Talk to health educator Linda Willis about a balanced diet, and the mythology around protein unravels faster than chains of amino acids in a body-builder's metabolism.
"The fact is we eat too much," Willis says. "We're too focused on protein."
Although numerous diet fads have come and gone in two decades of teaching her Balanced Weigh program, Willis says misconceptions about protein have continued to hold sway.
"Once you get a myth going in nutrition, it doesn't die for years and years."
The first myth confronting Willis, who holds a doctorate degree in health education, doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny.
"People think they get their energy from protein."
In reality, carbohydrates are the ideal source of food energy readily available to the human body, Willis and local dietitians say. Protein isn't easily broken down for use as energy and, when it is, usually comes from muscle tissue, as the body can't store excess protein. By contrast, muscles can bank small quantities of carbohydrates in the form of glycogen.
Burned relatively quickly, however, carbs are the likely culprit for the second myth: People think they'll get too hungry if they don't have protein, Willis says. She tells clients that attempting to sate oneself until dinner time on a high-calorie breakfast of bacon and eggs is a misguided approach. Instead, eat every three hours or so, starting the day with a high-fiber cereal, nonfat milk and fruit, she says. When hunger pangs set in, have a second piece of fruit.
"When people are on a meat-based diet, it's almost always a low-fruit and low-veggie diet," Willis says.
Contrary to the third myth, as suggested by government food pyramids, protein isn't found only in meat, eggs, dairy products and legumes. Whole grains, nuts, seeds and leafy greens all contain protein, dietitians say. From these foods, most people can assemble their entire protein requirement for a day, Willis says.
"When you combine carbohydrates that have some of the amino acids, then you have a complete protein," she says, adding that dietitians used to urge the consumption of foods that form complete proteins in a single meal. Experts now know that complete proteins can be formed in the body throughout the day, she adds.
"People don't realize how easy it is to get a sufficient amount of protein."
Whole grains and beans make up the foundations of Willis' own Balanced Weigh Pyramid, a reference tool she devised for clients about a decade ago. Diverging sharply from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's official food pyramid, beans play a much larger role than meat in a healthful diet.
"To me, it's a no-brainer," Willis says, adding that she thinks of beans and meat as polar opposites.
"Meat has no fiber in it; beans are just loaded," she says. "Meat has fat and cholesterol; beans have none."
Meatless chili and enchiladas stuffed with beans and roasted vegetables frequently make up the menu at Heidi Olivadoti's Medford home. Olivadoti, 39, tried the high-protein Atkins Diet, only to gain weight over the long term. Working with Willis, she lost 70 pounds and has sustained her success for three years. Eating meat at just one of the day's meals is a major feature of Willis' plan, along with forgoing meat entirely two days per week.
"Linda really got me thinking about meat in a different way," Olivadoti says. "We got meat off the center of the plate."
Willis and local dietitians acknowledge that people initially struggle with meal planning when meat isn't a factor. But the concept behind Balanced Weigh, Willis says, is increased consumption of fruits and vegetables — almost by default — because meat has been subtracted from the equation.
"When meat is the center of the plate, it's actually pushing out other foods that protect us," Willis says.
Medical research has linked meat consumption to cancer and a host of other diseases characterized by inflammation, says Medford dietitian Julie Kokinakes Anderson. When one considers the longest-lived human populations — on Okinawa, throughout the Mediterranean and among certain religious communities — it becomes clear, she says, that a primarily vegetarian diet of beans, vegetables, fruit, cheese, eggs and fish is the most healthful. One then can conclude that muscle protein from large animals isn't all that beneficial, she adds.
"You can get enough protein just from some vegetables and legumes," Anderson says.
Yet Anderson stops short of hard-and-fast rules regarding meat of the sort Willis imposes. The generally accepted guideline for protein consumption is just over one-third of a gram per pound of a person's body weight. But dietary needs, Anderson says, are highly individual, affected by body composition, the amount and type of exercise people get, even the medication they use.
Anderson and Willis do agree on perhaps the most important point: Humans should get all their nutrients — protein included — from whole foods. Processed foods, like protein bars, shakes and powders, are full of chemicals, useless filler ingredients and "isolated" nutrients, which don't function in the human body like real food, Willis says.
It's this vast array of processed protein products promoted by the body-building and fitness industries that has undoubtedly perpetuated the protein myth, Willis and local dietitians say.
"It's a marketing tool, and it's been very effective," Willis says.
Registered dietitian and public health educator Cathy Miller says she's seen propensities for protein supplements lead to kidney problems. Metabolizing protein, experts say, doesn't yield "clean" byproducts like carbohydrates do. Although some glucose — a sugar the body uses for energy — is derived from protein, waste products like uric acid must be excreted, a fact not lost on fitness professionals.
"Protein is very acidic," says Jodi Marthaller, an elite trainer at Oz Fitness in Medford.
Often heavy consumers of protein supplements, body-builders have to be careful not to overdo it, Marthaller adds. So what about the notion that it's impossible to build muscle without increasing one's protein intake? That's the fourth myth Willis wants to debunk.
"Muscle's built by working out," she says.