It takes courage to admit one has been wrong. Courage is what made Garth Davis write Proteinaholic, a book that calls out animal protein and animal fat for causing some of the most expensive preventable diseases in this country.
By his own account Dr. Davis, a successful bariatric surgeon at University General Hospital in Houston, TX, and the star of the television show Big Medicine, was a proteinaholic. Firmly believing that more protein is better, he ate eggs and bacon for breakfast, cheese- or turkey burgers for lunch, and spaghetti with meatballs or a steak for dinner. In his 2008 book The Expert’s Guide to Weight Loss Surgery, he recommended that patients recovering from gastric bypass surgery eat a high-protein diet, too:
Strained cream soups and yoghurt-based shakes and smoothies are good choices. A little cream of wheat with protein powder added or grits thinned with skim milk – even tuna and chicken salad that have been blended until there are no distinct pieces remaining – are also good options. Sugar-free pudding and gelatins are okay, too; add protein powder for added nutrition. Well-mashed scrambled eggs or egg substitute and puréed low-fat cottage cheese are also good protein sources.
A fateful eye exam
But around the time when the volume hit the stores, the doctor’s faith in his favorite macronutrient was dealt a serious blow. At a routine eye exam the optometrist told him that cholesterol was clogging up the blood vessels around his eyes – a telltale sign of atherosclerosis. Shortly thereafter Davis had his blood tested, with frightening results: sky-high cholesterol, fat accumulations in his liver, and hypertension. 37 years young, this health professional was on the expressway to Heart Attack City.
Davis did what most Americans in his situation would have done: He reached for statins and beta-blockers. But when a photo shoot with the Houston Chronicle, for which he had to run stairs, exhausted him to the point of vomiting, he finally acknowledged that his life had slipped out of control. He asked himself: What have I done wrong? Why do people in other places live long and healthy lives while Americans are getting sicker and sicker? He found an answer in Dan Buettner’s book The Blue Zones. The longest-lived populations, it explained, ate largely plant-based diets, were physically active, managed their stress well, and had strong communal ties.
Could this be true? The surgeon’s curiosity was piqued. Over the coming years Davis would tear through the literature on nutrition and health, reading everything from 19th century accounts on eating patterns in Africa to present-day diet books and many, many articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Proteinaholic is the result.
Proteinaholic dives deeply into the literature
The book links animal products to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. It says that whole plants, no matter how high in carbohydrates, protect against these conditions. And importantly, it backs every one of those links and health claims with ample evidence from the scientific literature.
Telling consumers to stop eating meat is controversial, explains Davis:
The Harvard School of Public Health has published numerous excellent articles showing that animal protein and fat relates to disease. One of their top researchers was asked why they do not explicitly tell people to become vegetarian when the evidence so clearly supports this recommendation. His response in a Reuters interview was telling: “We can’t tell people to stop eating all meat and dairy products. Well, we could tell all people to be vegetarians. … If we were truly basing this on science we would, but it is a bit extreme.”
Still, for those of us who care about their health, cutting out animal products is the logical choice.
Davis’ dive into the scientific literature is remarkably deep – he reviews epidemiological, experimental, and prospective cohort studies, evaluates their respective research designs, weighs the quality of their claims, and aggregates numerous and at times contradictory findings into a big picture relating nutrition to health outcomes. This much information can overwhelm readers who just want the good doctor to tell them what diet is best.
But in a field where so much money is at stake and where sound scientific evidence is often drowned out by unsupported but sensational health claims, this level of detail is necessary. It distinguishes Proteinaholic from Loren Cordain’s book The Paleo Diet. The latter volume makes all kinds of assertions without giving its readers the bibliographic tools to verify them. Proteinaholic, on the other hand, allows you to doubt statements, look up the references, and draw your own conclusions. This makes the book’s message hard to dismiss.
Proteinaholic spares no punches. Davis spars with the Weston Price Foundation, calling it “one of the strangest organizations I have ever seen,” and telling if off for touting, against all scientific evidence, that saturated fat is healthy. He advises Gary Taubes, a journalist and high-profile advocate of the low carb diet, to change his ways, because his lab results suggest that he is suffering from acidosis. He explains that Robert Atkins, founder of the Atkins Diet, suffered from serious heart disease when he died. And on claims advanced by Paleo guru Loren Cordain he comments that they are “so wildly wrong, I’m rendered practically speechless.”
What surprised me most was Davis’ assertion that sugar was not the culprit for diabetes. True, says the surgeon, eating refined carbohydrates will elevate your blood sugar, making you hungry fast, thereby encouraging overconsumption and weight gain. Junk food is to be avoided. But for diabetes, he says, sugar is not to blame. That’s because the real culprits are animal protein and fat.
The pathways to diabetes
He suggests three pathways by which animal fat enters muscle cells: 1) Protein intake raises insulin, which in turn weakens the ability of muscle cells to keep out fat. Fat enters the cells. 2) A high protein diet is acidic. To keep its pH level balanced, the body extracts calcium from muscle cells, which causes these cells to waste, making them vulnerable to fat depositions. 3) Microbes contained in meat emit endotoxins that become embedded in the meat’s protein. When we digest the meat, its saturated fat shuttles the endotoxins into our blood stream, causing inflammation. This state of inflammation enables fat to enter muscle cells. Here’s what comes next:
Once fat gets inside the muscle cells, it interferes with that cell’s ability to develop new insulin receptors. With fewer insulin receptors it becomes more difficult to get sugar into the cell for processing, causing the sugar to build up in the blood. The pancreas then has to churn out even more insulin just to get the sugar into the cells. The very high insulin, which is not normal, will cause even more fat to enter the cells in a vicious cycle.
And so we become insulin resistant. Those remarks must set off Dr. Robert Lustig, a well-known and respected endocrinologist of the University of California at San Francisco. He has famously lectured on the dangers of sugar and its link to diabetes – in fact, you can some of his ideas in my blog post ”The Secrets of Sugar.” So be on the lookout for his rebuttal.
And how is Davis’ health? Several years ago he overhauled his diet. Out with the animal products, in with the plants. Once a sickly and, he says, slightly chubby man, he became a prize-winning ironman triathlete. Davis appears to be exceedingly well. And he has carried the lessons he learned into his practice. Take a look at this 2014 video, in which he can be seen with Houston’s very own Fully Raw Kristina, prescribing fruits and veggies:
This leaves us with the question who really is to blame for diabetes: sugar or animal fat and protein? I can’t tell. Perhaps one amplifies the other’s negative effects, making both responsible. I certainly look forward to Professor Lustig’s reply to the book. Few things are more interesting than seeing two highly regarded health experts debate their theories. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep my distance from both refined starches and animal products. Perhaps you will, too.
 His diet consisted of 40 percent protein, 30 percent complex carbohydrates and 30 percent fats.