High protein diets are all the rage, and many companies have emerged marketing their version of the diet. However, contrary to the advertising, high protein diets may not be as healthy or effective as the promoters make it seem. In this post, we will take a look at high protein diets, how your DNA might make you crave more protein, and how you can use a simple DNA test to better understand your cravings and eat healthfully.
Somewhere between 6-17% of your inclination for protein and other macronutrients is based on your DNA
Why are high-protein diets getting so much attention?
You’ve probably seen the commercials:
“The Atkins Diet will help you lose weight fast!”
“Like meat? Try the Keto diet and shed the weight!”
“The South Beach Diet will have you ready for beach season in no time!”
“Eat like a Caveman! Try the Paleo diet to get in the best shape of your life!”
Many people love these diets because it means you can eat all the bacon you want!
And these diets work, too, at least in the short run. In fact, just by understanding how dietary intake impacts the body we can understand why these diets cause weight loss. Without carbohydrates, your body depletes its store of glycogen. Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored by your cells to use when they run out of energy. Glycogen takes a significant amount of water to store. When the glycogen is gone because you haven’t added any carbohydrates, your body dumps the water. Since water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, any water lost can significantly decrease your weight. Most people on high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets (or even high-fat, low carbohydrate diets) quickly lose around 10 pounds, mostly because they have depleted their glycogen stores.
Large-scale epidemiological studies have shown that people who consume the most protein are also at the highest risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and a large number of other diseases.
Unfortunately, the weight loss caused by these diets is not the healthy kind, and it rarely lasts more than a year. And the effect of protein-heavy eating? Eating massive amounts of protein has been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a number of other debilitating diseases. Further, people like Olympic Weightlifter Kendrick Farris have clearly shown that you can get plenty of healthy dietary protein on a diet free of meat, eggs, and dairy.
However, DNA analysis can help shed light on why you might crave or avoid protein-rich foods. Some genetic variants are linked to a desire for protein. Knowledge is half the battle, so let’s take a look at what protein is, and why your body needs it.
The Body Needs Protein
To understand why your body needs protein, first, we must look at what protein is and what role protein plays in the body. Your DNA is a sequence of molecules that contains a code. This code has information which tells your cells how to assemble proteins. Each protein is a unique assemblage of amino acids (the "building blocks"). These amino acids form a long chain of molecules, which folds into a particular shape. The shape of each protein determines that protein’s role within your body.
Proteins, being the main product created by DNA, are found in all organisms and plays an important role in all cells. Plants have proteins, animals have proteins, and even fungi and bacteria make proteins. So, if you think of protein as “meat” only, think again. You can get protein from beans, spinach, tofu, and many other foods rich in plant proteins. What’s more, your body can easily break these proteins down into individual amino acids, regardless if the protein came from a plant or animal. Then, it can reassemble these amino acids into whatever proteins it needs, such as new muscle proteins, digestive enzymes, or membrane-transport proteins. This process is called protein synthesis.
So, on the surface level, high-protein diets might seem to make sense. However, large-scale epidemiological studies have shown that people who consume the most protein are also at the highest risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and a large number of other diseases. In fact, science has suggested that more than 10% protein in your diet can seriously increase this risk. This amount of protein is easily supplied by plant protein sources, including beans, nuts, soy, and many other foods. Many people, due to their genetics, culture, and family traditions often eat much more protein than this.
What DNA elements draw you to a protein-rich diet?
Several recent studies have shown that there is a connection between how much protein you crave and certain genetic variants. In fact, one particularly large study looked at information from around 80,000 people to find links between DNA and dietary protein intake. They found that several genes may be related to how much protein a person eats. Another study, of around 33,000 people, found similar results. These studies agree that somewhere between 6-17% of your inclination for protein and other macronutrients is based on genetic cues. The rest is likely based on your culture, family traditions, and learned eating habits.
Specifically, the researchers identified variants of the FTO gene to be significantly correlated with increased protein intake. However, the exact mechanism of the gene is not yet known. For whatever reason, people with this gene variant seem to be more drawn to protein sources. The gene is also linked to increased body-mass-index, or body weight. The studies also found several other genes, such as the TANK gene, the MAML3 gene, and the FGF21 gene, which were correlated to increased protein consumption. Like the FTO gene, the mechanism behind these correlations is not well-understood.
If you have any of these variants, you may find that you crave sources of protein. However, that does not mean you need to get on a high-protein diet or even consume more red meat. In fact, it is suggesting simply that your genetics may be influencing your desire for protein, and not what your body actually needs. However, having these genes does not always guarantee you will be a protein seeker. Check out the next section on important answers to some common questions about DNA testing and protein intake.
Common questions about your DNA results
My results say I tend to seek out protein-rich foods, but I’m a vegetarian/vegan. What’s going on?
Everyone needs some protein! And, as this article says, protein is available in all types of food. You can enjoy foods like nuts, beans, lentils, spinach, tofu, and a number of other plant-based foods with high levels of protein. The idea that protein is only found in meat is a myth, as ridiculous as Big Foot or a Flat Earth! If you truly don’t desire protein-rich foods, remember that these studies are based on what most people with the same genetic variants experience. Your DNA is completely unique, and other factors could be changing the effects of these variants.
I love meat too much to be a low-protein seeker. The results are wrong.
The results tell you only which genetic variants you have. Remember that genetics likely only have a 6-17% influence over how much protein you eat. While your body's protein requirements are low (~10% of all calories consumed), your preference for protein (especially meat) is largely dictated by your family, community, and general culture. For instance, the traditional Japanese diet has 85% carbohydrates and less than 10% protein. The typical American diet, on the other hand, has merely 25% of calories from carbohydrates and up to 50% calories from protein. This alone can largely explain most people’s protein intake.
My results say I don’t tend to seek out protein-rich foods, is that a problem?
Not at all! The desire for protein is largely evolutionary. Our ancestors, long before the advent of modern agriculture, needed to find good sources of protein to survive. Having a strong desire for protein is likely a relic from this part of our past. Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have readily had access to good forms of protein. In fact, meat, eggs, and dairy are cheaper than they have ever been, and people tend to overload on these sources of protein. All factors considered, not having a desire for protein can make it even easier to eat a completely healthy, plant-based diet.
While the research presented here is surely interesting, it is far from a complete understanding of how a person’s genetics may influence their desire for protein. Future research needs to find the exact mechanisms the DNA uses to create these desires, and what can be done to curb these desires. While the papers discussed in this article relate genetic variants to a person’s “tendency for high protein intake”, scientists still need to determine exactly why these people crave more protein. Further, these studies did not address a person’s ability to digest and process protein. This is an important aspect of protein intake and was not addressed in these studies.
Find out what your DNA says
Understanding your body is a great start to developing and sticking to a healthy diet! Using Genomelink, you can easily check the trait “Protein Intake” to discover how your genes may be affecting your appetite for proteins. More than this, you can check other traits related to nutrition and food intake and get a sense of why you get hungry for certain foods. Armed with this knowledge, you can use logic and reason to ignore what your body wants, and give it only what it needs! Check Genomelink now to find out whether your DNA propels you to crave protein.