Prioritize Protein OR You’ll Overeat Processed Junk Food (SCIENCE)

by Mike Mutzel


Dietary protein must be prioritized to prevent overconsumption of processed junk foods due to a phenomenon known as protein leverage. This show discusses the details.


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Study Mentioned:

Raubenheimer, D. & Simpson, S. J. Protein appetite as an integrator in the obesity system: the protein leverage hypothesis. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 378, 20220212 (2023).
Griffioen-Roose, S. et al. Protein status elicits compensatory changes in food intake and food preferences. Am. J. Clin. Nutr.95, 32–38 (2012).
Saner, C. et al. Evidence for protein leverage in a general population sample of children and adolescents. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 77, 652–659 (2023).

Show Notes


Let's talk more about why protein is so important for maintaining a healthy body composition. It turns out, from insects to non-human primates, to humans, when we decrease our protein intake, we tend to increase our calorie consumption from carbohydrates and fats, which can lead to obesity over time, and weight gain over time. We're gonna hone in on this theory, this hypothesis known as the protein leverage hypothesis.

And this has been circulating in academic circles for quite some time. I think it's important that you understand the nutritional geometry that has been sussed out, again, in insects, in non-human primates, going down animals, spider monkeys, black howler monkeys, orangutans, and chimpanzees, okay? In all sorts of insects, animals, as well as humans, if we decrease our protein intake, we tend to increase calorie consumption from carbohydrates and fats, which over time, leads to fat gain.


So let's look at figure one here. This really helps convey the story of this jargonistic nomenclature known as a protein leverage hypothesis. When protein is insufficient, there is energy excess in the form of carbohydrates and fats, and that can lead to weight gain over time.

So here's what the scientists say: “A core contribution of nutritional ecology “to obesity research, “is the phenomenon of protein leverage, “in which the strong human appetite for protein “drives increased intake of energy, “when dietary protein is diluted, “i.e. in low protein diets.” Now, the scientists want to say, “a hallmark of physiological regulation, “is if the intake of protein is both regulated, “and its regulation is prioritized over, that is, “stronger than, regulation of other dietary components, “like carbohydrates and fats, “then excess energy intake will result “when protein becomes diluted in the food supply “by fats and carbohydrates.”

And what have we seen over the past 60 years? People are eating less and less protein, and having more hyperpalatable processed carbohydrates, and fats. And so these are low-protein foods. If you think about all of the junk food, whether it's ice cream, cookies, crackers, treats, chips, and these are protein decoy foods, which we're gonna get into in a moment. Chips, in particular, as well as desserts and pastries, are protein decoys, that trigger your physiologic regulatory systems to think that they're protein, and therefore to prioritize the consumption, and have a craving for them, to optimize amino acids.

But that doesn't actually contain amino acids. And this is also probably why these foods are not satiating. It's so easy to eat a bag of chips. How many people will just crush a bag of beef jerky, or have 10 pounds of grass-fed ground beef? It's very unlikely that that's gonna happen, because protein is so satiating. Now, before we go on, friends, I just wanna say if you're enjoying this content, please hit that like button.

Let me know in the comment section what you think about protein, what your protein targets are, and what you've noticed if you change the protein content in your diet. Also, another amino acid-like compound that's found in protein that has a lot of health benefits is known as creatine. It turns out that creatine is one of the most widely studied and most effective ergogenic aids, when it comes to supporting your exercise sessions, as well as intermittent fasting, because creatine helps with cellular hydration. Creatine also helps with exercise performance.

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But going back to this article, and many other articles, we're gonna talk about several feeding studies in humans, finding that in low protein diets, people tend to over-consume carbohydrates, and fat, which leads to energy excess, and therefore fat gain.

The scientists say, “In humans, the rising prevalence of obesity “across the past 60 years, “has been attributed principally to excess energy, “rather than a decline in energy expenditure. “Fats and carbohydrates have provided the major source “of these excess calories, “with relative contributions of these two macronutrients “varying across populations. “Meanwhile, whereas food sources of dietary protein “have changed over time, “protein intake has remained much more stable, “both as a percentage of total energy intake, “and in terms of absolute amounts eaten. “In the proximate sense, “therefore, excess calories from protein have not caused “global obesity.”

They go on to say, “Many species of non-human primates, for example, “maintain daily protein intakes within narrow limits, “allowing fat and carbohydrate to vary more widely, “with ecologically imposed variation “in the macronutrient ratios of available diets.” And so this is termed protein prioritization, meaning that these animals, all sorts of non-human primates, as well as insects, prioritize protein, and then will oscillate the intake of carbohydrates and fats based upon seasonal availability, and the environmental conditions.

And so that has been illustrated in several human feeding studies, which we're gonna get into now, including one by Hall et. al., another one by Campbell, et. al., Gozby, Martins, at. al. You can see these two different figures here, that really help to tell the story. In low protein feeding studies, people over-consume carbohydrates and fats. And that's important to recognize, because when you dilute protein in the diet, your physiologic mechanisms are craving these essential amino acids, and they're causing you to over-consume fattening foods.

That's the premise of this video. And so that's why it's so important to prioritize protein, if you wanna maintain a healthy body composition, that is, lose body fat and prioritize muscle mass. And so you can see from several of these feeding studies, when protein content in the diet is less than 10%, then you start to see increased consumption of energy, in the form of carbohydrates and fats.

Think about the foods that make people fat. It's ice cream, it's cookies, it's bread, it's pasta, it is french fries, it's pizza, it's chips, it's all the junk food that virtually contains zero protein. And so these foods are inherently insatiable. You keep eating them, and eating them. And part of the craving aspects of this, the savory nature of chips, and pasta, and pizza, these things are protein decoy foods, which cause you to over-consume them, and therefore over-consume energy and gain body fat.

And so several feeding studies, one of which I'll just mention here, the title of this is “Protein Status Elicits Compensatory Changes “in Food Intake, and Food Preferences.” Essentially in this feeding study that was just 14 days, they randomized people to have different protein levels in the diet. And what they found is, after a protein deficiency, people tended to over-consume, in this particular feeding study, all sorts of savory foods that are high in calories, because they're protein decoys. And so you can see here in table two, you can see the different foods and so forth. And after a low protein diet, people had excess energy, in the form of carbohydrates and fats. And so the body was trying to seek out these essential amino acids, but was not getting it. And so people were craving more of these savory foods as well as sweet foods, which is problematic.

So the take home from this video, is you should prioritize protein in the diet, and then weave in the amount of carbohydrates and fats, based upon your activity level, and your metabolic health. I know this sounds a little bit complicated, because most people want a prescription. They wanna know how many carbs, how much protein, how much fat to eat, but that really depends on your activity level, and metabolic health.

But first start by prioritizing protein. There's all sorts of different numbers floating around, from 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight. I think it's simple just to aim for one gram per pound of body weight per day, if you're physically active. Now, that's significantly higher than the recommended dietary allowances that our dieticians, and health institutions recommend. But these are thresholds to prevent overt deficiency. We're talking about optimizing, and prioritizing health. And so you can aim for about one gram per pound of body weight per day, especially if you're physically active, and you exercise, and you're trying to maintain muscle mass.

As you get older, if you're in a calorie deficit, you might wanna have maybe closer to two grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, in those states. Or if you have a chronic disease, if you're inflamed, if you're over 65. We've talked about protein targets, and thresholds, in various videos over the years, and so you can go back to those playlists, and check that out. But suffice it to say, low protein diets are not necessarily congruent with healthy body composition, because the natural tendency for your physiology, is to cause you to start craving, and consuming higher calorie foods that are low in protein, that are inherently fattening.

So that's it for today's show, my friends. I will link these articles in the description below. As always, I'm grateful that you shared this video with a friend who may benefit from this. I appreciate your likes, your comments, your subscription to this channel. That helps us get into other people's inboxes, so they know about the scientific articles that can improve their health. We'll catch you in a future episode down the road.

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