Russell Henry Chittenden Tells the Truth a Century Ago

Russell Henry Chittenden Tells the Truth a Century Ago

Such narrow-minded thinking should have been stopped by 1905 when Russell Henry Chittenden, Yale UniversityProfessor of Physiological Chemistry, published his scientific findings on human protein needs in his classic book,Physiological Economy in Nutrition.2  Professor Chittenden believed Dr. Voit had cause and effect reversed: people did not become prosperous because they ate high protein diets, but rather they ate meat and other expensive high protein foods because they could afford them.   One hundred years ago he wrote, “We are all creatures of habit, and our palates are pleasantly excited by the rich animal foods with their high content of proteid (protein), and we may well question whether our dietetic habits are not based more upon the dictates of our palates than upon scientific reasoning or true physiological needs.”

He reasoned that we should know the minimal protein requirement for the healthy man (and woman), and believed that any protein intake beyond our requirements could cause injury to our body, especially to the liver and kidneys. As he explained it, “Fats and carbohydrates when oxidized in the body are ultimately burned to simple gaseous products…easily and quickly eliminated…”  “With proteid (protein) foods…when oxidized, (they) yield a row of crystalline nitrogenous products which ultimately pass out of the body through the kidneys.  (These nitrogen-based protein byproducts) – frequently spoken of as toxins – float about through the body and may exercise more or less of a deleterious influence upon the system, or, being temporarily deposited, may exert some specific or local influence that calls for their speedy removal.”  With these few words Professor Chittenden explained the deleterious effects of diets high in protein and meat – consequences too few practicing doctors know about today.

The First Scientific Experiments on Our Protein Needs

Professor Chittenden’s first experiment was on himself.  For nine months, he recorded his own body weight, which decreased from 143 pounds (65 Kg) to 128 pounds (58 kg) on his new diet of one-third the protein that Dr. Voit recommended. Chittenden’s health remained excellent and he described his condition as being with “greater freedom from fatigue and muscular soreness than in previous years of a fuller dietary.”  He had suffered from arthritis of his knee and discovered that by reducing his intake of meat his condition disappeared and his “sick headaches” and bilious attacks (abdominal pains) no longer appeared periodically as before; plus he fully maintained his mental and physical activity, with a protein intake of about 40 grams a day.

Chittenden performed valid scientific studies by collecting data on the daily dietary and urine histories of his subjects (including himself) to determine protein utilization. Because he was contradicting the known “truths” of his time, he proceeded with extreme caution with his further investigations.  He organized three controlled trials with increasing demands for testing the adequacy of diets lower in protein than commonly recommended.

The first trial involved a group of five men connected with Yale University, leading active lives but not engaged in very muscular work.  On a low-protein diet (62 grams daily) for 6 months, they all remained healthy and in positive nitrogen balance (more protein went into, than out of, their bodies).  The second trial used 13 male volunteers from the Hospital Corps of the U.S. army. They were described as doing moderate work with one day of vigorous activity at the gymnasium.  They remained in good health on 61 grams of protein daily.  His final trial was with 8 Yale student athletes, some of them with exceptional records of athletic events.  They ate an average of 64 grams of protein daily while maintaining their athletic endeavors, and improving their performance by a striking 35 percent.  Following these studies, Chittenden in 1904 concluded that 35–50 g of protein a day was adequate for adults, and individuals could maintain their health and fitness on this amount.  Studies over the past century have consistently confirmed Professor Chittenden’s findings, yet you would hardly know it with the present day popularity of high protein diets.


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