It's time to put to rest the notion that eating lots of protein makes bones weaker
Since the early 1980s when concerns over bone health began, many studies have focused on the effects of too much animal protein in the diet and found them damaging. A number of them concluded that the acid residues from protein foods are bad for bones.
Some studies show that vegetarians have higher bone density than omnivores (people who eat everything and presumably much more animal protein, but perhaps also fewer plant foods). In a 1972 study published in a scientific journal, the mean bone density of 70- to 79-year-old vegetarians was greater than that of 50- to 59-year-old omnivores.1 As a consequence, vegetarians have been assumed to have a lower risk of osteoporosis (brittle bones).
Another way to interpret these findings is to consider what else people eat; it might turn out that omnivores also eat too many sweets and not enough greens and other plant foods. In addition, the relationship between protein and calcium may be a crucial factor. One study found an elevated risk of bone fractures in Norwegian women who had both high intakes of protein and low intakes of calcium.2
But more recent studies show a different picture. The Framingham Osteoporosis Study, which looked at older people aged 68 to 91, found that those with the lowest protein intakes had the most bone loss over four years and that these lower intakes were significantly related to bone loss in both the hip and spine.3
A study by the Bone Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University found that doubling protein consumption from meat while reducing carbohydrate intake not only avoided calcium loss (as measured in urine), but also resulted in higher levels of bone growth factors in the blood.4
It turns out that meat itself is not the culprit. In fact, the idea that animal proteins like red meat cause bone loss was debunked in the late 1980s by studies carried out by Herta Spencer at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, Illinois. Dr Spencer found that studies correlating low levels of calcium with high-protein diets used highly processed amino acids derived from milk or eggs. As Dr. Spencer discovered, complex dietary proteins from whole-food sources, including red meat, don't cause calcium loss.5
Interestingly, soy proved no better than meat in a study of postmenopausal women, which found that substituting soy protein for meat in a diet with average amounts of calcium made no difference to either retention of calcium or bone and cardiovascular health.6
An earlier study had also shown that high-meat diets didn't lead to any significant changes in urinary and fecal calcium loss or to calcium balance. There was also no significant change in the intestinal uptake of calcium with a high meat-protein diet.7
The observations of Weston Price, DDS, author of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (La Mesa, CA: Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, 1939) support the idea that a high protein diet does not lead to osteoporosis. Dr Price travelled all over the world in the early 1930s, studying the general health, dental health and diets of traditional societies.
Like other anthropologists before and after him, he found no peoples subsisting on only plant foods, although such foods do comprise a considerable percentage of native diets. He also found that traditional peoples often go to great lengths to obtain nutrient-rich fish, eggs and other animal foods for pregnant women and for those getting ready for parenthood.
Dr Price's book (now in its eighth edition) clearly demonstrates that traditional cultures that have diets high in fish and meat have excellent bone health so long as they also consume plenty of animal fats and vegetables.
The healthiest people he found in terms of bones and teeth were six
tribes in sub-Saharan Africa who subsisted mostly on the meat, milk and blood of cows. These six cattle-herding tribes were completely free of dental cavities, and had strong straight teeth and bones.
On the other hand, agricultural tribes like the Kikuyu and Kamba, who lived on sweet potatoes, corn, beans, millet and sorghum, plus small animals and insects, had decay in
5-6 per cent of their teeth (in the US, as much as 75 per cent of all teeth have decay).
According to the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, one of the healthiest tribes that Dr Price found-the Sudanese Dinkas-consumed a diet consisting mainly of fish and cereal grains.8
In contrast, Dr Price found countless cases of dental and skeletal defects (including tooth cavities, bone and jaw malformations, and clubfoot) among those traditional peoples who had switched to a 'civilized' diet of white bread, sugar, jam, sweetened condensed milk, canned vegetables and alcohol, whereas the natives who stayed with their traditional diets were free of such defects and in good health, regardless of the amount of protein they consumed.9
Clearly, it's not necessary to be vegetarian to have healthy bones. It also isn't necessary to eat meat. Both too much and too little protein can cause trouble with the bones.
What is necessary is to eat lots of vegetables of many different colours with enough protein and enough good-quality fats.
If you doubt that vegetables can provide sufficient nutrition for bone health, bear in mind that, in their natural state, the animals with the biggest bones (such as elephants, giraffes, cows and horses) all mostly eat nothing but
Poached red snapper fillets
Makes two servings.
Here's a wonderful protein-rich meal that's good for your bones.
Buy a whole red snapper (about 700 g or 1 1/2 pounds) or other similar fish and have it filleted. Ask to have the head, bones and tails placed in a separate bag so you can take them home to make the stock.
To poach these delicate fillets, make a fish stock using the snapper's bones and trimmings. These fillets should be served warm, so prepare the parsley sauce first, then poach the fillets just before serving.
2 cups fish stock
1 tsp dried rosemary
1/2 tsp dried thyme
4 cardamom pods
1/4 tsp sea salt
2 red snapper (or other white
2 Tbsp parsley sauce (see below)
1- Pour the fish stock into a large, non-reactive skillet or poacher. Make a bouquet garni by placing the rosemary, thyme and cardamom on a small piece of cotton cheesecloth and tying it up into a bundle. Hit it a few times with a knife handle or big spoon to slightly break up the spices so they'll release more flavour.
Add the bouquet garni and salt to the stock, place the pan over medium-high heat and cook until almost boiling.
2- Lower the heat to maintain a simmer and add the fillets skin side up. Poach gently for about 5 minutes while never allowing the poaching liquid to boil. Turn the fillets over and continue poaching for another 3 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Test for doneness with a knife; if it goes through easily and the flesh is white throughout, the fish is done. Gently lift the fillets out of the poaching liquid. (Discard the bouquet garni, but keep the poaching liquid, which can be added to your fish stock stash.)
3- Top each fillet with 1 Tbsp of parsley sauce (see below) and serve right away.
This lovely green sauce complements fish nicely, but is also wonderful on grain dishes too.
2 Tbsp clarified butter or unrefined coconut oil
3 Tbsp wholewheat or rice flour
1 cup hot fish or vegetable stock
1/4 tsp sea salt
2 Tbsp minced fresh parsley
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper
1- Make clarified butter by heating it gently in a saucepan for 10 minutes, letting it cool for a few minutes and pouring it through a sieve, leaving the butterfat solids behind.
2- Heat the clarified butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, then add the flour, stirring continuously for about 3 to 5 minutes until fragrant and lightly browned.
3- Whisk in the hot stock, stirring vigorously with the whisk first, then with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens and is lump-free. Bring to a boil, stirring all the while.
4- Add the salt, turn the heat down as low as it will go, then cover and let it simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring only occasionally. If the sauce seems too thick, add a little stock or water.
5- Just before serving, remove the pan from the heat, stir in the parsley and lemon juice and season with pepper to taste before serving. Store in an airtight container in the fridge, where it should keep for up to two days.