. Kennedy, Min Wei, Pinchas Cohen, Eileen M. Crimmins, Valter D. Longo. Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population. Cell Metabolism, 2014; 19 (3): 407-417 DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2014.02.006