Our Protein Obsession Is Getting Out of Control

If there’s one word in modern diet parlance that immediately draws a bridge with leanness, energy, and high performance, it's protein. We're having a wild love affair with it.

|
Jun 24 2014, 12:05pm

Image via Flickr user stefanpinto

The prevailing message from health experts regarding our diets is one of balance. Eat as many vegetables as you can, some fruit, a mixture of fat, carbohydrates, and protein, and your body should tick over nicely. But despite the constant encouragement, the message never seems to compute. When it comes to eating, we Westerners have to cling to an absolute. An all-or-nothing, balls-out ideology. Balance isn't enough.

These days food is polarized, divided into enemies and saviors. Fat used to be the enemy. Then it was—and still is—carbs. Now it's the dreaded sugar. But in the vast ocean of negatives surrounding our diet, there is a seemingly gleaming oasis: Protein.

If there's one word in modern diet parlance that immediately draws a bridge with leanness, energy, and high performance, it's protein. And we're having a wild, frenzied affair with it. Food marketers are responding and have gone protein bonkers—the proof is, quite literally, in the pudding (and energy balls, crisps, even cereal).

Companies once proudly displayed "Zero Fat" and "Low Carb" labels on their food packaging. Now, phrases like "High Protein" or "Double the Protein as Regular Yogurt" are abound. To whit, Cheerios has had to create a new "protein" variation to try and claw back the attention of all the egg-quaffing protein disciples. It boasts 11g of protein—created by lentils and soy—per bowl when served with milk. Forget the corn syrup, guys, and boost your protein levels with lentil cereal!

Cereal was once a stalwart of the breakfast table. Cornflakes were as much a national treasure here in the UK as Judi Dench. Supermarkets dedicated aisles as long as the packets' lists of added vitamins, and we scooped up family-size boxes in abundance. Not anymore.

Western diet consciousness is shifting because it has to. Highly processed foods and products overflowing with sugar are, without question, building blocks for obesity. Two thirds of the population in the UK are overweight and government crackdowns on sugar consumption can't come too soon. This is all great. But it feels like we've becoming lemmings to diet buzzwords: "Gluten-free," "dairy free," and now, "high protein."

Protein—the stuff that most life-giving enzymes are made up of—has a handsome arsenal of nutritional perks. Eating adequate amounts can help maintain muscle mass (which helps when trying to lose weight), keep you fuller for longer, and improve energy levels. But are we going overboard with this increased emphasis on protein as some sort of miracle nutrient? Is stuffing ourselves to the gills with chicken breasts actually doing us good?

As carbs are increasingly scoffed at—bread is the enemy, lest we forget—we pursue its opposite number. Many of today's doctrines of health champion protein unequivocally. Grubby things like bread and pasta provide little in the way of pec-sculpting. Limiting such things is probably wise to an extent, but, as with most diet-related things, we've progressed to a stage of mindless preoccupation.

Government guidelines suggest around 55 grams of protein a day for adults between 19-50, dependent on age and weight. So if you eat a yogurt for breakfast, a chicken salad at lunch, and a meat-based curry for dinner, you've skirted well beyond the government recommendation.

The old 'balanced diet' pyramid has now become a sort of diamond, and Lisa Blair, a consultant at London's Food Doctor Clinic, is happy. To a point.

"I'm not a massive fan of the government's view on what constitutes a healthy diet. The 'EatWell' plate model places far too much emphasis on starchy carbs, and not enough on protein and the good fats," she says. "I positively encourage people to think about the amount of protein that they eat, ensuring that they focus on lean sources of animal protein and plenty of vegetable protein. I'm not talking giant white egg omelettes or protein powders—just a sensible amount of protein and good fats to balance out the starchy carbs."

However primal our diets are becoming—shout out to all the cavemen and paleo-ers out there—at least our growing love for protein isn't entirely farcical, then. It does keep you fuller longer (just like that desk-friendly Marks & Spencer range) and it does help keep our muscles hard and juicy. But there's something about the word that has people—men in particular—giddily buying eggs by the carton-load. Listen to any conversation between 20-something men and I guarantee they'll get to their protein intake within minutes. They talk egg whites over their new Nikes.

"Men can get a bit OTT and obsessive about it," Blair says.

Another nutritionist I spoke to, Jo Travers of The London Nutritionist, thinks many have already hit craze stage. However, she does think this current obsession with protein will pass. "I think it's a fad," she says. "Relying on one nutrient for most of your calorie intake is not healthy. I see a lot of people who are seriously anti-carbs, but mainly for weight management reasons. I've also seen people who used too many protein shakes because they thought it would help them bulk up but they ended up putting on weight."

Harvard School of Public Health sets a wide range for an acceptable amount—anywhere from ten to 35 percent of calories each day. But with a switch in emphasis, some of us are taking it to the extreme and loading our trolleys to the hilt with multipack chicken breasts. As Blair points out, "giant egg white omelettes and protein powders," probably aren't what the premise had in mind. At least not for those who aren't deadlifting twice their bodyweight in the gym five days a week.

I'm a man, or perhaps a boy, of 24. And while I don't indulge in shakes or follow a stringent no-carb policy, I definitely eat a lot more protein than is recommended by most. Pizza is not quite such a frequent occurrence these days. I wouldn't touch the new Cheerios (it's the lentil thing), but breakfast may well be a large helping of protein-rich fromage frais covered in almonds. I eat it thinking of my immediate future, where a fish dinner almost certainly awaits. I have, admittedly, been caught up in the wave of tuna steaks and kidney beans.

In city offices and estate agents across the countries, your run-of-the-mill bloke might have once upon a time tucked into a club sandwich at lunch. Now it's all quinoa and lean turkey breast. But if offices are churches of protein, the gym is its cathedral. In my own gym I see and hear people who'd be appalled at my breakfast-time inclusions of honey, who'd run away screaming at the bowls of noodles I enjoy on occasion.

I know one guy, a really lovely bloke, who maintains a diet of 1,500 calories a day, of which half is formed of supplement drinks. Now, I might be taking this protein bull by its horns, but to imagine half my daily calories coming from a powdery protein drink makes me balk. I'd be thoroughly dejected at a lack of actuality—things that taste of the warm familiarity of dinnertime and satisfaction. That said, his body is like an Adonis. Or, as much as I'm loathe to say it, Ryan Gosling.

This obsession with protein and our escalating fixation on chiselled abs are, of course, interconnected. As Edward Barrett-Shortt, editor of GymMagazine, says,"Protein is required in the repair and development of muscle mass." However, he also notes that our mothers were right when they told us that "everything is okay in moderation. That goes for nutrition, too, and a diet should be looked at more widely than an individual macronutrient, i.e. protein or carbs or fat."

The necessity to increase protein consumption when training is indisputable. But as everyday life shows, our infatuation stretches outside the sweaty walls of the gymnasium. Most of us aren't training for the Olympics.

We're living in a world where even bread—bread!—has been given a protein makeover. We remain seduced by the amino acid's promise of leanness, but our fixation is unsustainable. Protein is expensive on every level, not to mention the fact that we have a shifting agricultural landscape. Also, our enthusiasm is so often centred on animals, and pretty soon even the non-crazed meat eaters among us are going to have to look to alternative protein sources, not just those who get through the equivalent of a barnful of chickens every week.

Who knows when the tipping point will come, though. Even though brands as monolithic as Coca-Cola are now bowing to health trends, the protein wagon shows no sign of slowing.

And it doesn't look like we're getting any thinner.