Excerpt from "Spontaneous Healing" by Andrew Weil, M.D.
We need protein to make new tissue, to grow, and to maintain and repair our tissues. Proteins are complicated molecules, made up of a variety of amino acids, some of which are essential nutrients that the body is unable to manufacture and must receive in the diet. Protein deficiency results in stunted growth and dramatic impairment of healing ability; but in our society, protein deficiency is practically nonexistent. Instead, most people consume too much protein, which also affect health adversely, and many of us get our protein from questionable sources.
Most people rely on animal foods for protein: meat, poultry, fish, milk, and milk products. Vegetable sources are beans, grains, and black walnuts. An important difference between animal and vegetable sources is that the latter are less concentrated. For example, the protein in beans is diluted by edible starch and indigestible fiber, so that you have to eat a greater volume of a vegetable protein source to get the equivalent of a portion of an animal food.
When you eat more protein than your body needs to make and repair
tissue, it will be used instead as an energy source, as fuel.
But protein is not an ideal fuel for the body. Because protein
molecules are big and complicated, their digestion and metabolism
require more work than the digestion and metabolism of carbohydrates
and fats. So proteins are less efficient fuels: the ratio of work
in to energy out is not as favorable as for other nutrients.
There is another problem with protein as fuel: it does not burn clean. Carbohydrate and fat, being composed solely of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, burn to carbon dioxide and water. Protein contains nitrogen, and in the process of metabolism degrades to highly toxic nitrogenous residues. The burden of dealing with these falls on the liver, which processes them to urea, a simple compound that is also highly toxic. The kidneys must then take up the task of eliminating urea. Tying up liver and kidney function in this way reduces the contribution of those organs to the body's healing system. Furthermore, the nitrogenous-breakdown products of protein metabolism can also irritate the immune system, increasing the risk of allergy and autoimmunity, which represent derangement of body defenses. For all of these reasons, it is better not to consume too much protein. You want to give the body enough for growth, maintenance, and repair, but not so much that it becomes a significant source of metabolic energy.
How much protein is too much?
In addition to thinking about protein in general and how to cut down on it, you should consider the advantages and disadvantages of the common sources of dietary protein, another subject that I consider important. Your choices about what kind of protein you ingest may have great influence on your long-term health and capacity for healing.
One problem is that diets rich in animal protein put you high
on the food chain, not a good place to be. The food chain is the
pattern of dependence of higher organisms on lower organisms for
energy. Plants make energy from the sun. Herbivorous animals get
that same energy by eating the plants. Carnivorous animals get
it further removed from the source by eating the flesh of herbivores.
The bigger the organism and the more carnivorous it is, the higher
it is said to be on the food chain. One consequence of eating
high on the food chain is that you take in much larger doses of
toxins, because environmental toxins concentrate as you move up
from level to level. The fat of domestic animals often contains
high concentrations of toxins that exist in much lower concentrations
in grains, for example. An independent problem is that the methods
we use for raising animal sources of protein further load them
up with unhealthy substances.
Here is a quick review of sources of dietary protein
Meat has several strikes against it. It is a major
source of saturated fat in the diet, as well as a highly concentrated
form of protein. Being high on the food chain, it accumulates
environmental toxins. Unless it is raised organically, it is also
full of added toxins: residues of growth-promoting hormones, antibiotics,
and other chemicals used by all commercial ranchers and farmers.
Chicken has one main advantage over meat: its fat is external to muscle tissue and can be removed with the skin. Otherwise, chicken presents the same toxic hazards as the flesh of cows, sheep, and pigs and may contain even more added hormones. Dangerous bacteria, particularly salmonella, often contaminate chicken and can sicken humans who eat it unless the chicken is well cooked. (organic, free range chicken ONLY)
Fish increasingly appears to be a very healthy source
of protein. I am referring here to scale fish, not to shellfish.
Populations that eat the most fish have the highest longevity
and lowest disease rates, and within those populations, the healthiest individuals are those
who eat the most fish. Why fish is good for us is not clear. Omega-3 fatty acids may be a part of the explanation, but they are in
some fish only, and the answer may not have to do with any one
Shellfish are much less attractive, because they are more likely to contain toxins. They live in coastal effluents and feed in ways that expose them to high concentrations of wastes. Raw shellfish can easily transmit diseases to humans.
Milk products tend to be very high in saturated fat, unless they are made from
skim milk or low-fat milk. Many people cannot digest the sugar
(lactose) in milk, and many more probably experience irritation
of the immune system from the protein in milk. (This is a particular
problem with cow's milk; goat's milk does not seem to bother the
immune system nearly as much.)
Eggs, at least the whites of eggs, are good sources of high-quality protein, but egg yolks contain fat and cholesterol that most of us should limit. Commercially raised eggs are produced under awful conditions, may contain toxic residues of drugs and hormones, and may be contaminated with salmonella. Avoid raw and undercooked eggs, and try to find eggs from free-ranging chickens raised without drugs and hormones.
Grains and beans contain carbohydrate and fiber along with protein, so you can eat more of them without suffering a protein overload. Since they are often treated with a variety of agricultural chemicals, I recommend looking for organically produced varieties.
Nuts and seeds, like almonds and sunflower seeds, are sources of vegetable protein, but their high content of fat (mostly polyunsaturated) argues for moderation in their consumption.
Having reviewed the major sources of dietary protein, I will now give you my simplest recommendations for taking advantage of this information to change your diet in a direction that favors spontaneous healing:
- Eat less protein.
- Begin to replace animal protein in the diet with fish.
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