In an area as nebulous and vital as nutrition, it's perfectly natural that people have a myriad of contradicting opinions on what are the causes of good and bad health. Immersed in a sea of sensationalism, half-truths and misinformation, to listen to it all, you only end up more confused that when you first started. But this, thank heavens, is why we have authoritative health bodies, to issue scientifically founded guidelines that we can confidently follow, assured in the knowledge that they only preach what best science dictates. Or, so one would think...
This week we got to witness the apogee of bad science in the form of the British Dietetic Association (BDA) resurrecting the old wives tale of how high protein intake is damaging for health, most notably causing kidney damage, through the medium of BBC Newsbeat. Quoting the British Dietetic Agency (BDA) on how evidence now shows a high protein intake is damaging for health, spokesperson Jane Griffin stated,
"People who have these high protein diets are now running into problems with their kidneys because of the amount of protein they must get rid of."
With no studies or research forthcoming from the BDA to back this radical claim, the BBC took it upon themselves to take this seed of pseudo science and sprout it into a full out nutritional advisory façade. Their 'rigorous' evidence combined with the 'rational' logic that emanates from a 'world weary' 22-year-old student who 'knowingly' claims that protein supplements cause harm.
"It felt like I was on drugs. I was shaking and I got angry. It also had an effect on my girlfriend who didn't want to be around me when (I) had taken it."
But fear not, realising how serious the adverse reaction was he's kicked the habit. He now only takes four protein shakes a day instead of seven. His girlfriend must be so relieved!
As I planned the rebuttal to these claims, the obvious approach was to go down to my local gym find an even more chronic protein supplement consumer, someone who has been taking them for longer, perhaps a 23-year-old... and if he claims to have no symptoms of this new phenomenon of 'protein rage' surely this would constitute evidence to bring into disrepute the claims of BBC Newsbeat?
However, unable to find someone consuming seven protein shakes a day (who would have guessed it) I had to fall back on plan B, and try the novel approach of seeing what best science dictated on the matter with regards to the BDA claims. Contacting Professor Joe Millward, expert consultant on protein and amino acid requirements for WHO (World Health Organisation) and FAO (Food Authority Organisation of the United Nations), I was unsurprisingly informed that the BDA view was outdated and unfounded. Instead I was directed to a WHO report which examined the matter, and I quote:
"There is clear evidence that high intakes of protein by patients with renal disease contribute to the deterioration of kidney function (8-12). However, the suggestion that the decline of glomerular filtration rate that occurs with advancing age in healthy subjects (13) can be attenuated by reducing the protein in the diet appears to have no foundation................ This indicates that chronic protein intake is a determinant of glomerular filtration rate, but does not suggest a role for protein intake in the deterioration of kidney function.................... protein restriction on the grounds of renal function is justifiable and prudent only in subjects who are likely to develop kidney failure"
So, there you have it, if you are at risk or have kidney disease, you need to monitor protein intakes, but you cannot extrapolate this to a healthy individual. To do so is simply bad science.
And, while the report makes reference that there really is no need for individuals even athletes to be consuming exorbitant amounts of protein, as it confers little benefit, it states "no specific evidence for harm" has been found with high intakes. In essence, keep it balanced and don't go to extremes.
I for one find it extremely disappointing that an association that represents the profession of dieticians would be aligned with such an unfounded, archaic view point. The 'BDA' may be an ensemble of letters authoritative in design, but, propagating such quackery has to make you cautious of accepting any of the messages they stand by. I call on them to retract this false claim immediately, and save face and professional standing. At the very minimum do it for the sake of their members who do their best to improve the health of their patients based on scientific principles and don't want to be undermined by their associative body
1. Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. World Health Organ Tech Rep Ser, 2007(935): p. 1-265, back cover.
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