The first time someone told me that I needed more protein was from my mom. I had just come back from a weekend trip in college and was visiting my family for the holidays. My mom took one look at my hair and asked, “Are you eating enough protein? Maybe you should have some fish.”
To be fair to my mom, I probably was not getting enough protein or calories at the time. Like all trips you take in your late teens and early twenties, I was subsisting on a diet that would not be considered balanced. In this case, my team and I ate nothing but granola bars and Subway sandwiches. And because I was a pescatarian and store bought tuna salad (which is basically half mayo) FREAKS me out, my only option was the veggie delight sub with the sweet onion sauce. As you can tell, this probably has zero protein.
But you cannot say I did not get my veggies in.
After that trip, my parents and others around me asked if I was getting enough protein on a pescatarian diet. At the time, I was irritated from all the questioning. I grew up eating meat, but since becoming a pescatarian, I believed I was making the right nutritional steps. After all, these girls were thin, strong, and happy. And by repeating their actions, I could be like them too!
I knew from reading a lot of blogs (you know, the ultimate source for knowledge as a 19 year old) that women only needed 40 grams of protein. I was definitely getting that much, so there was no way I was protein deficient. Why was everyone harassing me that I needed to eat meat? The texture of meat turned my stomach. There was no way I was going to touch any chicken or beef at this point, but I knew I could get enough protein from non-meat sources.
Determined to set everyone straight, I decided to eat as much protein as possible. And I would do it on my terms, without eating meat. At the time, it was a sign of personal pride. How we eat and what we eat is, in many ways, a reflection of who we are. Even though I was clearly malnourished, I was sick of people putting down the way I ate. If I showed everyone I was eating enough protein without eating meet, then everyone would see I was healthy and stop nagging me about my dietary choices. I downloaded MyFitnessPal, telling my mom that I would send her my meal plan every day. I started logging all of the recipes I created, diligently documenting every ounce of parmesan cheese, every cup of lettuce, and even the mints at the hostess stand. While I at first only got about 50 grams, I was determined to make sure I hit at least 100. After all, that is what all the blogs said active women need!
My desire to get enough protein soon turned into an obsession. Obviously, any refined carbs, be it rice, pasta, or bread, were totally off limits, but the obsession to limit carbs and fats got more extreme.I would go through cartons of egg whites every week without even thinking of buying whole eggs. I would refuse to eat apples or bananas because I was worried the carbs in the fruit would throw my macros off. When a friend would invite me to go out for cupcakes or dessert, I would say I did not feel good or was too busy (despite my intense cravings for them). Any candy was sucked on for two seconds before I would spit it into the garbage can. I would eat two Quest Bars and a half a cup of cottage cheese for dessert because, that way, I would hit my final daily goal of 130 grams of protein, which was definitely the right amount I needed to ensure everyone I had enough protein.
Looking back on it, everything I did to accomplish my “macro goal” seems backwards. I am surprised I had the stamina to do that for over a year. My addiction to counting macros and documenting every single thing I ate wasted so much of my time. I would have panic attacks if I did not write down the meal before I started eating. I missed out on dinners with friends and birthdays. And even after eating all of that protein, my hair was still thin and brittle. In addition, I was so overly bloated and nauseous, presumably from eating a lot of synthetic protein powders and bars with a ton of added sugar alcohols. After talking to a dietician, I realized that eating 55% of my daily calories from protein was throwing my body completely out of wack. She decided to feel my body more carbs, energy that my body was desperately craving, and up my calorie intake overall. Personally, after lowering the grams of protein I was consuming, I felt a ton better.
Look, I am not saying that protein is not important. Nor am I saying you should not care about protein and its effects on the body, or that my diet was a miracle cure for all your ills. I always make sure I have a protein source in every meal or snack I eat. I find it keeps me satiated and prevents me from binging on sugar later in the day. However, we need a balance of carbs, protein, and fat. We can’t focus on one nutrient as the answer to gaining muscle, losing weight, and getting fit. At the current state of our food system, our obsession with protein has gotten out of control. Like low fat was in the 80’s, high protein has been toted as the new “health trend” Just look at all of the products that SHOULD not contain protein but do. Yesterday, I saw high protein ice cream, high protein chocolate, and high protein cereal. A lot of these foods contain whey protein, hemp protein, or pea protein powders, all of which are highly processed. Nutrients alone are not the answer.
What I am saying is we really need to think about the QUALITY and BALANCE of protein we consume, in relation to the other things we are eating. Protein alone will not shift the trend away from obesity. After all, Americans consume twice the amount of protein the human body requires, yet we still have the highest obesity rates among first world countries. A 2015 study recommended that men and boys reduce their overall intake of protein foods and eat more vegetables. We need to shift our focus of what will make us healthier from these “miracle” nutrients to real, wholesome food. The average adult can very easily consume the recommended amount of protein without the help of dietary supplements and protein enriched food. Chopped chicken has 44 grams per cup, tofu has 22, and three eggs or a cup of lentils have 18. Adult men are recommended to consume 56 grams of protein. Women only need 46 grams.
We also need to think about the effects this excess of protein can have on our bodies. The human body can only absorb so much protein every day. If you consume 50 grams of protein at a meal, for example, the human body will only be able to absorb 20-30 grams of it. That excess protein floating in our bodies, according to the National Kidney Association, could have potentially dangerous consequences for our kidneys. Meanwhile, if you choose to eat high protein foods, you might be robbing your body of other nutrients it needs.
Protein is beneficial, but it is not a miracle nutrient. And to become obsessive over it defeats the purpose of maintaining a balanced, healthy relationship with food.By consuming a varied diet of fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, beans, and seeds, we can hit all of our macros while still maintaining high levels of the often overlooked micronutrients. We can be less neurotic about eating not enough protein/eating too much fat. And, not only that, but because our bodies know how to process whole foods, we feel better about ourselves.