One of my favorite dietary technologies is Periodic Protein Restriction.
I covered it years ago on the site as part of other posts. But now, having withstood the test of time and grown in popularity, I’m finally giving it a post of its own.
What it is:
Periodic Protein Restriction means not eating protein for some amount of time, such as for a single day.
It’s like fasting but way easier because you still get to eat dozens of different foods in the form of fat, fiber, and carbs.
How it works:
The key insight behind Periodic Protein Restriction is that fasting need not be all or nothing. The body is smart enough to know whether it’s being deprived of one macronutrient vs another, and so will give you the benefits of whatever mechanisms are kicked off as a result. So we could say that protein restriction is a form of macronutrient-specific fasting or high-resolution fasting.
Restricting protein in the diet causes the body to go looking for protein elsewhere. And if done properly, the body will get that protein, not from cannabalizing muscle mass, but by recycling debris floating around inside of our cells.
Every cell ends up with debris inside of it — broken down organelles and the like — and as that debris accumulates it hurts our cellular efficiency.
Of course our cells have a way of cleaning up that debris. But the problem is that sometimes they don’t, or only do so half-heartedly.
Why aren’t our cells on top of taking out the trash? What are they waiting for?
The answer is that the debris isn’t trash; there is no trash in nature and this debris constitutes valuable recyclables. And through a process called autophagy we can harvest some of the valuable protein we need.
What our cells are waiting for is the day when the hunt doesn’t go well and you can’t find any protein to put in your mouth. When that happens, the body will up-regulate autophagy and kick its recycling program into overdrive.
Problem is, in modern life, the hunt goes well every single day. And this relentless consumption of protein keeps our body’s recycling program on hold.
That this is the way things are makes perfect sense. Our bodies spent the majority our evolution dealing with a sporadic food supply. Our bodies are primed to deal with protein-less days. Our bodies are expecting them. But the stability of our food supply means those days rarely come, so we have to make them happen manually.
Now I didn’t discover any of this. It was Dr. Ron Mignery who first turned me on to the idea that it’s important to periodically restrict protein. Mignery devised the brilliant strategy of simply eating foods that had little protein. It was his insight that by restricting one macronutrient and not other, we could get many if not most of the benefits of fasting without actually having to fast. And with so little willpower needed, this protein restriction might be easy enough for a person to do once, twice, or even three times a week!
My discovery was that restricting protein was much easier than even Dr. Mignery realized.
As I studied his diet plan, I realized that he was laboring under the popular but mistaken belief that dietary fat is bad for you (nor did he seem to know of the paleo diet). Accordingly, he was basing his protein restriction diet almost entirely on carbohydrates (including highly processed bread). Not only did this leave him with fewer healthy foods to choose from, it deprived him of the most calorically dense and satisfying of all macronutrients — fat.
Being deep into my high-fat paleo diet experiment by this point (~70% of total calories from fat) allowed me to easily spot the mistake and improve the protocol.
Now let’s look at some of the many low-protein foods (mostly paleo-friendly) that you can choose from. Enjoy any configuration or amount of these foods so long as protein for the day stays under 15g.
The 15g limit means that trace amounts of protein will add up, and since food labels don’t show protein under 1g per serving, you’ll benefit from tracking your protein intake using a program like cronometer until you get the hang of it.
Healthy, Low-protein Fats
Low-protein, High-fiber Foods
For simplicity, I usually just eat these foods directly, but they (and the dozens of healthy low-protein foods I surely missed) can be combined in many delightful ways. Here are a few of my favorites to get you going:
Tea: Enjoy several cups of heavily creamed tea throughout the day. Alternate between heavy cream and coconut milk/cream for variety. Or if you’re a coffee drinker, your Bulletproof Coffee will come in handy here.
Fruit & Cream: Fruit with heavy cream drizzled on it. Hard to feel like you’re being deprived of much of anything while eating this. Just be sure to track the protein because heavy cream’s protein content is non-zero (even though the label says zero) and it will add up.
Salad: Salad greens, olives, and half an avocado. Drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil or warm bacon grease, salt, pepper.
Buttery Sauerkraut: Want something warm and filling? Melt a few tablespoons of grass-fed butter over some warm sauerkraut. It’s delicious so don’t knock it till you try it.
Cooked Greens: kale, collards, or chard, cooked in bacon grease or coconut oil.
Baked or diced potato: white or sweet potato, cooked in and drizzled with your favorite oil, salted and peppered.
 With this post I’ve settled on the phrase Periodic Protein Restriction. In some places I’d called it “Protein Fasting”, but the phrase is ambiguous and could mean either fasting from protein or eating only protein. Mignery’s “Protein Cycling” is similarly less informative.
 A full day of protein restriction and two nights of sleep on either side yields around a 32 hour window for the body to do some serious autophagy. If you’re especially muscle-bound and worried about muscle or strength loss, be sure to pack in as much of the above foods as possible w/o crossing the 15g mark. All that fat and all those carbs should spare muscle. If you still lose muscle and strength, shorten the period to 24 hours (have dinner). If that doesn’t work, just go protein-less for breakfast and have a late lunch (18 hour protein restriction). If that doesn’t work, try one of the above while also letting yourself go into 20g protein territory. If that doesn’t work, consider re-prioritizing your life for optimal health instead of maximum muscle.
 Periodic Carbohydrate Restriction, for instance, would likely also be beneficial. On such a day, you could eat all the fat and fiber you want, and some protein, while aiming with the carb restriction to produce ketones and up-regulate carrier mediated autophagy. With Protein Restriction, on the other hand, it is the macro and micro-autophagy variants we are trying to up-regulate.