Have you ever heard of "rabbit starvation"?
It's not some form of animal cruelty.
It's what you get from eating a high-protein, low-carbohydrate, and low-fat diet for a long time. It almost sounds like a fad diet. But, like most fad diets, it's not one you'd want to try out...
The history of the term "rabbit starvation" likely goes back more than 2,000 years to Roman soldiers who were short on food, limited to just ultra-lean meats (like rabbit).
Relying too much on protein – and not enough of the other two macronutrients – causes protein poisoning. This wrecks your liver and kidneys, resulting in symptoms like nausea, fatigue, diarrhea, and even death.
Luckily, there aren't many recorded cases of this extreme form of malnutrition today. And it's true that we need protein to do everything from carrying out important chemical reactions in our bodies to tissue repair. So you don't want to be deficient in protein... especially as you age.
That's because we start losing muscle mass in our 30s, which increases our risk of fractures and falls. Injuries, along with illnesses, might hinder us from exercising which is needed for muscle growth (more on that in a moment). Dental problems and a duller sense of taste and/or smell can keep us from eating a variety of nutritious foods.
In fact, experts suggest that folks aged 65 and up should be looking at eating at least 0.45 to 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight. That's the equivalent of about two chicken breasts a day for a 160-pound person. A 2018 study that followed nearly 3,000 seniors over the course of 23 years showed that the folks who ate the most protein (about 92 grams daily, on average) had a 30% less risk of becoming functionally impaired (like losing grip strength and increasing the odds of falls and fractures).
But what happens if you overdo it on the protein? Well, you might see some of these signs...
- You've gained weight: Don't forget all the calorific fat in those T-bone steaks and pork belly. Eating too many calories (and not burning enough off) creates a surplus that gets stored as fat. Not to mention, all that saturated fat from meat can put a damper on heart health.
- You're extremely thirsty and have to pee often: Your kidneys churn out more urine as they process the extra protein. So that puts you at risk of dehydration. You could also lose electrolytes (substances like potassium, calcium, and magnesium, for example) used in vital functions like heart contraction and creating nerve impulses.
- Your breath stinks: All this extra peeing can lead to dehydration, which means you make less saliva. Without its antimicrobial properties, you end up with a booming population of bacteria... like the kind that happens to release smelly, sulfur-containing compounds. The end result is halitosis, the fancy term for bad breath.
If you also happen to limit carbs, your body turns to fat as an energy source. Breaking down that fat creates chemicals called ketones. And one of these happens to be the same stuff in nail-polish remover. So your breath may smell like you've just gotten your nails done. That acetone can lend a metallic taste to the mouth, too.
(For more on dry mouth – and a deeper dive into why maintaining your teeth and gums is crucial for whole-body health – check out my September issue of Retirement Millionaire. If you're not already a subscriber, get started today.)
- You're having pooping problems: Protein also tends to make us feel fuller by decreasing levels of the hunger hormone (ghrelin). So if you're too full to eat enough fiber (which is also very filling) – and happen to be dehydrated – you're looking at constipation. Also, lots of protein and fat can throw off the bacterial balance in your gut, leaving you with bloating, cramps, and diarrhea. Not to mention, you might feel extra irritable and unhappy – studies have shown that imbalanced gut bacteria is linked to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
You can log what you eat to help keep tabs on your protein intake. Or, just strive for balance each meal by getting all three macros on your plate and don't be picky about it.
Choosing quality foods helps – you might be surprised to find that nearly all of these foods add protein:
- Complex carbs: Oats, quinoa, sweet potato, bananas, edamame, chickpeas, and kidney beans are terrific fiber-rich choices that have protein.
- Lean proteins: Lean beef and chicken as well as low-fat cottage cheese are some examples. Don't forget legumes like beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas. With canned beans, remember to rinse off the starchy liquid and drain well. It helps with the "canned" taste, cuts down on any added salt, and reduces the bloating. Don't be dismayed by the gassiness if you're introducing more of this "musical fruit" into your daily diet – it'll get better as you keep eating more.
- Healthy fats: Shoot for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Avocados, walnuts, and fatty fish like salmon and tuna are excellent sources of heart-healthy fats and protein. Tired of tuna salad? For an adventurous twist, check out this sardine salad recipe.
Also, ditch the tubs of protein powder. The supplement industry is still largely unregulated. And there's always the chance of unlisted ingredients or even contaminants snuck in. Plus, these powders are typically sweetened with sugar and/or artificial sweeteners, which can suppress your immune system, cause inflammation, and wreck gut-microbe balance. And you also won't get the wide variety of fiber and nutrients found naturally in whole foods.
For a post-workout snack, I enjoy plain, low-fat Greek yogurt sweetened with vitamin- and antioxidant-rich fruit (or a drizzle of raw honey as a treat). If you prefer a shake or smoothie, skip the expensive, chalky powders. Chuck some of that Greek yogurt, silken tofu, oats, or a spoonful of nut or seed butter into your blender instead.
Still, protein supplementation can come in handy for folks who could really use the extra help – like those recovering from a major surgery or having trouble eating. But for everyone else, it's as the saying goes: Let food be thy medicine.
On a side note, please don't forget to regularly move your body. Just eating protein won't increase muscle mass. Exercise breaks down muscle tissue, which then triggers the rebuilding process with building blocks, or amino acids, from the protein you eat.
You don't have to pump iron, either... Low-impact workouts – like repeating squats, lunges, and side planks, for example – that raise your heart rate work just fine to build muscle. Check out some of my favorite moves right here.
What We're Reading...
- We're obsessing over protein... and forgetting about this.
- Something different: Fancy a meatball made out of wooly mammoth?
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 8, 2024