How the world became obsessed with protein

How the world became obsessed with protein

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In a world full of mystifying diet advice, there’s one nutrient that never seems to go out of fashion. As one of the key building blocks for the human body, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nutrition expert who doesn’t have nice things to say about protein. Coveted by fitness fanatics, our obsession with looking good has thrust protein into the spotlight. Today, it’s a global industry. Head to any gym in the world and you can expect to be confronted with rows of annoyingly beautiful people happily suckling from bottles of strange soupy shakes. For many, it’s taken as gospel that our obsession with protein is a good thing. However, it turns out that our latest nutritional love affair may be slightly more nuanced than it first appears.

drinking a protein shake in a car Credit: Flickr/Cebinc22

Biologically, protein is vital for animals at every level of the food chain. Proteins perform an array of important functions, from fuelling the body’s metabolism to helping construct DNA. However, it is for its properties as a muscle-builder that it has become most highly prized. It’s widely acknowledged that our ancestors’ decision to move away from a plant-based diet was instrumental in our evolution. Plants, though themselves important, lack the calorie-dense nutritional value of meat and its inclusion in the diet of early human-like apes fuelled brain and muscle development. Thanks to meat, we became stronger and we became smarter. Protein provided the spark that helped our predecessors lay the foundations for modern society.

Protein’s status as a dietary essential has been beyond doubt for decades. But, as our understanding of physical health and biology has evolved, we have been better able to harness the many benefits that protein brings. We now know that muscle growth is caused by a process known as protein turnover, during which damaged muscle fibres are broken down and regrown bigger and stronger than before. Fuelling the body with high protein foods helps this process. The correlation between protein consumption and physical power has clearly helped to cement popular positive opinion.  

woman in the gym Flickr/Tigercop2k3

However, one look at the way in which protein is promoted today tells you that our modern obsession goes beyond the simple desire for strength. Protein is advertised on a raft of products that promise everything from weight loss, to weight gain, to improved brain power. It’s now marketed as a miracle silver bullet, helping with an array of disparate physiological ills. Foods that once emphasised other important elements such as fibre and low-fat content now shout about increased levels of protein in an attempt to capitalise on our mania.

Protein shake advert

One notable group that have looked to embrace protein more than anyone else is the dieting community. Many of the most popular fads that have risen and fallen over the years have had an emphasis on protein at their core. Atkins, the Zone and, most recently, Paleo diets all identify the nutrient as a key component. The appeal of approaches like these is as much psychological as physiological. Where most diets demand abstinence, protein-heavy regimes are all about eating more of certain specific, usually quite tasty foods. In particular, advocates point to protein’s ability to help you stay fuller for longer. Never mind how effective a particular approach may actually be - this attitude will always feel much more appealing than being told that you can’t eat any of the things that you most enjoy.

With so much positive feeling around protein, it’s easy to just accept that it’s the answer to everything and think no more on it. However, unfortunately for gym junkies and dieters alike, the issue is not that simple. For one thing, even the most ardent athlete has a limit on the amount of protein that they are able to process. As a general rule, the easiest way to tell how much protein you should include in your diet is to multiply your weight in pounds by 0.35, and convert the result into grams. For instance, a 175-pound man should be eating about 61 grams of protein in a day. When you consider that the average 9-oz steak contains a little over 80 grams, it becomes clear how much more most of us are eating than we should be. While exercise will help you work off some of the excess, we all have an upper limit.

Protein rich foods Credit: Josephiner5 Ray

But so what if we’re eating way too much meat? What’s the worse that can happen? Unfortunately for the health-conscious, any excess protein that the body can’t convert into muscle gets turned into fat. The result is that a protein overload during a health kick can inadvertently cause weight gain, especially if you aren’t exercising as much as you should be. While many more casual gym-goers are drinking protein shakes and other supplements for the supposed health benefits, they may inadvertently be doing more harm than good.

There are other, more insidious consequences to our obsession. Thanks to our devotion to protein, the nutrient has ended up on an untouchable pedestal, with many consumers prioritising it above all else. The result is that foods with high levels of protein are seen as good, while those with less are cut out. This relatively new phenomenon, known by some as protorexia, is causing people to ignore entire essential food groups, such as fruit and veg, all because of their limited protein content.

bowl of vegetables Credit: Flickr/Ahmadpi

While protein is and always will be an essential part of a healthy diet, it’s clear that our enthusiasm needs to be tempered. For all the benefits that have helped protein to conquer the world, we should all be wary of placing too much emphasis on one particular part of our diet. For many, protein has now become a byword for health. Though it may not be anywhere near as bad as most things that many people eat today, it seems as though our obsession may well have inadvertently turned into an addiction.