Has this health obsession gone too far?
We’re packing our diets with more protein than ever before in a quest to be fit and healthy. But, as Susannah Taylor discovers, it may be doing us more harm than good
The ‘added protein’ market in the UK is the third largest in the world
It’s hard to walk down a supermarket aisle without spotting the words ‘high protein’ emblazoned across food items. Everything from ice cream to cereal to noodles promises that all-important hit. According to market research company Mintel’s most recent figures, the ‘added protein’ market in the UK is the third largest in the world (after Finland and Australia), and 6.1 per cent of new food and drink product launches featured the ‘added/high protein’ claim.
In fact, in some cases, our obsession is making us ill. In October, doctors spoke out against a burgeoning TikTok-inspired trend called ‘dry scooping’. The fad saw gym-goers ingesting protein powder without mixing it with liquid first in a quest for a fast, pre-workout boost. Experts warned that dry-scoopers risked choking and pneumonia (if the powder was inhaled), plus potential heart disturbances from the caffeine often added to the powders.
So how did we become so fixated on protein, and is it really the nutritional holy grail for anyone seeking a slender physique?
What is true is that our bodies need protein in order to function properly – it is one of the three macronutrients (the others being carbohydrates and fats) that are essential for health. The amino acids that make up proteins are the building blocks for every cell in our bodies and are vital for muscle maintenance, bone and skin health, hair growth, organ function and ligament strength.
What isn’t true is that most of us need more of it. Protein deficiency is extremely rare in developed countries. According to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the average European consumes around 85g of protein a day. Given that the NHS only recommends 50g a day and that we excrete anything we don’t need, it’s clear that for the vast majority of us protein deficiencies are imagined.
Why, then, does the cult of protein prevail? It may be due to a misunderstanding about its function. Protein can play a role in fat and weight reduction by slowing the release of glucose into the bloodstream. It can also help to build muscle which, in turn, helps to burn calories. However, we mistakenly think that eating more of it than we need will magnify this effect.
According to nutritional therapist Gabriela Peacock (gpnutrition.com), the point is not to add more protein to your diet but rather to eat it strategically. She explains: ‘If you have a piece of toast, your energy levels will rocket due to the carbohydrate you have eaten. You might feel amazing for 20 minutes, but then crash. If, however, you have some cheese with your toast it will slow the sugar into your bloodstream, helping you stay fuller for longer and lessening the craving to eat something sweet soon afterwards.’
Another problem is that we just aren’t very good at working out what weights of food look like on a plate. The recommended daily amount of protein is 0.8g per kg of your body weight, but which of us is prepared to commit to those kinds of calculations before every meal?
Gabriela has a solution: ‘For main meals, have a portion of protein the size of the palm of your hand ‒ such as eggs, a piece of chicken, fish. It doesn’t have to be a precise amount, but it is important to have it with every meal. Ask yourself how much of your plate is covered by fish and rice. The winning option is smaller on the rice and bigger on fish and vegetables,’ she says. Evenings are when most people give in to cravings, Gabriela says, but because protein stabilises your blood-sugar levels it will make you less likely to reach for the Ben & Jerry’s.
Another root of our protein infatuation is that social media has given us a window into the diets of elite athletes. But just because a top athlete is using protein shakes doesn’t mean that if we do the same we’ll gain the same physique. Professor Greg Whyte OBE (thewhyteanswer.com), an expert in exercise and physiology and known for training celebrities such as Davina McCall, says: ‘The key with all supplements is there should be a reason to take them. Don’t take protein just because it’s trendy. If you can envisage your nutrition as a cake, then supplements should be the icing.’
That said, one of the reasons for making sure you have enough protein in your diet is if you are exercising a lot more than usual. According to Greg anyone engaged in a rigorous exercise schedule may need additional protein both to build muscle mass and to aid repair. When we exercise our muscles it causes tiny micro-tears in the fibres (which is why they feel sore the next day). Protein can help repair these tears and make the muscle stronger in the process. Greg supplements his own diet with protein powders because they ‘support active recovery and accelerate the repair. As I age, my speed of recovery from exercise is curtailed, and it helps to improve this. It’s central to sporting performance.’
If you are going to use protein shakes, know that not all are created equal.Nutritional experts are enormously wary of those huge two-for-one tubs which can be full of fillers, emulsifiers (which provide creaminess when mixed with liquid) and hidden sugars. It’s important you opt for a quality brand that uses natural ingredients. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a chocolate bar has ‘high protein’ written on it, it’s good for you. ‘The general rule is that you are looking for a protein bar not an energy bar,’ says Gabriela. She is a fan of RXbar products (rxbar.com) which are high in protein, only use natural ingredients and label all contents clearly.
Greg warns against jumping on the protein bandwagon without a good reason. ‘Too much protein in the diet can be negative,’ he says. ‘It is not true to say that “if a little is good, a lot must be better”.’
Gabriela, meanwhile, recommends having real food protein in every meal while supplements (such as powders) should be taken a maximum of once a day. ‘As with everything in life, protein should be consumed with balance and moderation,’ she says. ‘If you are overdoing your proteins, you may end up eating less good carbohydrates (vegetables, for example).
This could lead to a lack of fibre and other nutrients from plant foods and you could become nutrient deficient.’
Nutritious, real food, agree the experts, should always take precedence. As Greg puts it: ‘The best supplement you will ever take is a healthy, balanced diet.’
So what is the right amount of protein?
Power up your diet healthily and safely with Gabriela and Greg’s advice
Pick protein-packed foods
Meat: chicken, turkey breast, beef, fish.
Vegetarian: eggs, milk, cottage cheese, greek yogurt.
Vegan: nuts, seeds, oats, quinoa, broccoli, lentils, tofu, chickpeas.
Eat the optimum amount
Have a palm-sized portion at every meal. Gabriela suggests snacks with protein as you’ll reach for less chocolate: an apple with nut butter, a handful of nuts or seeds, a yogurt, or crudités with hummus.
Choose a quality top-up
Take a protein supplement that uses natural ingredients. When exercising, Greg advises having a supplement within 30 minutes of finishing for it to have the optimum effect.