Reviewing Proteinaholic: How our obsession with meat is killing us and what we can do about it, by Garth Davis, M.D. (HarperOne, 2015)
Garth Davis, M.D., describes himself as “a weight-loss surgeon who runs a large surgical and medical weight-loss clinic [and is] on the front lines of the battle against obesity.” In 2008 he published a book entitled The Expert’s Guide to Weight-Loss Surgery, with every chapter “meticulously researched,” except the one on nutrition.
Seven years later, Davis published Proteinaholic: How our obsession with meat is killing us and what we can do about it. The reason for the second book: Davis realized that the patients who followed his advice about nutrition got sicker.
Perhaps more important was the deterioration in his own health. He was developing a big belly and could hardly drag himself out of bed in the morning. He was also developing seriously high cholesterol readings, elevated triglycerides, high blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome. Time for more research! (The bibliography of studies, in small type, is forty-six pages long.)
“I reviewed thousands of original studies, and hundreds of meta-analyses and reviews. And all of my research kept pointing to the same conclusion: Consuming animal protein is linked to chronic disorders and premature death. Eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is associated with staying healthy” (p. 7). Acting on this conclusion, Davis changed the way he ate.
He also developed a new pattern of physical activity when a friend introduced him to triathlons. He prepared for his first one in 2009 by running twenty miles a month. After doing a triathlon and several marathons, he competed an Ironman: a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run in a single day.
Instead of getting fatter, he now is getting stronger. “At forty-five I set a personal record in the marathon of 3 hours and 35 minutes, which is 21 minutes faster than the last two marathons I ran when I was forty” (p. 282).
In Part Two of this book (pp. 57–111), “How We Became Proteinaholics,” Davis gives a history of research and medical practice that in the early 1900s focused attention upon the positive effect that eating animal protein had upon impoverished, malnourished people who lived and worked in unhygienic conditions.
Even with the improvement in their health, they still were likely to die at early ages because of infectious diseases that had not yet been brought under control. Although animal protein is a causal factor in developing chronic diseases like diabetes, people were dying at too early an age for these problems to develop.
Conventional wisdom, supported by poorly conducted or misunderstood research, led most people to believe that animal protein was essential to good health and physical vigor. Medical providers and publishers of nutritional books followed this same line of thought and action.
In Part Three of Proteinaholic (pp. 115–236), “Death and Disease by Protein,” Davis provides a thirty-page primer on medical research and how we can evaluate its accuracy and reliability. He then outlines the evidence for animal protein’s role in developing diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, cancer, and premature death. He also presents evidence for the positive effects of plant-based foods in keeping people healthy and living long lives.
Part Four (pp. 239–327), “The Proteinaholic Recovery Plan,” can be understood as a shorter and more practical presentation of the ideas that Davis discusses in the earlier sections of the book. Conclusions that I am taking away from this chapter include: (1) “For our systems to function, and muscle to be built, we need protein and its metabolites but also energy from carbs and fat” (p. 240). (2) A vegetarian diet with enough calories, even with lower protein intake, is sufficient for the human body to produce all of the protein and nutrients that we need to function at a high level (p. 241). (3) Most people already are getting more protein than government guidelines recommend (pp. 247–8). (4) Athletes and the elderly may need more protein than other people, but even here the evidence is not clear (pp. 249 ff).
Although I’m in my eighties, I continue to be an endurance bicyclist and thus fit into two of the groups whom Davis suggests may need slightly more protein. My diet already consists largely of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, but I have also continued to use dairy and poultry products despite my growing ethical uneasiness about how they are produced.
I probably will not become a full vegan as Davis has chosen to be, but I am already increasing my dependence on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and I’m cutting back on dairy. Davis’s forty-page meal guide has lots of interesting ideas.