Protein – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Populations tend to reproduce to the limit of their food supply. Anything that affects the availability of that food supply will threaten survival. If you want to avoid getting taken out of the gene pool by a period of food-shortage you have to develop strategies to see you through the hard times.

Those very survival strategies may be a double-edged sword now that we have the privilege of living in a society where the availability of food is seemingly endless. It’s not how we evolved….. and it’s a can of worms.

We store body fat (very efficiently!) as a fuel reserve, but have no dedicated protein storage system. Excess protein is converted to sugar (which is either burned as fuel or stored as fat) and potentially toxic nitrogen waste products which must be removed by the kidneys.

Over-consumption of protein also increases calcium loss in urine and may promote kidney stone formation. Osteoporosis of the spine is increasingly seen in young male athletes. Loss of calcium in perspiration is one theory, but perhaps too much protein is worth considering as well.

(Too little protein is dangerous, especially for children who need more protein for growth.)

So what did you do for protein when food suddenly got scarce? You recycled!

Each cell must consume part of itself in a process known as autophagy, where parts of the cell are broken down for re-use. This effectively rejuvenates the cell, by cleaning up damaged or degraded proteins that would otherwise clog up the works. The proteins are broken down into amino acids which become available for building new proteins.

Proteins are folded into functional shapes, like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Mis-folding of proteins is thought to be involved in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. If these dodgy misfolded proteins aren’t quickly dealt with they can clump together and form aggregates. These aggregates become progressively bigger and harder for the cell’s clean-up crew to deal with.

As with all complex mechanisms there is much that can go wrong, and much that we don’t fully understand.

Periodic dietary protein deficiency can stimulate autophagy, and is the basis of the theory behind the Protein Cycling Diet by Ron Mignery, PhD BioChemist. His premise is that “inducing autophagy by diet manipulation may delay or prevent the neurodegenerative diseases of ageing and unlucky genetics.”

It has long been observed that restricting calorie intake prolongs lifespan and improves health in a number of species. Alternate day calorie restriction shows similar benefits but you can eat normally every other day.

But what if the benefits are actually the result of coincidental periods of low protein consumption stimulating autophagy?

Ron Mignery suggests that a low-protein breakfast (coffee or tea and toast) may extend the overnight fast sufficiently to induce autophagy. The tendency to snack on protein as well as have high protein with each meal may be preventing the routine maintenance of autophagy from kicking in.

This is speculation and theory, and unproven. But it’s compelling.


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Photo credit:  Bernadette Parker / North Bend, Washington State

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