The Protein Obsession: Is It Worth It?
Weighing the facts and fiction of the pervasive health and fitness trend.
It used to be that, arriving at a supermarket till, there would be a stand nearby tempting you with an array of sugar-packed confectionery. These days, it’s more likely to be an arrangement of protein bars and other protein-loaded snacks. Heck, even the bars of chocolate – your Mars or Snickers – often come with added protein. Go to the chilled-drinks cabinet and every other option is a protein shake. One would be forgiven for concluding that protein was some kind of newly discovered superfood, or that science had recently revealed that our diets were woefully short of it.
But that’s a long way from the truth. “Frankly, it’s difficult to not get enough protein if you’re getting your daily recommended number of calories,” says registered nutritionist Mr TJ Waterfall. “If, hypothetically, you got all your daily calories just from cucumber, you’d still get enough protein.”
So how much is enough? For men, that’s about 55g a day. More specifically, guidelines recommend about 0.8g per kg of body weight per day, rising to about 1.4g per kg in the particularly active, and this is entirely achievable through a balanced diet. That 55g really isn’t much. Some baked beans on two slices of toast would give you about half that. Small wonder that protein deficiency in the west is extremely rare – it is a state typically associated with the starving.
“Protein products are everywhere, in the same way that superfood products are, because there’s money to be made from it,” says Mr Waterfall. “We don’t need superfoods in our diets either. Normal quantities of fruit and veg will do the job. This situation is akin to gluten-free foods. A quarter of us have bought gluten-free products, yet only about three per cent of the UK population is actually gluten intolerant.”
But there is, he concedes, more to this protein fever than just marketing. There is “pretty conclusive” evidence from scientific studies that protein can help, for example, in weight loss, or in promoting muscle growth by fuelling the repair process after muscle has been broken down through exercise. As much as weight loss can be assisted by eating more beans, pulses and lentils – because you feel fuller for longer and so eat less – if you don’t increase your protein intake, then you’ll also lose muscle, which isn’t good for your metabolism. Similarly, your body can benefit from a quick surge of protein after a workout – via one of those shakes, for example.
“This emphasis on protein is a trend. There’s science behind it, but then it’s been marketed very effectively”
Building muscle is certainly a good thing to do, says Ms Claire Baseley, a registered nutritionist and spokesperson for the Association for Nutritionists, and not simply with the intention of making the cover of Men’s Health. It helps bone health, for one. It also helps offset the gradual muscle loss that affects most men after the age of 40. “But while protein has some benefits, does that mean the entire population needs to be consuming extra? No, it doesn’t,” she says. “This emphasis on protein is a trend. There’s science behind it, but then it’s been marketed very effectively. You see a lot of personal trainers encouraging protein supplements, and of course they see some profit in that. You have to be wary.”
Even if you are losing weight, or looking to build muscle, there are limits when it comes to protein, limits that are easily reached. Doubling your daily protein intake to, say, 110g, which still isn’t a great deal, might help with both aims, yet studies show that having more than this (and some fitness fans believe the more protein the better) appears to have no effect at all. You’ll just excrete the excess and have wasted your money. It’s a rare occurrence, but too much protein can damage your kidneys. And since the calorific value of protein is the same as that of carbohydrates, unless you use the extra as fuel for exercise, it will just get stored as fat.
There’s the bigger picture to consider, too. “Consuming large amounts of animal protein is not good for the planet,” says Ms Baseley. “You need to consider the sustainability issue and the fact that processed meat tends to come with a lot of additives.” Ms Baseley’s comment points to another widely held misconception that getting more protein means eating more meat. Yes, meat has the highest concentration of protein of any single element in your diet, but you can get all the protein you need from vegetable sources (as vegetarians and vegans inevitably do). Mr Waterfall’s business name – Meat Free Fitness – says it all. There’s protein in cheese, eggs, yoghurt and fish, but he doesn’t eat any of these. Mr Waterfall went vegetarian in 2013 and cut back on eggs and dairy a year later. Now vegan, he gets all the protein he needs and insists you don’t have to sacrifice taste and flavour in meals without meat.
“Let’s just say that, among nutritionists, there is a level of exasperation with the current protein trend, even if people are going to the gym more these days and are often into the lighter side of body-building,” says Ms Baseley. “Whenever there’s a huge boom in any one kind of supposedly nutritional product, you should have some scepticism as to whether you actually need it.”
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Illustration by Mr Jori Bolton