Many dieters believe protein will help you lose weight – but the truth is, there's a catch.
As one of the key building blocks for the human body, you’d struggle to find a nutritionist without 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.
Just head to any gym and you can expect rows of annoyingly beautiful people happily suckling strange bottles of soupy shakes.
However, it turns out that our latest nutritional love affair may be slightly more nuanced than it first appears.
Why is protein important?
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. 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.
Does protein help you lose weight?
Protein can help you lose weight and is hugely popular with the dieting community – when consumed correctly.
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, tasty foods.
In particular, advocates point to protein’s ability to help you stay fuller for longer. 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.
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. 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's clear most of us are eating more than we should be.
While exercise will help you work off some of the excess, we all have an upper limit.
Is too much protein bad for you?
The body turns excess protein into fat.
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 drink protein shakes for health benefits, they may 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.
Experts call this relatively new phenomenon protorexia. Unfortunately, it can cause people to ignore entire essential food group all because of their limited protein content.
What are the benefits of protein?
Protein’s status as a dietary essential has been beyond doubt for decades. But, as our understanding of physical health has evolved, we have been better able to harness the many benefits protein brings.
We now know that muscle growth is caused by a process known as protein turnover. During this process, 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.
Read More: Is cheese actually addictive?
However, one look at the way in which protein is promoted today reveals our 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 now shout about increased levels of protein to capitalise on our mania.
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.
Unfortunately, it seems our obsession may have inadvertently turned into an addiction.