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Fitness Master: Presenting all the pieces to the protein puzzle

A reader once approached me at the bank and thanked me for all the “cutting-edge stuff” in my articles. I remembered that one morning not too long ago while pressing toilet paper against my cheek.

A needed deed after a minor misstep. Because I had been thinking about something truly cutting edge when I first proposed it about 30 years ago - to consume double to triple the US RDA recommendation of protein - I had nicked myself shaving.

How ironic. And doubly so since I’ve written at length on the importance of being present in the moment.

But maybe you’ll forgive this lack of attention from this less-than-Zen master once you learn the reason behind it. A recent study does more than question the one-time cutting-edge practice I still champion.

It suggests consuming too much protein could lead to heart problems.

Or maybe you won’t cut me any slack. Maybe you’ll curse me because you’ve been following my suggestion.

But if you carefully consider all the evidence, I believe you’ll say no swear words and ultimately agree with Dr. Stephen Tang. He’s a cardiac electrophysiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California who was not involved in the research but was asked by Medical News Today to make sense of it.

“This [new] study is too small to change anything,” Tang says. “I would not do anything different.”

So what comes next is my defense for consuming double or even triple the US RDA recommendation of protein. For why doing so, if accomplished by eating healthy foods, will never cause health problems.

Unless, that is, you have phenylketonuria, a rare disorder (about 1 in every 10,000 babies are born with it) where you can’t break down the amino acid phenylalanine. In that case, following a very low protein diet is a must.

It’s a defense that makes more sense once you know the reason for rebuttal. Research performed at the University of Pittsburgh and published in the February 2024 issue of Nature Metabolism that features two human trials.

In them, participants consumed two different liquid meals at least a week apart. In one trial, the percentage of fat by calories remained the same in each meal, but the percentages of protein or carbohydrates differed dramatically.

One liquid meal contained 10 percent protein and 73 percent carbs; the other, 50 percent protein and 33 percent carbs. To create a “real-world” scenario in trial number two, one meal consisted of 35 percent fat, 15 percent protein, and 50 percent carbs; the other, 30 percent fat, 22 percent protein, and 48 percent carbs.

The cut-to-the-chase result, according to a University of Pittsburgh press release, is that consuming over 22 percent of dietary calories from protein “can lead to increased activation of immune cells that play a role in atherosclerotic plaque formation, driving the disease risk.”

Could there be something to this? Maybe, but I only say maybe because it’s always best to remain open to all possibilities however unlikely they may be.

One reason why I deem this possibility to be unlikely: Every time blood is taken out of me for a cholesterol test, I get back kudos from the medicos.

That supports the belief that it’s the saturated fats in animal proteins and not the protein itself that increase the risk of atherosclerotic plaque formation. Since I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian who consumes a generous amount of egg whites, fat-free dairy products, and plant-based proteins to get the 240 or so grams a day of protein that I do, consuming too much saturated fat from animal protein isn’t a possibility.

It might be a possibility, however, for someone who doubles or triples the US RDA for protein by eating the typical Western diet full of fast food.

Health-conscious omnivores, however, have no worry. And that’s not just my opinion. It’s one that’s now, if not fully mainstream, held by many highly regarded in the fields of sports nutrition and life extension.

Dr. Peter Attia - whose obsession to lengthen both lifespan and healthspan has resulted in a state-of-the-art medical practice, a bestselling book, and a popular podcast - tells patients, readers, and listeners alike to consume nearly triple the RDA. Dr. Layne Norton - author of Fat Loss Forever, a former bodybuilding pro, and a one-time powerlifting world champion - believes you need to double and possibly even triple the RDA to “optimize” body composition and muscle building.

In short, if you’re striving for better athletic performance and/or general overall health, a far more likely problem than consuming too much protein is ingesting too little. You’ll feel and perform a bit subpar as a result.

Doubling or tripling the US RDA of 0.36 grams per pound of body weight per day the right way will do the opposite, not to mention allow you to recover quicker from really hard workouts.