Once upon a time, discussions among my peer group about skeletons and acid were likely related to a Grateful Dead show. Back in those days, the word “crunchy” conjured up visions of the laid-back vegetarian segment that comprised the Dead’s audience.
Not anymore. These days, the Healthy Lifestyle Militia (the Militia), are harshing our mellow by threatening we older folk (and younger folk who would like to become older folk) into believing that unless we severely limit our protein intake, especially animal protein, the only crunching we’ll hear is the noise our bones make as they disintegrate into dust.
This post is the next in the Dear Davey H series in which I respond to a reader’s question regarding protein and its effect on bone health. The Karma Sense Eating Plan, which you can buy here (I donate all profits to charities that fight poverty and hunger <which you can learn more about here>), encourages people to eat protein in every meal. The plan also dispels with some of the myths around eating too much protein. But, the Militia loves to take their extreme positions all for the sake of their own fame and fortune. If that means reviving long dead rumors, so be it. As they say on the Iron Islands, “What is Dead May Never Die.”
Dear Davey H
A reader of The Karma Sense Eating Plan read an article on the internet entitled The Truth About Calcium and Osteoporosis and it inspired the following exchange.
Dear Davey, H,
Mantra # 2 of The Karma Sense Eating Plan tells us to Eat Protein in Every Meal. However, after reading the attached article, I’m worried about how eating protein increases acid in the blood and negatively impacts skeletal health. How do I reconcile the advice of Mantra #2 with what this article says?
Here is my response:
First let me apologize for those in my profession who try to turn the wonderful world of food and eating into a bad trip. But before I expose the flaws to the author’s logic, I’ll touch on where we agree and how it fits in the context of The Karma Sense Eating Plan.
The body is made up of multiple systems. The nervous system manages our “feels.” The digestive system orchestrates energy, nutrition and waste. The endocrine system does all sorts of crazy hormonal stuff that we actually don’t understand as well as we should (more on that in a future post). And the musculoskeletal system provides form, support, stability, and movement to the body.
It’s important to note that the musculoskeletal system consists of both muscles AND skeleton. It also includes other goodies such as tendons and joints (“joints” – yet another word with a different connotation at Dead shows). But the salient point is right in the system’s name, you need muscles and bones for it to work.
The Karma Sense Eating Plan drives good nutrition for the musculoskeletal system primarily through two of its five mantras. Mantra #3, Eat More Vegetables and Fruits is for the skeletal part. The musculo part gets its nutrition through mantra #2, Eat Protein in Every Meal. With both strong muscles and bones, you can do fantastic things, such as:
So, protein and minerals. BOTH are important since aging threatens muscle and bones mass. The article you referenced doesn’t deny that.
Also, The Karma Sense Eating Plan takes no position as to the source of your protein. I have my opinion as to how much should come from animal sources vs. plant sources but on almost every measure, including sustainability and humanity, a case could be made for either. Stridency on this subject is a sign of a closed mind or a private agenda.
So far, so good. Here’s where I start to have issues with the article.
It refers to “Animal Protein” and “Protein” Interchangeably
Clearly, one is a subset of the other.
For example, the writer makes the following statement “The correspondence between excess animal protein intake and bone resorption is direct and consistent.” They go on to quote that a “long-term study found that with as little as 75 grams of daily protein (less than three-quarters of what the average meat-eating American consumes) more calcium is lost in the urine than is absorbed by the body from the diet – resulting in a negative calcium balance.”
See what they did there? They refer to excess animal protein as a problem and used a study that didn’t distinguish between animal and plant protein. Their agenda is now transparent. Their aim is to promote a vegetarian lifestyle. They do it by claiming animal protein is the problem and they prove it by referencing a study that did not appear to test for their claim. At least that’s how it appears to me. I can’t tell because…
The Research References are Vague
I really don’t know where to begin to verify their reference to “a long-term study.” There just isn’t enough information there. The article then quotes Dr. John McDougall who is a well-known promoter of going vegetarian. The quote claims many studies consistently show that decreasing protein in the diet creates a positive calcium balance. Again we see the bait and switch between animal protein and protein in general.
Where are the studies? Just point to one. I’m sure they’re there. That’s the way nutrition research works. There’s always one study available to prove your point. Why not support your position with at least one reference?
But my issues aren’t limited to lack of details. Even when they do provide more detail…
The Research References Show Association and Not Causation.
Nathan Pritkin is credited as the next proof source. Pritkin says that Bantu women get little calcium, don’t eat much protein and they’re the picture of skeletal health. I searched for primary sources for this and got trapped in a web of circular references that took me nowhere. It was almost like listening to the space segment at a Dead show. What I did find was this study that refutes the claim about Bantu women having low incidence of osteoporosis.
Meanwhile, the author claims that Eskimos get plenty of calcium and protein and they have the highest incidence of osteoporosis in the world. That all appears to be true. But, this is observational data. Randomized controlled studies that can prove protein is the problem don’t exist. Poor Eskimo bone health could just as likely come from other aspects of their lifestyle such as a high rate of alcohol consumption. Drinking lots of alcohol is a known cause of osteoporosis.
The Research is Old and Misrepresented
The final proof source is a Michigan State study from 1983. The author gives enough detail that I can actually find the primary source and it does indeed provide evidence of a causal link between osteoporosis and meat consumption. But it’s one study and 1983 was a long time ago (not to mention the fact that Michigan State is clearly a safety school). Isn’t there anything more recent?
Yes there is. I’ll get to that later. First I want to cry foul on how the author misrepresents this study. He tells us that meat-eating men and women are twice as likely as their vegetarian counterparts to suffer from osteoporosis. But when you read the study it clearly says that the increase of incidence in men is within the margin of error and not statistically significant.
I don’t know about you but misuse of data like that really sets off my bullcrap detector.
Usually I’d be more forgiving about the vague references to research but when you blatantly exaggerate the results for a seemingly minor detail, you lose all credibility.
As far as more recent and credible studies are concerned, this meta-analysis is actually from this decade and completely refutes the above claim that high protein diets cause osteoporosis. Specifically, it says the following:
“High protein intake may positively impact bone health by several mechanisms, including calcium absorption, stimulation of the secretion of insulin-like growth factor-1, and enhancement of lean body mass. The concept that an increase in dietary protein induces a large enough shift in systemic pH to increase osteoclastic bone resorption seems untenable.” (Bolding added by me).
Keep in mind that meta-analyses are the gold standard in research.
The Acid Warning
Like the brown acid announcement at Woodstock, this claim came out of nowhere.
The author leaps to the conclusion that it is the high acidity of a high protein diet that causes the bone leaching effect that I already discredited. Seriously, how did they get there?
Not that I want to help the author out but Dr. Tieraona Low Dog is one of the preeminent experts on integrative health (including nutrition) and women’s health issues. According to Dr. Low Dog, the acidity that comes along with a high animal protein diet can lead to a very low-level of acidosis. The primary mechanism for neutralizing acidity is to exhale carbon dioxide. One of the reasons you breathe heavily after a vigorous workout is so your body can reduce the acid that accumulates as you burn energy. A secondary mechanism for reducing acidity is to pull calcium from bone into the bloodstream. But that is secondary. If you’re not eating enough animal protein to cause you to pant, you’re not eating enough protein to significantly reduce bone mass.
That point’s a little obtuse so let me say it more clearly. Animal protein contributes a very small amount to the body’s overall acidity. Most of the body’s neutralization process occurs simply by breathing. The contribution of calcium from your bones is not significant. As Dr. Low Dog says, the best way to neutralize protein’s effect on the skeleton is not to reduce protein consumption. It’s to Eat More Vegetables and Fruits. Sound familiar?
So there you have it, Bertha. Please continue to Eat Protein in Every Meal and Eat More Vegetables and Fruits.
And feel free to come around here all you’d like.
Yours in Good Karma,
Now, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t plug The Karma Sense Eating Plan, a guide to greater health and happiness that anyone can adopt or adapt at their pleasure. Now available in fully hyperlinked PDF format direct from my site.
(black and white)
Thank you for tolerating that plug and the length of this response. I hope it was not too annoying. And if it was,
Sorry that you feel that way
The only thing there is to say
Every silver lining’s got a
Touch of grey