When I became a vegetarian, my parents were not shy about making sure I met my nutritional requirements. Specifically, the subject on their minds was protein. “Sarah, have this piece of fish. It’s full of protein. You need protein in every meal to stay healthy.” It drove me absolutely mad, so much so that I became super focused on making sure I was hitting at least 100 grams or more. I tracked my macronutrients using LoseIt extensively, making sure that every handful of spinach or carton of egg whites helped me reach my goals. Sometimes, I would eat 3 Quest Bars just to make sure my protein needs were met. Now to be fair, at the time, I probably was not eating enough calories, which resulted in the symptoms of protein deficiency. And yes, once I stopped eating my vegetable-only salads in favor of a more balanced meal with added protein and fats, I felt loads better. However, after reflecting to that time in my life, I began to critically think about the intense focus our society has on protein in our diet.
With this in mind, I beg the question: what is the deal with protein?
Protein produces an idyllic vignette, the man on the mountain, most likely bare shirted in negative zero degree weather, tearing into a steak. It’s primal and paleo and very of the moment. And at a time when the protein powder and supplement industry is such a major force, with more than $7 billion in sales in 2014 and projected to reach $9 billion by 2020, it’s a picture that asks a question: Does protein deserve its nutritional pedestal?
Whether in tidy processed packages, or as actual hunks of meat, beans, cheese, or nuts, protein is what many of us think will get up the mountain, metaphorically and literally. Now don’t get me wrong, protein has a lot of benefits for our bodies. Protein is an essential macronutrient, composing 10-15% of our body’s daily macronutrient intake. It powers our workouts and is the building block of all of the muscles in our body. It can be used to give the body energy. The body also uses protein to generate enzymes and hormones. Most importantly, the body uses protein to build and repair tissues. It is, undeniably, an essential component of the human diet.
Total aside, but I am ashamed to admit that I thought muscle and meat were two totally separate things. I am also happy to admit that this is not longer the case.
The question we must ask ourselves is how much is too much. Or, is there such thing as too much? The beef I have with protein (please tell me someone else got this) is that it has become synonymous with “healthy”. When I was a kid, I used to watch old television commercials on Youtube. Seriously why ARE the Cabbage Patch kids so popular? They’re creepy to me! Anyway, I explicitly remember a commercial from the 1980’s. The boy said “I was cramming for a huge history final … it was way after dinner, and I was getting hungry!” Cue the slogan: “Packed with peanuts, Snickers really satisfies!” The message: Even a Snickers Bar can help you
In the world of dieting in the 21st century, protein is sort of the hero in our tale of food, and the villain is carbs. Fat has become more neutral over the years, but protein is still this “safe good guy.” Looking through blogs, there’s no headline that says “24 dinners with a TON of carbs.” Many of the most popular dietary trends focus on introducing more protein into our diets. Paleo, gluten free, and Whole30 focus, in one way or another, on eliminating carbs from one’s diet and replacing them with healthy fats and protein. Now, I am not saying if you follow a high protein diet, that you are “bad” or “wrong.” Especially if you have a dietary restriction that forces you to eliminate certain carbs from your diet, that is an entirely separate issue. If it works for you, then great!
The problem I have is the generalization of protein as a good nutrient , turning a blind eye to the potential risks that an excessive consumption could cause. Now, as I have stated numerous times, I am not a dietician. For many people, myself included, who struggle with feelings of guilt about eating, or suffer with binge eating or an eating disorder, protein — particularly lean protein such as chicken and egg whites, as well as protein powders and bars — feels emotionally safe. Our diets should be about balance, and it is confusing for me why “balanced eating” as a healthy habit in the US also going along with this notion of MORE PROTEIN. People will choose a brownie flavored protein bar over an actual brownie. It is as if the protein removes the guilt. Despite the same levels of sugar, fat, and processed ingredients, the protein bar is healthy enough to eat as dessert, or even more interestingly, breakfast. We do not feel as bad eating the same thing if we are getting protein, even if the protein is coming from processed sources.
I know a lot of women who feel better having animal protein on their plate. And if that works for you, then that is a ok! Personally, I also feel better when I eat some sort of protein at every meal. It is this type of protein, the protein for the sake of adding protein, that concerns me as a consumer. When I walk into the grocery store, it seems every product stamps on its packaging to have MORE protein than before. The claim is that MORE protein means that it is BETTER for your body. This is troubling, especially when the food itself normally does not contain protein. At what point do we say protein Cheerios, enough is enough? Just because a company slaps the protein label on an item does not necessary mean it is better for you. It seems as though every nutrient EXCEPT protein has been demonized at one point or another. In the 1980’s, people feared fat was going to make us fat. And carbs (and the latest take on this, sugar) is easier to turn to fat. We do not know what the effects excessive protein will have on our bodies now.
Keep in mind that Americans already consume nearly 100 grams of protein a day, according to a 2015 analysis, way more than the daily recommendation. Even with this notion, the protein supplement market is booming among the young and healthy, with retail sales of sports nutrition protein powders and other products in the United States alone projected to reach $9 billion by 2020, up from about $6.6 billion in 2015. That is not to say that some people do not benefit from the consumption of excess protein, particularly athletes and the elderly. If I am having a vegan smoothie, I do like to add a scoop of protein powder in. However, the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January, cautioned that some people, especially teenage boys and adult men, should “reduce overall intake of protein foods” and eat more vegetables. While no one knows exactly what the effects of excessive protein consumption will have on the human body, some preliminary studies link excessive protein consumption to a higher risk of kidney disease and cancer.
Most people can consume protein from natural sources. The average female only needs 46 grams of protein a day and 56 grams for men. Of course the levels increase based on your levels of activity, but most people can get the levels of protein they need from consuming a balanced diet. There are about 44 grams of protein in a cup of chopped chicken, 20 grams in a cup of tofu or serving of Greek yogurt, and 18 grams in a cup of lentils or three eggs. Even foods you would not expect to have protein can help contribute to your daily intake. Beans, oats, nuts, and yes, even spinach, along with meat, can help make sure you get the amount of protein you need.
At the end of the day, we need to remember that, even with an increased amount of protein, processed food is processed food. And while I enjoy protein bars and powders, we must keep out a critical eye as consumers. Just because something has MORE protein does not mean it is BETTER for the body. While time will tell what the effects protein will have, we cannot allow ourselves to get overwhelmed with the potential effects “Protein = angel.” “Carbs = devil.” “Food = bad.” Our food chalkboard is getting full, and it’s wiped clean every couple of years as new data makes its rounds in the scientific community. It begs the questions: How much better could our lives be if we lived without these macro equations?