What’s the Deal with Protein?

Protein has been the buzzword in health for the last few years, emblazoned on packages, advertisements and media, it seems protein is the macronutrient that can do no wrong. Fat was previously deemed as the ‘evil’ macronutrient and now it’s carbs, but protein remains untouchable. Is there no such thing as good protein/bad protein, or having too much protein?

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It’s interesting how we’ve become so obsessed with needing to take in more and more protein, and also how the first question most people will ask you when they find out you are Vegan is “where do you get your protein?”. Protein deficiency in a diet that provides enough calories doesn’t exist. Simply put if we are getting enough calories, we are getting enough protein, any reasonable balanced diet will provide this, so why do people believe they need to consume massive doses of this macro-nutrient? There are rafts of people¬† following their “macros” with astronomically high protein amounts, those who are forcing down chicken six times a day at the request of their PT or bro-science suggestions, and there is the ever increasing market of truly bizarre protein products. Protein is a key selling point for marketing, and we lap it up. Even the “clean eaters” who avoid anything ‘processed’ and ‘refined’ tend to regularly use protein powders, which when you think about it, are actually one of the most processed foods out there. We are bombarded with messages that we need more protein, but isn’t this simply disinformation spread by those with big interests at stake?

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I’ve certainly been guilty in the past of eating way beyond my protein needs, trying to get as much as possible naturally and then filling it up with protein powders/bars. Is all this protein doing us any good though, or is it causing harm? I’ve just finished reading Dr. Garth Davis book ‘Proteinaholic‘ , which is an incredibly well researched and scientifically grounded look at our obsession with protein. It’s so interesting reading about how the world got gripped on protein (hello Atkins, and it’s current spin off anti-grain, low carb and Paleo movements), and debunking a lot of the dodgy and misleading information out there about protein. It’s fairly heavy on the research and science and if you want to read further into this topic I would wholly recommend it.

If we look at the RNI (reference nutrient intake) for protein, it is actually much lower than most people are aware- 0.75g of protein per kg of bodyweight – my recommended intake would be 44g of protein daily, yet I see women who are trying to get 130g+ to ‘hit their macros’. Obviously the amount for each individual would vary slightly based on age, activity etc, but not to the extent of getting over three times the RNI. There’s this belief that you can’t get too much protein, compared to the horror of horrors eating too much fat/carbs. However, there is absolutely no science to back up the view that eating high protein diets is beneficial for health. A search on Pubmed will bring up plenty of studies which suggest that high protein intake is not optimal, and in particular high animal protein intake is linked to increased cardiovascular disease risk, and risk of type 2 diabetes, amongst other chronic conditions.

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Protein, like fat and yes carbohydrates, is an essential macronutrient, we need it for so many things including growth and repair, and overall health maintenance, but we probably don’t need as much as we think we do. If you look at the Blue Zones- Dan Buettner’s term for his discovery of the longest lived cultures on earth- the diets of the people in these areas are the total opposite of high protein. In Okinawa for instance the majority of their traditional diet is based around purple sweet potato, making up to 60% of their caloric intake. Some of the longest lived people on earth, are surviving, and actually thriving into old age, without resorting to having to ‘get their protein’ in, or counting their macros.

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I’ve definitely been guilty of “needing” to use protein powders,¬† and I feel like it’s almost a placebo effect. I can fully understand why people like to include higher amounts of protein in their diets, it’s just where do we draw the line between optimal and detrimental. I think as long as we are eating a balanced whole foods diet, we are getting more than enough protein-yes even Vegans!- and if we start to sacrifice including things in our diet that are rich in vital nutrients like fibre and antioxidants at the expense of choking down several shakes a day, then I think that is not going to beneficial for health at all.

I’m not going to stop using protein powder/bars on occasion as I find them convenient when I’m in a rush, but I am going to be more mindful of my protein consumption, and try and keep it to whole foods as much as possible. Eat a balanced diet, and don’t worry about ‘getting enough protein’ because you more than likely already are. Don’t fall into the marketing trap of needing all those extra protein products in your life. One macronutrient isn’t the enemy, carbs aren’t the enemy, fat isn’t the enemy, and protein isn’t the enemy- but moderation is key, and it seems with protein we just might need less than we think.

Additional Resources

The Myth of High Protein Diets

Havard’s Meat & Mortality Studies

Adventist Health Study

Blue Zones

Are you concerned about the amount of protein you eat? Do you think it’s enough/not enough?

11 Responses to What’s the Deal with Protein?

  1. This is such an interesting post – as a vegetarian I’m often conscious about how much protein I’m getting and am definitely guilty of overloading, on the vegan powders out there in order to get what I need…when actually I probably don’t need that much! I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this from now on :) Well written!

    • Thanks Roslyn. Yes I’m Vegan and I’ve always done the same, I never realised how much I was actually getting without the additional protein supplements, and turns out it was more than enough.

  2. This is very interesting, and you are right, when people find out that I am vegetarian they ask me about protein (usually eggs, which I don’t really like, and then they wonder what I actually do eat). I tried protein powders a few times but never got on with them. I do like those Pulsin bars, and I would choose something like that over a more sugary cereal bar but mainly because it would have a better impact on blood sugar and keep me feeling full a bit longer.

    • I know, it’s so interesting that people don’t associate protein with plant based foods, there are so many options from green leafy veg, beans, quinoa to nuts and seeds and more.

  3. The trend for things like “protein bread”, “protein Weetabix” etc is really becoming an eye roller for me…

  4. Yeah the hype about protein is a bit silly. I see guys at the gym properly chugging away at protein shakes like their life depends on it.
    That said, I do choose protein over carbs as a personal preference. But that’s not to say I shun carbs or see them as evil. I just prefer to eat meat over bread for example. I also find protein a lot more filling than carbs. I most certainly hit my protein needs every day so I never try and hunt out more protein. And it is such a marketing ploy for things like cereal to now contain protein… it really isn’t that hard to eat enough protein!

    • I know, it’s all got so gimmicky and ridiculous. The hilarious thing about the guys chugging down their shakes, is that you actually need carbs alongside to replenish muscle glycogen.

  5. Great post Lauren! :)

  6. Totally agree, since I had my DNA test I track my food in My Fitness Pal, and I find I never have any trouble hitting my protein target. It’s usually the carbs and fat which are on the low side for me. I don’t take any protein powders or bars. It is annoying how they are adding protein to what is essentially a junk food and passing it off as being healthy!

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