First it was Atkins and the Dukan diet, now many are adopting a Paleo diet which has spawned a new way of eating for thousands of people including many sports people. The similarities with these 3 approaches is a high protein intake. Paleo mirrors our ancestral caveman diet, consisting of meat, berries, seeds, nuts, healthy oils but no dairy, cereal grains, legumes, refined sugars or processed foods. So this supposed modern approach is seemingly not so modern!
Protein these days is the number one choice for those looking to shed a few pounds or bulk up muscle. However, is our recent focus on protein an ideal health food fix, or just another fad? We’ve taken a look into the effect that high protein diets have on the body, to find out whether the world really has gone protein mad.
What is protein?
Alongside carbohydrates and fat, protein is one of the essential nutrients that our bodies need. Proteins have many functions and are often referred to as the “building blocks” of the body, forming collagen in bone and keratin in skin, hair and nails amongst others. Proteins are crucial to our health, they are responsible for making sure many of our body systems are working properly and effectively.
Where do we get protein from?
Protein is found in an incredibly wide and diverse range of foods, and it’s perhaps easiest to break down the nutrient into two source categories; plant-derived, and animal-derived.
As the name suggests, plant-derived proteins come from foods that are sourced from plants, including vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, and cereals. Plant-derived foods are the source of most of the world’s protein, in fact around 60% of the protein we eat is plant-derived.
Animal-derived proteins are found in foods that originate from animals. This of course includes meat, but also any foods produced from animal sourced products; milk, cheese, eggs, butter, and yoghurt are all animal-derived. In North America and Europe, consumption of proteins from animals greatly outnumbers that of proteins from plants.
Alongside these two traditional sources, people are increasingly looking towards “quick fix” sources of protein; namely, protein supplements in the form of powders, shakes, and bars. These supplements – usually made from whey, hemp, casein, or rice – are popular amongst weightlifters and bodybuilders as they allow for a high and concentrated consumption of protein within a short period of time.
Why are high protein diets so popular?
There’s a good reason why protein has become the nutrient of choice for fitness fanatics and fad dieters alike; its connection to our muscles. Protein is essential not only to make sure our muscles function on a basic level, but also for building and repairing them.
It’s for the latter reason that professional athletes have been consuming diets high in the nutrient for years. The daily strain placed on the body of an athlete means that extra attention is required to not just ensure muscles are able to work at peak capacity, but also to increase the rate of muscle repair should injuries happen.
Similar thinking has been employed by bodybuilders, professional or not. Because of the role it plays in building and repairing muscles, an attitude of “more protein = more muscles” has become increasingly popular in recent years.
The high protein diet is also often adopted by those wanting to lose weight, believing that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet will be the key to shifting those excess pounds. Indeed the lack of carbohydrates in the diet results in the body burning more stored fat than carbohydrates for energy use. However, good carbohydrates such as rice, oats, polenta, legumes and millet are full of varying vitamins and minerals and do not lead to weight gain.
The general attitude appears to be that the more protein you have in a diet, the healthier that diet is. But is this true?
Are high protein diets good for us?
Whilst protein is often marketed as a faultless wonder-nutrient, high protein diets could be doing us more harm than good. The truth is, over-consumption of protein is a far more mainstream concern in the first world than under-consumption. In fact, in the UK we eat around 55% more protein a day than the recommended amount, even before taking into account diets specifically aimed at increasing protein intake.
Researchers have even found that the high protein diets common in western countries are correlated to an increased risk of early death. This is because most of the protein consumed in the developed world comes from animal products, meaning that diets high in the nutrient are often also high in saturated fats and salts.
Although many of today’s popular high-protein diets are marketed as weight loss tools, as we’re already eating too much protein, the opposite effect is far more likely. This is especially true in the case of “bulking”, where increasing protein intake without regulating the rest of a diet has been shown to increase not just muscle mass, but fat. This is even more likely if the protein comes from shakes or powders, where the calorie count is often deceptively high, and one portion is often in excess of the recommended daily intake of protein.
If the desire is to lose weight via a high protein diet the drawbacks should be considered. In the long term the high protein vs low carbohydrate levels can cause ketosis with symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, bad breath, constipation, muscle cramps and headaches. If sustained for long enough ketosis can cause further complications such as kidney problems and bone density loss.
However, high protein diets have been found to be beneficial to those over 65, where a higher amount of the nutrient is needed to ensure muscles and organs are working and repairing properly.
How much protein should we be eating?
It’s perhaps a lack of knowledge about the amount of the nutrients we should be eating that leads to protein over-consumption. In the UK, it’s advised that, on average, men should eat around 55g of protein a day, whilst women should eat 45g. That’s around two palm-sized portions of high protein foods, like legumes, fish, meat, or nuts.
The daily allowance of protein can also be measured on individual circumstances, with 0.75g of protein recommended per kg of body weight. This means that the more you weigh, the more protein you should be eating.
The protein we eat should also come from a wide variety of sources, and so it’ a good idea to switch up the foods we eat on a daily basis. This is because, before protein can be used by the body, it needs to be broken down into amino acids, and different foods contain different sets of these. That means if you’re just eating chicken breasts, or gulping down supplements, you won’t be getting all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Just because eating too much protein can have adverse effects, this doesn’t mean that protein is inherently bad. Protein should still be an essential part of a diet, but as always, it’s important to get the right balance. So, unless you’re a professional Olympic weightlifter, stop worrying about protein, and put down that hemp shake.