Why everything you think you know about protein is wrong

Charlotte Lytton
The average adult needs 0.75g of protein daily per kilo they weigh - and most of us eat too much - This content is subject to copyright.

Bars, bagels, sparkling water, spread: protein is everywhere, but not as you know it. What was once considered a staple component of chicken, fish and eggs has become the healthy eating marketer’s holy grail.

From bags of nuts to sacks of potatoes, run of the mill groceries now come with a ‘high protein’ sticker - in spite of there being no change to the ingredients than before; others see additional amounts inserted artificially, into cereals, chocolate bars and breads, and ever-expanding ranges on supermarket shelves feature products from shakes to protein power balls specifically designed to pack in an extra hit.

With the promise of assisting weight loss and building muscle, our obsession to capitalise on this health ‘saviour’ food group means that consumption now far exceeds demand.

The average adult needs 0.75g of protein daily per kilo they weigh; someone weighing 70kg, or 11 stone, should thus be eating 52.5g each day – equivalent to a large bowl of oats, three eggs and a chicken breast. Yet the current average rate of consumption in the UK among 19-64 year olds each day is now 72g – some 39 per cent more than a 70kg person needs.

Alongside fat and carbohydrates, protein is one of the three macronutrients our bodies require in relatively large amounts. It is “vital to the crucial and ongoing building, strengthening and repairing of muscle, bone, skin, hair and major organs, as well as being an essential component of enzymes, hormones and antibodies,” explains James Collins, a sports nutritionist and author of The Energy Plan.

Proteins are amino acids, many of which are produced naturally by the body, but nine essential ones are not, and so must be taken from food.

Of those, there are complete proteins: things like meat and fish, cheese and quinoa, and incomplete ones – like nuts and pulses which require being combined (i.e. baked beans on wholegrain toast) in order for the full benefits to be realised.

But our appetite for the stuff has now skyrocketed: some half of all UK consumers now seek to add ‘extra protein’ to their diets, according to Weetabix – who offer a protein-enhanced version of their cereal, which costs an additional 50p per box – while the number of products with a ‘high protein’ claim on their branding shot up by 498 per cent between 2010-2015, according to Mintel research. Already, at Holland & Barrett, there has been a 15 per cent increase in sales of protein products sold in the first half of this financial year compared to the last. 

So why is this happening, and how much is too much?

In a world where “muscly is the new skinny,” explains dietitian Sophie Medlin, “protein has become the least feared macronutrient.” It’s not just bodybuilders looking to bulk who have fallen for its charms, though: low carbohydrate diets such as Keto and Paleo, which largely consist of high fat, high protein foods, have also driven this newfound affection – as has its being popularised by bread and pasta-shunning celebrities and magazines.

People’s “trust” in protein not causing weight gain is “a byproduct of the misconception that carbs make us fat,” she adds. “It is really important to remember that carbs and protein have exactly the same amount of calories per gram (4kcal). This means that they have the same impact on our energy intake.” 

When it comes to diets, misinformation – particularly the kind that can be lucrative for the companies behind it – is common, says David L. Katz, a doctor and author of The Truth About Food. Where “most people know that if something sounds too good to be true, it is,” this logic fails to apply to food, he says – a realm in which we are “perennial nincompoops”; where “we always seem to need a scapegoat, and we always seem to need a silver bullet. At the moment, protein is the silver bullet.”

Some of this is driven by sites such as Instagram, Medlin adds, which is “terrifying” – particularly for those younger and potentially more easily swayed – “when we look at the recent evidence that social media influencers dish out false nutrition claims 90 per cent of the time… Online nutrition is heavily polarised and tribal.” She suggests the creation of a specific verification symbol for registered healthcare professionals, who are legally accountable for the advice they give out online – a way of combatting the self-professed ‘plant-based doctors’ and ‘low carb doctors’ that have gained an enormous digital following. “In reality, a healthy, balanced diet contains all food groups in moderation.

“Unfortunately, moderation is a message that doesn’t sell books or gain headlines,” Medlin says. There are plenty of people for whom pre-internet ‘wisdom’ prevails, however, with the likes of the Atkins diet popularising protein-high, low-carb diets since the early Seventies. For some, this attitude works – weight loss-wise, at least – yet the effects of eating too much can be injurious.

A protein overload can put added pressure on the kidneys, which are responsible for breaking down the excess – particularly damaging for those with pre-existing conditions. Studies show that eating lots of red meat and full-fat dairy, which diets like Keto and Paleo espouse, are associated with higher risk of health issues such as cancer and heart disease, while Finnish research found that men who ate an average of 109g of protein each day were 33 per cent more likely to have heart failure than those who ate 78g. There is also the problem of going far beyond caloric needs in the mistaken belief that, because protein is good for us, there is no such thing as too much. 

The notion that “the more you eat, the better” is a “critical fallacy” Katz explains, as people fail to realise that eating too much of anything – protein included – sees “those calories turn into body fat just the same as calories from any other source.” People are wrongly convinced, he adds, that when extra calories come from protein, “they turn to muscle. That’s completely false. Calories you don’t need are stored, and there are only two ways to store calories: glycogen (our carbohydrate store) or fat.”

The promise of more muscle has become big business for the protein-pushers. But shovelling down endless shakes or bars does not not work – the only way to bulk is through exercise. The average protein bar weighs 60g – of which 20g is protein – and costs around £2.50; large pots of whey or vegan powder to be blended into smoothies are usually between £20-£35 for a 500g pot, which contains around 15 20g protein servings. A 2010 study by the European Food Safety Authority found claims purporting that whey protein boosted muscle mass in the general population were unfounded.

“Using ‘protein’ as a marketing term for a highly processed food so that consumers think it is healthy is misleading and irresponsible,” Medlin explains. “Instead of protein shakes which are highly processed, a yogurt would be far preferable.” The best high protein diet of all, she adds, is merely “one that increases plant based proteins like pulses.”

For building muscle, it is more of a case of when – as opposed to how much – protein is consumed that can really make a difference. Collins says that eating good sources of it within 24 hours of resistance training, such as lifting weights, has notable effects, while one study found that spreading protein doses throughout the day, rather than in one large meal, can serve our bodies best. And while it is often young, hard-bodied types who obsess over getting enough, it is in fact older people who have the greatest need to stay on top of their protein consumption, as muscle mass diminishes with age.

As the vegan dawn spreads apace, the focus on the environmental impact of what we’re eating has become more acute, too.

“There’s a jarring mismatch between the prevailing definition of protein quality,” says Katz, who co-authored The Public Health Case for Modernising the Definition of Protein Quality in the journal Advances in Nutrition earlier this month. He proposes that we start considering ‘quality’ protein not in terms of foods with the largest amount of it, but those that “contribute to better health, and to the environment.”

Our protein obsession remains “at odds with everything we know about health [and] everything we know about the planet,” Katz adds. Whether that message will filter through to the shake-swigging masses, though, remains to be seen.