Why a Paleo Diet isn’t a High Protein Diet

Posted by on October 30, 2014

    More of often than not, when someone says “I eat a Paleo diet”, most people jump to conclusions and think all we eat is meat. That couldn’t be any further from the truth!
A paleo/primal diet is comprised of animal meats, fish, natural sources of fat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and dairy if you can tolerate it. This idea that a paleo diet is the same as the Adkins diet (which I would argue is very acceptable if you have read his book) is a common misconception among conventional thinkers. Even the great Dr. Adkins didn’t believe in unlimited consumption of protein. What most people may not know is that excessive protein consumption can cause a whole host of other issues in your body that we’ll get in to…

     What are some of the issues that can be caused from an excessive protein intake you may ask? For starters it can lead to Renal (kidney) damage down the line, ONLY if you already have reduced kidney function. Next, you can gain weight when consuming excessive amounts of protein, an amazing thing called Gluconeogenisis can be to blame if your weight loss has stalled or you find yourself gaining weight. And lastly, it can cause nutrient deficiencies when not paired with an abundant vegetable intake. Let’s take a look at how these issues can be harmful to your health.Research has shown that someone with NORMAL kidney function can do just fine and can even THRIVE with a higher protein diet. When someone consumes higher amounts of protein it can cause what is known as “hyper filtration”, glomerular filtration rate (GFR) of the kidneys. Studies have shown in HEALTHY individuals their effects for long term health are inconclusive, and you can find them here and here. Hyper filtration is considered a normal state for pregnant women, people who have received a kidney donation (I’ve personally heard of patients living with one functional kidney for 30+ years!) or someone with an increased protein intake. In each case these individual were not found to have an increase in rates of kidney disease nor suffer from a decrease in GFR from ‘over working’ their kidneys. Studies can be found herehere, and here.On the flip side, if you or someone you know has a history of kidney disease, decreased GFR or suffers from Diabetes, Hypertension, or polycystic kidney disease, the dangers of a high protein diet can be very real, as these disease have a direct impact on renal function. These individuals may have lost or have a decreased ability to filter the protein waste by-products (that is collected as our urine and flushed out of the body) and can build up in their blood stream. This build up can lead to serious issues as Amyloidosis, (you can read about it here) or Proteinuria, (learn about that here) which will lead to a whole host of problems down the line up to and including dialysis (learn about it here). I have personally worked with Dialysis patients and it is a very difficult disease to manage that normally means the end of the road in most cases.When a person eats more protein than the body requires to will lead to a process started by the liver called Gluconeogenisis, which is Latin for sugar-new-make. Gluconeogensis is the conversion of amino acids in the liver into glucose for the body to use as fuel. Now, this process can either be a good thing or a bad thing depending on which situation you find yourself in. Let’s take a look at 3 different scenarios that most people identify with:
The Sugar Burner— You’re doing as CW (conventional wisdom) has been telling you: eating 5-6 small meals a day, consuming your “healthy whole grains” and run like your hair is on fire when you see fat. You usually have your trusty pretzels on hand for your 3 pm snack when suddenly you find yourself stranded in a meeting with no food in site. Your blood sugar is crashing; you feel yourself becoming hangry (hungry-angry) and you feel like you’re going die if you don’t get some food into your stomach PRONTO! Your body sounds the alarm since your brain and body are screaming for fuel, and your liver kicks in to overdrive. Since insulin has locked away and won’t give up the key to your fat cells, next in line is your muscle tissue. I know we’ve all met a skinny-fat person, no? The liver gets down to business and starts breaking down those hard earned muscles in to glucose for the body to use.
The Fat Burner— You’ve followed a Paleo approach, have become a fat-burning-beast and have been eating a moderate amount of protein in your diet. You’ve built the metabolic machinery to efficiently burn fat for fuel and can successful convert protein into glucose. If your doing a hard workout you can successfully replace your liver and muscle glycogen stores easily with the protein your consuming throughout the day.

The ‘Paleo = High Protein’ Thinker— You’ve heard about this paleo thing and you get the gist’ of it. Just eat a ton of meat, right? Everyone is loosing weight doing it so it should be easy. You start eating a pound of bacon with 3 eggs in the morning, 3 hamburger patties at lunch, leftover chicken for a snack at work, and eat a T-bone steak the size of your face for weeks. You should be seeing results on the scale but nothing. If anything you’ve GAINED WEIGHT! **Gasp!** You think to yourself, “This paleo thing doesn’t work for me” without looking in to where you may have gone wrong. Now, all that protein being converted into glucose and has to go some where if its not being used, right? What happens when we have more glucose in our bodies than we currently need? **Enter INSULIN** Insulin comes to shuttle all that extra glucose out of the blood stream and straight to your fat cells to be stored for later use. The problem is, that day never comes…

This one may seem obvious to some but when we eat such protein rich diet we’re leaving out so many other wonderful food choices! Vitamin and mineral rich vegetables should be huge component of any Paleo diet. Many vitamins and trace minerals can only be found in vegetables (unless your consuming organ meats, which in that case, your a total bad ass and are way ahead of the game. But you still need to eat your greens!) Ever heard of the disease Scurvy? This disease is a classic vitamin deficiency that was common among sailors dating back to the 15th century all the way through WWI. This disease was a Vitamin C deficiency common in sailors as they couldn’t store any fresh fruits or vegetables for their long journey across the ocean. Scurvy often begins with symptoms of malaise and lethargy, followed by formation of spots on the skin, spongy gums, and bleeding from the mucous membranes. This can lead to loss of teeth, jaundice, fever, neuropathy and death. Scurvy can be prevented by consuming a diet that includes certain citrus fruits such as oranges or lemons. Other sources rich in vitamin C are fruits such as blackcurrants, guava, kiwifruit, papaya, tomatoes, bell peppers, and strawberries. It can also be found in some vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, potatoes, cabbage, spinach and paprika.

Now, before I get someone raising their hand in the back of the class to say “what about the Inuit? They didn’t eat vegetables” I’ll go ahead and answer that as well.
The Inuit appear to be very healthy with a diet almost devoid of plants. They appear to get enough Vitamin C from raw fish, organs of marine mammals, and mukluk (the skin of the beluga whale). Other sources of Vitamin C can include beef spleen and beef thymus. And let’s be real about this, I don’t see many people eating ANY of the things I just mentioned...


So how much protein should we eat? 

The Primal Blueprint and many experts agree to consuming 0.7 – 1 gram per pound (1.5- 2.2 grams per kilogram) of lean body mass on average. Lean body mass can be calculated for a ballpark estimate using skin fold calipers or online calculators, all the way up to the extremely accurate water tank tests or BOD PODS that use pressurized air to calculate lean body mass. For this post I’m only going to address the average. If you are sedentary or elderly you will consume less, while people who are active, injured or pregnant will consume more. Mark Sisson does a fantastic job addressing specific protein amounts for certain groups with specific needs. (you can find them here.)

So there you have it. A Paleo diet and a high protein diet are two VERY different things. I hope this post helps to clarify some of the common misconceptions that most of us are faced with when we tell someone we follow a paleo diet… Until next time friends, LIVE LONG AND DROP DEAD!

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  1. Leave a Reply

    May 15, 2016

    My husband is an ESRD patient and been on dialysis for 8+ years. His protein is so low how must eat extra protein every meal. Note* he does not eat much more than 2 oz at any meal and has to drink high protein supplements at every meal. Because he has to watch his phosphorus intake I am trying to see if the paleo diet may work for him. He has very little appetite and has lost 50 # in the past 6 months. Can’t Loose anymore weight and I am gaining. Do you see a way to make this work?

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