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Too much protein turns to fat!! PDF Print E-mail

I recently took Siyabonga (my Godson) to the Lion and Rhino Nature Reserve in the cradle of Human kind. He’d never seen a ‘real’ lion before so I thought that he’d enjoy a day away from the Play Station console.
After spending twenty bucks attempting to cajole the sated giraffes into eating more horse cubes and paying over-inflated prices for an incredibly average breakfast of eggs and baked-beans, we headed off to the lion camp. It wasn’t long before we spotted Panthera leo wrestling greedily with each other for a spot of meager shade under the protea trees.
We are avid bush-babies and I have seen many lions in the wilderness so when I saw these lions they appeared very odd and it took me a while to put my finger on it. They were all obese. Not like the full-bellied bloated look following a kill, but like a pudgy, Pillsbury dough-boy look, their primordial belly pouches almost skimming the ground as they waddled along. There were six lion in this pride all in the primes of their lives and I could not see a hint of a rib apart from the bleached carcass of their last meal. In fact they looked quite comical with their seemingly small heads protruding straight out of their swollen bodies kind of like a child of five would fashion out of putty.

fat dogNext we headed off to the wild-dog enclosure where we sat and watched a pack of wild dogs. The alpha dog was barking at some workers who were doing some maintenance in their camp and it struck me again just how rotund this dog was. In fact his distended ‘beer’ belly was the only intimidating thing about this poor animal.


By now I was starting to feel quite embarrassed, here I was showing a nine year old some of Africa’s fiercest hunters and they all looked like a bunch of Sumo wrestlers. Never fear I thought; the slinky cheetahs would soon redeem us. We wound our way through to the spotted cats’ enclosure and we spied one in the distance busy marking his territory. As we drew nearer, my heart sank, for this animal was a mockery of the lithe, majestic cats that were coveted by the pharaohs. Not a trace of muscle showed beneath the beautiful hide. This creature too was a victim of the blight that plagued this reserve.  In fact the only animals we saw that day that were vaguely in proportion were the pygmy hippo’s!

I thought about these carnivores’ unfortunate predicament as we drove around. I have seen a lion literally starving to death in the Etosha game reserve due to an injured leg which prohibited him from being able to hunt and that was hard enough to bear but this was even worse as it was a violation of nature. Yet when we walk through a shopping mall we are witness to the same scourge that has gripped human beings and somehow we have become immune to it, accepting the obesity as ‘normal’. However that is a topic for a different day, what I would like to dissect is the reason for these animals’ abnormal size.

Unlike the giraffe at the beginning of my story that were fed a diet alien to their natural habitat, the lions, wild dogs and cheetah were all being fed carcasses (although I could not tell if they had been domestic or wild animals). Thus the carnivores were all eating meat, a substance that their digestive systems recognize. So why then are they all fat as according to the most recent diet craze to hit SA, carbohydrates are the evil culprits that are responsible for the extra adipose and not protein or fat!
Before you think I’ve lost the plot comparing lions to humans please bear with me. The digestive systems of carnivores are designed to utilize protein and fats as their only source of fuel. In fact, if you have ever witnessed lions feeding at a fresh kill they relish organ meat and marrow which is rich in saturated fats, and consider the muscle meat as second prize as it is less nutritious. The stomach, intestines, sinews and tendons for reserved for the scavengers.

I do not know if these predators in the reserve get fed intact carcasses or if the offal is removed prior to feeding. If so it would explain part of the obesity epidemic as they would not be getting the correct fat to protein ratio in their diet. Why would that make the animal's fat? The reason is that excess protein in the diet is transformed  into glucose in the liver in a process called gluconeogensis (gluco-NEO-genesis; gluco=sugar; neo=new; genesis=creation). The glucose is then available to be transformed into glycogen by the liver, just like the glucose from “regular” carbohydrates. Therefore the fat cats are a  result of the storage of carbohydrates as fat!
Just in case you think I've lost the plot, a study by Kronfeld in working dogs showed that if a high fat/high protein diet is fed to them, the protein level should be sufficiently high to allow carbohydrate synthesis by the dog to maintain plasma glucose levels. As in the human diet, we can eliminate 'carbohydrates' precisely because the body will convert protein to carbohydrates in order to maintain a steady blood glucose level. Thus if you thought that you were beating the system by following a "low carb" diet, think again for your body is way more advanced than you give it credit for!!

Let's unpack the above paragraph. In order to maintain steady blood glucose levels a lion (as with a human) requires a minimal amount of carbohydrates. Should the lion be highly active then it would require more carbohydrates. This does not mean that the lion will go forage in a field of wheat but that its metabolism adjusts for the carbohydrate requirement by converting the protein that it eats via a process called gluconeogenesis whereby protein is converted into glucose by the lion's liver!
When the lion is in a contrived environment such as a fenced-in reserve where it is unable to bring down its own prey, it will be fed off the back of a truck. In their natural habitat, lions do not eat every day and may in fact go without a full meal for a number of weeks.
Thus part of the problem with reserve-fed lion is over feeding and the other problem is inactivity! It is unable to roam the 240 square kilometer territory that it usually would in the wild.

Even though these animals are eating what nature designed them to eat namely protein, they are still fat. Why? because they are eating too much and are not exercising, simple!
This proves the point that eating too much (even if it is the 'correct' food) and exercising too little will contribute to weight gain.
I have witnessed people on the low carb high fat diet wolfing down protein like there's no tomorrow and wondering why they aren't losing weight despite exercising moderately.
And yes, I know that different foods go through different metabolic pathways and that some food can cause hormone changes that encourage weight gain while other foods can increase satiety and boost the metabolic rate and that it is not just a calories in calories out issue. However I also think that we over-complicate things and look for 'scientific' reasons to explain away our fat butts instead of accepting that we eat too much and move too little.

So will a high protein diet promote weight loss? Initially it will, because you're avoiding all the simple carbs and processed foods. The problem in the long term is that because you are missing out on a balanced diet you are likely to over eat, thereby absorbing more protein-converted carbohydrates.
If you don't believe me, I challenge you to take a trip to the Lion & Rhino Nature Reserve and witness this gross violation of nature and perhaps you could find a better reason for this feline obesity epidemic than I can.