Updated: Apr 18, 2022
We don’t often think that a lack of protein could be at the root or a major contributing factor to our clients and patients’ symptoms and ailments. Yet, it is often the underlying cause of several conditions. By solely looking at the research, we can get lost in a myriad of different results. Many older, and less well designed studies, paint a picture suggesting that most people are getting enough protein. We even see older studies suggest that the average person is getting too much protein. We beg to differ.
This is where we must glimpse beyond the research into clinical presentations.
We see many clients who seem to have adequate protein consumption based on traditional standards, present with symptoms of protein deficiency. These symptoms are often corrected with increasing protein and optimizing amino acid intake.
When we take the research and current thought process on protein consumption and attempt to apply it clinically; it doesn't add up.
Many recent studies have confirmed that the hypothesis that the standard .8g/kg of body weight is insufficient to maintain health. This is especially true when we begin to take different populations into account such as the elderly, the ill, and those following restrictive diets or diets where animal protein is removed.
This is confirmed when we begin to look at our 1-1 experiences with clients - contrary to old school mainstream rhetoric, an epidemic of suboptimal protein consumption is a likely cause of many disease processes.
Where’s the disconnect?
Let’s take a look at vitamin and mineral recommendations for example.
The RDA for vitamins and minerals we see in the conventional sphere are often too low to have any meaningful effect on physiology. A prime example is vitamin C. The RDA for vitamin C sits at 90mg per day with an upper limit of 2,000mg. In the integrative sphere, dosing usually begins at 1,000mg a day and increases as is needed by their presenting physiology.
At an intake of 90 mg of vitamin C, the average person is going to present with a subclinical deficiency. In terms of correcting pathology or symptoms, 90 mg is pretty much useless. For added context, IV vitamin C can be administered in doses as high as 30,000mg per day to remedy pathological processes.
When we look at protein in this same light, the .8g/kg of body weight is the equivalent to our 90mg of vitamin C. Over time, the deficit of this intake level takes its toll and shows up several ways. We then need to not only optimize protein intake, but we must compensate and saturated amino acids levels in order to bring the body back into homeostasis. This often looks like “high dosing” protein to bridge the gap, before reducing to introducing an amount that can then sustain health.
Symptoms of Protein Deficiency
Due to the wide range of symptoms that can present with protein deficiency, it is hard to generalize this phenomenon. When it comes to protein deficiency, consuming inadequate amounts of protein looks different for everyone, and the compromised physiology that results is extremely broad. Beyond the standard example of sarcopenia, protein deficiency can manifest as:
-Depression through the reduced synthesis of certain neurotransmitters
-Reduced transportation of oxygen
-Premature grey hair
-Impaired endogenous antioxidant defense systems
-Dental issues such as cavitation and receding gums
One unifying aspect of protein deficiency is that at its foundation, it affects the body in a systemic manner, rather than a localized fashion.
When we take a comprehensive look at this list, we can see that a lack of protein sets the body up for major disease down the line. Just looking at its relationship to oxygen transport, tells us that lower protein intake is associated with hypoxic micro environments. These are environments that are fertile grounds for awry cells to proliferate.
We also can see that protein is required for our endogenous antioxidant systems to function properly - primarily the glutathione, SOD and catalase system. Without our internal antioxidant systems functioning at a high capacity, cellular function begins to break down.
Considering the myriad of factors that play into both oxygen transportation and the glutathione antioxidant system - protein isn’t the magical fix, but it is important to acknowledge the major role it plays in regulating physiology.
On Paper Vs Clinical Presentation
Why does inadequate protein, which is a simple fix, go underdiagnosed or unnoticed? The answer lies mostly in the disconnect between consumption equating to bioavailability, quality and absorption.
Different protein sources have different bioavailability. A prime and relevant example of this is plant-based vs animal protein. The research is abundantly clear that when the primary protein source is from plants, the amount of protein needs to be increased. That 50g of plant protien, on a physiological level is not the equivalent of 50g of animal protein- complete or not. Yet, this rarely factored into a clinical setting.
Another often overlooked point is that protein isn’t consumed for the grams. Protein is consumed for the amino acids, and each amino acid has critical roles in the body.
Different protein sources have different combinations of amino acids. It is 100% possible to achieve the recommended daily intake of protein in grams, but be sub-clinically or clinically deficient in particular amino acids.
While research on this is important, clinically we see when protein is increased and amino acid levels are optimized, symptoms dissipate and pathological progresses can begin to reverse.
Amino Acid Considerations
Going back to our Vitamin C example, the RDA is not sufficient because the body inherently requires more. This is also an issue because this amount does not reflect the changes in our modern environment that increase the need for vitamin C. We can look at amino acids in this sense as well.
Even the non-essential amino acids can, for all intensive purposes, be looked at as essential. Yes, the human body is able to synthesize them from essential amino acids. However, when we look at this through a clinical and bioindividual lens we have to ask the question: Is the body able to synthesize enough non-essential and conditionally essential amino acids?
Often, the answer is no. Why? Because the synthesis of amino acids depends on diet and environment. Carnitine is the best example we have of this. The more we learn about carnitine and its roles in the body, the more it’s coming to light that unless there are exogenous sources, plasma levels are not sufficient. There is mounting evidence that low plasma levels of carnitine are correlated to several pathologies including depression, neurodegenerative disease and infertility. How is this corrected? With protein.
The other important point to acknowledge is that in order for the body to synthesize amino acids, the body needs to be functioning at a certain level. Given the level of pathology and chemical toxicity the average person experiences, this is not a realistic expectation of the body. Especially given that the cohort walking into our offices are likely not in prime condition, dietary protein is foundational.
We can look at a client’s food log and determine they are, on paper, getting enough protein, but the physical reality often tells a different story. And, there’s a simple way to find out- increase bioavailable protein sources and likely those plateaued clients and patients start to make breakthroughs.
Contrary to the current paradigm, there is no harm in increasing protein. Therefore adding more protein is a safe, effective and easy intervention for the majority of our clients and patients.
If you want to learn more about protein, amino acids and clinical considerations, check out our quick webinar on protein. We cover the differences between plant and animal sources of proteins, share clinical considerations for a plant-based diet, what to watch for in detail that protein is sufficient and supplement considerations plus so much more!
Author: Lisa kowalyk, CoFounder, Fiore