As fitness and healthy living has become a priority for more and more of us, has been hailed as a secret weapon for building lean muscle and avoiding snacking. Just think of the snaps of bowls of chicken breasts and kale and lithe so-called fitness gurus clutching bottles of protein shakes on Instagram.
This trend has caused a spike in products labelled as packed with the nutrient. Since 2015, there has been a 63 per cent spike in the sale of protein bars, according to trends analyst Nielsen, and a 40 per cent rise in high-protein products in 2016, data collected by Mintel shows.
And as the growing numbers of and vegetarians can attest, meat-eaters seems to become experts on protein intake at the first mention of a plant-based diet.
So, is this obsession with strings of amino acids warranted? And how much protein should we really be eating?
The exercise it takes to burn off high-calorie foods – in pictures The exercise it takes to burn off high-calorie foods – in pictures
Protein is vital for repairing and growing muscle and maintaining cells – all important for gym bods and norms alike. A less sexy-sounding but as important function of proteins is producing hormones and enzymes, and ensuring our immune systems are strong enough to fight off disease.
But the shift towards everything from biscuits to cereal being labelled “high protein” is a “gimmick”, Kate Harrod-Wild, a dietitian and a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, tells The Independent.
“I find the biggest misconception people have around protein is they think you need loads of it and they are not getting it. Both are complete myths. Another misconception is that protein is good and carbs are bad,” chimes Alison Clark a dietitian and BDA spokesperson.
According to Public Health England, men aged between 19 and 64-years-old need 55.5g protein while women require 45g on average. As the average person needs to eat 0.8kg of their bodyweight in protein each day, they can work this out by multiplying their bodyweight in kilos by 0.8.
To put that into perspective, 100g of chicken, tuna or salmon contain 25g protein, compared with 130g mixed nuts, 200g tofu, 250g of greek yogurt and cottage cheese, or four eggs. 25g of protein can also be found in five tablespoons of peanut butter, three cups of quinoa, soy milk or two cups of cooked beans or lentils.
Although food marketers might have you believe otherwise, most of us are actually more likely to overload on protein than be deficient in it.
“As macro and micronutrient deficiencies can occur if the balance is skewed one way to excessive macronutrient like protein,” says Clark. And just like carbohydrates and fats, excess protein will be stored as body fat. One 2012 study should that people overeating on high-protein diets gained the same amount of fat as people on low-protein, high-fat diets, but also built muscle.
Not eating enough protein is not the issue that many people trip up, but the time that they consume it.
“It’s best to spread protein intake over the day,” advises Clark. “Most popular option is some at lunch and dinner. A lot of people unwittingly ‘load up’ on protein in the evening meal. If this is more than the amount your body actually needs to heal, repair or grow muscle it is going to end up in your urine and down the loo. So you have very expensive urine.”
As for vegetarians, eggs, cheese and milk offer good sources of protein, says Harrod-Wild, but vegans should be more vigilant of their diets.
“Meat sources of protein are known as High Biological Value (HBV) protein, because they contain all the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) that are needed by the body,” she explains. “Vegetable sources contain Low Biological Value (LBV) sources of protein, which means they are missing some of the amino acids. This means that vegans (and to a lesser extent vegetarians) need to make sure they get their protein from different sources (for example pulses, grains, soya etc) to make sure they still eat all the amino acids within their total diet.”
But where veggies have the edge is the lack of processed red meats in their diets – including ham and corned beef – which should be cut out where possible due to their link with bowel cancer, while red meat alone should be reduced to 500g per week owing to the same risks.
Still, fitness fanatics are right to claim that protein can aid weight loss as it is more satisfying than, say, refined carbohydrates like white bread, which the body burns off quicker. But experts stress that focusing one’s attention simply on any one nutrient, be that by packing our plates with proteins, fats or carbs, is the biggest nutritional mistake a person can make.
“Healthy eating means eating a wide variety of nutrient dense foods including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, in the right proportions to achieve and maintain a healthy balanced weight,” says dietitian Catherine Rabess.
Her ten tips for healthy eating including aiming for three meals a day to stave off snacking; eating a minimum of five portions of fruit and veg a day; and opting for lentils and fish over processed and red meats. Carbohydrates are also a vital part of a balanced diet, she adds, more specifically those high in whole grains like brown bread and brown rice. Limiting sugary foods; opting for lower fat dairy products (that aren’t topped up with flavourings and refined carbohydrates); limiting salt to 6g a day; cutting alcohol to two days a week; and packing the diet with food high in monosaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats – like avocado, olive oil, nuts, oily fish, and seeds – are also important to remember.
“There are many people who want to make healthy eating complicated,” adds Clark, “but the simple truth is that eating a variety of foods, trying to ensure that you don’t fill up on high fat and sugar snack foods and drinks is usually the recipe that most people need.”