What Baboons Could Tell Us About Losing Weight

Apes and monkeys prioritize protein intake, even if it means eating too many fats and carbs.

(Photo: Steve Casimiro/Getty Images)

Jul 6, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

From Cheerios to Hormel, even the most time-tested American brands have been bulking up their offerings with protein in response to carb-avoidant consumers—and it looks like science backs up the weight-loss trend that has fed a profitable grocery store frenzy in recent years. Nutritional ecologist David Raubenheimer has been studying the eating habits of apes and monkeys and concludes that a high-protein diet could aid weight loss after all.

Of course, no trend is without its detractors, and no science is without its counter-theory. Recently, the benefits of gobbling up the trendy macronutrient have been highly contested. One study links eating a significant amount of protein to a cancer mortality risk akin to that of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. But Raubenheimer, who teaches at the University of Sydney, says that the behavior of our primate relatives hints that when it comes to weight loss, we’re better off boosting our protein intake instead of counting calories.

Raubenheimer and a team of researchers observed baboons in the wild. They found that no matter what and how much they ate, the monkeys consistently consumed 20 percent of their food in protein.

“This suggests that the baboon values getting the right balance of nutrients over energy intake per se,” he said in a statement from the Society for Experimental Biology, through which the findings were presented. This means no energy or calorie counting—just absorbing the right proportions of nutrients.

Spider monkeys and orangutans also forage for a balanced diet. But when food is scarce owing to seasonal availability, they prioritize eating sufficient amounts of protein, even though it means consuming too few or too many carbs and fats.

The same is true for humans, meaning that if our diet is too low on protein, we overeat calories—including fats and carbs—to hit the right amount of protein.

“We can use this information to help manage and prevent obesity through ensuring that the diets we eat have a sufficient level of protein to satisfy our appetite,” said Raubenheimer. Of course, there’s a caveat: More protein may help us lose weight, but if it causes other imbalances, it can mean a plethora of other health problems.

It bears repeating that protein-rich foods other than meat exist, although Cheerios Protein and Muscle Milk are probably not the answer to the world’s growing obesity crisis.

“A simple rule for healthy eating is to avoid processed foods,” Raubenheimer said. “No human population has until recently encountered ultra-processed foods made from industrially extracted sugars, starches, and salt. Our bodies and appetites are not adapted to biscuits, cakes, pizzas, and sugary drinks, and we eat too much of them at our peril.”