Can Protein Make You Fat?

 

A typical day in the life of someone trying to be healthy, lean, and fit:

Go to the gym.  Check.

Do an amazing workout.  Check.  

Go to the juice bar post workout and order a protein shake. Extra protein, please.  

Because, you know, your muscles need it.

Later that day, whip out a protein bar for a snack. Check.

Following Paleo guru wisdom, the next meal will likely have some protein, veggies, and maybe even a small starch.  

Because, you know.

Muscles.

Throw in a regular “cheat” day (translation: gorge on carbohydrates) and this sums up, more or less, a typical “healthy”  diet for someone wanting to eat “clean”.

And I know why we think this way. We do it because we want to be healthy. We do it because we want to look good naked, and we do it because we want muscles.  We do it because everyone and their mother thinks this way of eating is healthy.

Protein, protein, protein.  With a side of extra protein.

I’m sorry to break the news, but this approach is NOT the way to health Narnia.  

You are, unfortunately, eating WAY too much protein, which as you read you will see, is no better, and in fact, potentially WORSE than eating pasta and bread regularly.  

Further, it is setting you up for obesity, insulin resistance, prediabetes, Alzheimers, and neurodegenerative diseases.

The Back Story

Our nomadic ancestors did not have protein everyday, as much as current cartoon images of cavemen would suggest.

In fact, they fasted, both in terms of not eating meat daily as well as a complete abstinence of food altogether.

Think about a tribe, wherein a hunt rendered a kill for the group.  For this example, let’s call it bison.  The tribe would feast on the bison until it was finished.  Brain, organs, meat.  All of it.

They didn’t snack on paleo protein bars, or make shakes with extra BCAAs.  They would not eat any protein again until the next kill…which could be days, weeks, or months.

An important side note here — they would typically eat the organs, like the brain, liver and heart FIRST and the muscles LAST.  In other words, they ate the areas with the highest concentration of fat and nutrients first.  Today, we have completely reversed this pecking order unlike typically consumption today where it is primarily muscle tissue.

This rhythm of hunting would confer is minimal, if any protein consumption, for days after the animal was eaten.

In other words, there was a rest from eating protein.

Originating from classic ‘Paleo’ diets and bodybuilding strategies, it is commonly accepted today that more protein, either in the form of meat or powders, is a good thing.  

I hate to break it to you, but it is most certainly not.  

In fact it may be MORE detrimental to your long term health markers to be constantly consuming loads of protein at every meal.

Sorry, Paleo fans. Meat all day err day just won’t cut it for long term health.

And that is the world I like to play in –  the long term health game.  

In addition to the benefits of fasting, our ancestors did not have daily protein consumption.  

Why is this important?  Well, fasting, combined with moderate protein consumption confers many health benefits, most noteworthy of which is the inhibition of a process called the mTOR pathway.

What in the bleep is mTOR?

mTOR (short for the mammalian target of rapamycin)  is a chain reaction in the body activated by excess amino acids in the system. Amino acids, of course, are what protein breaks down into.

If your body cannot use the protein you are eating, it will, through a process called gluconeogenesis, turn the excess proteins into sugar.

Most people do not realize that excess protein will be converted into sugar by the body.  So that high protein, low carb diet?  Not much difference to that and a diet filled with breads, pastas and rice.

I’ll wait a minute here while your mind explodes…

Excess amino acids has an extra kick to it that makes it just a bit more lethal.  A one, two punch of sorts:  It will strongly influence BOTH the inflammatory insulin pathway AND the mTOR pathway.

We all know that constant levels of insulin in the body is bad for us (see point #3 and #5 in this article). Carbohydrates are most often thought of as the evil villains who are always increasing insulin levels in the body, creating inflammation and damage.

But, like any evil villain worth their salt, they usually have an accomplice.  

That accomplice, my friends, is protein.

mTOR strongly stimulates growth systems in the body, of particular importance is the process of adipogenesis.  In other words, the making of new fat in the body.

It is also involved in lipogenesis, and the inhibition of autophagy. 

This last one is a biggie.

Autophagy is basically spring cleaning of your cells.

In a healthy individual, regular autophagy is encouraged and happens on a regular basis.

Old cells, damaged cells, mutated cells, or ones that are not working are identified, and eliminated.

Imagine you have a beautiful garden, with flowers, manicured shrubs, and a luscious herb garden.  If you never tended to your garden, it would eventually be overrun with weeds.  

Autophagy is the weed mechanism by which our freshest, newest, best cells are spared and older ones eliminated.

Constant activation of the mTOR pathway (through all that protein you’re eating) stops this weeding and clearing out of old cells.

Autophagy is inhibited with excess protein consumption.

Garden, meet weeds.

So as a summary:

  1. Insulin (activated by carbohydrates AND protein)
  2. mTOR (activated by protein)

Meet Your New Superhero – FAT.

Now, on the flip side of the protein coin, there is fat. Eating a high fat diet blocks the ability of leptin to activation of the mTOR pathway, AND reduces food intake overall.

Fat for the win, baby.

 For all my neuro nerds out there, the mechanism through which fat inhibits this pathway happens via the hypothalamus.

Your hypothalamus is a pret-ty important area – it receives signals signals from dietary hormones (like leptin and insulin) and circulating nutrients like amino acids, glucose, and lipids.  

The hypothalamus, (more specifically the arcuate nucleus) is closely regulates adipogenesis.

Eating a diet high in protein activates this mTOR pathway, and the making new fat cells.

Not what those bodybuilding magazines selling you whey products would have you believe, huh.  

On the flip side, a high fat diet will lead to the hypothalamus to stops the mTOR pathway.

Eat fat, less fat cells, no activation of insulin.

Eat protein, more fat cells, activation of insulin and mTOR.

When we eat fat,  we also reduce our overall food intake.  This is signalled from the ventral medial hypothalamus (VMHY).

Remember before where we talked about carbohydrates AS WELL AS protein being a strong stimulator for insulin?  The VMHY is where this integrations starts.  When you eat a high fat meal, your ventral medial hypothalmus signals you to reduce your eating.  

That is why when you injure to your  VMHY, induces hyperphagia. You don’t stop eating.  Like. Ever.

In other words, with an injury to the VMHY, the normal signals to tell us to stop eating do not work.  They shut down, and we never feel full.   

Perhaps a dream on your cheat day at your favourite restaurant.  But this is all the time!  You never feel full,  and you never stop eating, The long term effects create a predictable, morbidly obese, insulin resistance mess.

So when we eat:

  1. Carbohydrates, we stimulate the insulin pathway
  2. Protein, we stimulate BOTH insulin and the mTOR pathway
  3. Fat, neither

I have written about the 6 Superpowers of eating a high fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrate diet here, and may just have to be added this to the list.

 Eating  fat, without excess carbs or protein will impair the activation of the mTOR pathwway.

That’s a great thing.

Since abnormal regulation of the mTOR pathway is related to most diseases – cancer, obesity and neurodegenerative diseases, it would be a good long term strategy to engage in a lifestyle that actively stops this pathway.  

One of the most obvious ways is not overdose on protein powders and meat products on a daily basis.  

Other stimulators of mTOR are stress levels, energy, and oxygen levels 

These findings supports the idea of BOTH fasting AND a high fat diet are crucial for longevity.

Play the long game, people.

So what does all this mean?

First, it continues to support the idea that we evolved from ancestors who regularly fasted and ate foods that were high in fat, carbs that had a low glycemic load, and moderate to low amounts of protein.

Proteins are one of the strongest stimulators of the mTOR pathway, and like our ancestors, should be consumed on a weekly (rather than daily) basis.

How do you apply this to your life?

I can share how I have applied this information in my life, as an example of how to honour this protein eating rhythm.  

In a typical week, I will not have meat Monday through Thursday, and will enjoy meat Friday through Sunday.  This has evolved for me as it is typically my most social time of the week –I might go on a date with my husband, be traveling for conferences, and just generally out and about.   

As a general rule, try to find at least a few days where you abstain from excessive protein consumption.

Other ways to reduce the stimulation of the mTOR pathway are to reduce stresses chemically, physically, and emotionally:

Physically

  • Engage in exercise 4-5x/week, with an emphasis on HIIT (high intensity interval training), and strength training
  • Engage in “low and slow” cardiovascular activities throughout your day like walking, or bike riding.
  • Chiropractic adjustments (specifically in the neck and pelvis) to reduce the firing and often chronic overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system

Chemically

  • Fast regularly, both intermittent, and longer duration fasts
  • Consume loads of cruciferous and dark leafy vegetables
  • Follow an anti inflammatory diet
  • Buy organic and GMO-free whenever possible
  • Take appropriate supplementation to reduce inflammation for both the brain and body

Emotionally

  • Develop a daily gratitude practice
  • Daily meditation
  • Develop and engage in a healthy social network

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