Garth Davis, author of Proteinaholic, was a self-confessed protein addict. His professional background makes his story especially compelling. He is a top-rated surgeon who specializes in bariatric surgery, doing stomach bypass operations to help morbidly obese people lose weight. In the early years of his surgery practice, he strongly promoted high protein diets to help people lose weight, believing it was the best route to better health. He even wrote and published The Expert’s Guide to Weight-Loss Surgery in 2008, in which he recommended the Zone diet, a popular high protein diet. Since then, he’s had a radical change of mind. Why? Let’s look at his personal story.
Garth Davis’s Personal Health Story
Garth’s father was a surgeon in Houston, Texas. Garth idolized him and decided at an early age to follow in his father’s footsteps. Garth was a brilliant student. He earned a Phi Beta Kappa in college. In medical school he was invited into Alpha Omega Alpha, the honor medical society. Like his father, he became a highly skilled surgeon. By his mid-thirties he was happily married, professionally successful, and well respected. Yet there was a cloud on his horizon.
Like many children, Garth had eaten processed sugar cereals and lots of junk foods. By his twenties, he cut back on them, knowing they were not good for him. His solution was to eat more and more protein. After all, according to most doctors, trainers, and dietitians, protein was supposed to be the fountain of health. While on the Atkins diet, he had “eggs and bacon in the morning, hamburger without the bun for lunch, and roast beef or steak for dinner.” Even off the Atkins diet, he ate very few vegetables and fruit with his protein-heavy meals. But then his health began to deteriorate.
By age 35 he was becoming obese. At his routine eye check-up, his optometrist told him with concern that his retinal vessels were filled with cholesterol, something that shouldn’t happen until old age, if ever. Lab tests showed that his blood cholesterol was extremely high, and his liver function tests and triglycerides were also too high. His doctor put him on three medications, including a statin for cholesterol, another med for high triglycerides, and a third for high blood pressure. Besides all this, he had been suffering from irritable bowel syndrome for several years. The idea of being on medications for life at age 36 hit him hard. Garth decided to do his own research, beginning with nutrition – the weakest link in every doctor’s medical training.
The Search for the Ideal Human Diet
The more he dug into the nutritional literature, the more astounded he became. What he learned turned his preconceived ideas about good nutrition upside down. All the long-range research pointed to plant-based ways of eating as the healthiest ones around the world. Digging deeply into the nutritional literature, Garth was not able to find any long-term studies that supported a protein-centered approach to good health. Short-term studies of a few weeks or months showed that a protein-centered diet could help with weight loss, but such weight loss was not sustainable for more than a year or two.
His research shattered beliefs he had held all his life, namely, that abundant protein is required to keep us strong and healthy, and that animal-based protein is best. He was shocked to learn that animal protein was one of the biggest factors behind the obesity epidemic. In virtually every study, animal protein was correlated with weight gain. It was strongly associated with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer, the big killers of our time. Animal protein was not one of the healthiest foods around. A lower-protein (and low fat) diet was the most effective way to lose weight, improve health, and prevent future disease.
The Struggle and the End Result
Because of all this evidence, Garth made major changes in his own diet. First, he tried to abandon animal protein and go vegetarian all in one radical step. He had steamed veggies and rice as the first meatless meal of his life. He didn’t like it. In fact, he hated vegetables. For a time he depended on veggie burgers, eating them at every meal. They were bearable, but not the meat he craved. He went back to eating meat for a while. Still, the research he’d done and videos he’d seen of cows being slaughtered stayed on his mind. Eventually, after many efforts, he was able to eliminate meat from his diet for good. Stopping fish, dairy, and cheese took longer, but avoiding them got easier over time. Today he finds it effortless to be dairy-free.
Dr. Davis is completely vegan now. What has this done for him? He states that after hitting his plant-based stride, he felt better than ever before in his life. His weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure all came back down to normal, and his energy levels improved so much that he began training for long distance running. Never an athlete before, he has now run several marathons and even completed the Ironman triathlon. He loves eating plant-based foods and his irritable bowel disease symptoms have vanished. His tastes have totally changed to support his new way of eating – an important point for people who think their tastes can’t be changed. In many ways, he’s become a new man. His picture shows him to be a very dynamic, energetic-looking man today.
The Rest of the Story
Dr. Davis continues to counsel obese patients and do bariatric surgery. However, he no longer promotes high-protein diets. Instead, he encourages patients to move toward a plant-based diet. He doesn’t tell them to become vegan, but he encourages them to minimize the animal-based foods they’re used to eating. Some patients follow his advice and do so well that they no longer need to have bariatric surgery!
I’ve only summarized the first part of the book here. Part II of the book goes into a careful history of how our nation became obsessed with protein. Part III provides scientific detail about how excess protein contributes to our major debilitating diseases. Part IV consists of a proteinaholic recovery plan. The final chapter provides a one-week meal-plan chart, followed by many tasty-sounding recipes. I don’t have space to review all this here, but I encourage the interested reader to get the book. It’s well worth reading.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, Volume VIII, No. 2 • February 20, 2016.