When Did We Get So Obsessed with Protein?
From the supermarket aisles to your Instagram feed, protein is hard to ignore. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?
“How do you get your protein?” is a question I’m used to hearing. As a lifelong vegetarian, it’s the one thing people want to know after they’ve cross examined me about whether I’ve actually never eaten mean (no, not even a bacon sandwich). My parents hippy approach to child-rearing meant I ate pretty healthily growing up and protein consumption wasn’t something on my radar. Fast forward to 2019 and protein is hard to ignore. From the endless array of protein-rich snacks at the supermarket to protein shakes on Instagram and salad bars offering ‘add protein’ at every meal, it seems we can’t escape the protein hype.
While high-protein diets were once reserved for Olympic athletes or bodybuilders, protein has become the nutrition claim du jour. Sainsbury’s online site currently stocks 223 products with protein claims. There’s protein bagels, protein noodles and even protein ice cream. Similarly, items that are naturally high in protein – such as yoghurt or cheese – are being rebranded to tout their protein appeal.
Protein mania is undeniable but how did this food group steal the spotlight? Firstly, a quick GCSE Biology refresher. Protein is one of the three macronutrients (in other words, an essential food group), needed by the body along with carbohydrates and fats. These long chains of amino acids are often likened to the ‘building blocks of our body’ and play an essential role in a plethora of biological processes, in particular with building strength and assisting repair. Recommendations for daily protein intake vary but in terms of grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight it varies from 0.6g (British Nutrition Foundation) to 0.8g (Dietary Reference Intake).
As Ian Marber, nutrition therapist and founder of #nutribollocks (a weekly Twitter poll that calls out fake nutrition news), highlights: “food trends pendulum and protein is currently having its moment in the sun.” The faddy fat-free diets popular in the 80s and 90s eventually came under fire as we realised that low-fat alternatives were pumped with sugar. Similarly, as sugar has come into question over the last decade, carbohydrates have taken a bashing. “Protein has a clean rep. While there’s controversy to fat and carbs, protein is the easiest food group to understand. There’s no good or bad protein, it’s just amino acids or not,” Marber comments.
Subsequently, plans like the Dukan diet (a high-protein, low-carb plan) or Paleo lifestyle (commonly known as the caveman diet) have grown in popularity. Pinterest, now one of the biggest online sources for recipes, named the Pegan diet (a mix between Paleo and vegan) as one of its biggest trends for 2019.
Protein-based powders and supplements are on the up with Mintel reporting a 27% two year increase within the sports nutrition market. The category has had a rebrand with businesses vying to take a chunk out of $4.2 trillion global wellness market. Protein powders are no longer reserved for those serious about weight training but marketed at anyone with an active lifestyle. UK chain Holland and Barrett currently has 414 items in its protein category while on Instagram there’s 2.3 million posts with the hashtag. Direct-to-consumer protein brands use aggressive influencer marketing campaigns, targeted adverts and lucrative intro offers to tempt new customers to purchase supplements via the platform. However, Marber is keen to highlight that protein supplementation is rarely necessary. “Protein requirements vary based on your sex, age and exercise regime but with a healthy diet, 99% of people don’t need additional protein.”
Marber is keen to caveat there’s no huge danger with eating too much protein, unless you have an ongoing health condition that states otherwise. However, a protein dominated diet can be lacking in other nutrients. “Protein’s channel to energy use is slow making it filling. If you fill up on protein you miss out on the nutrients and fibre offered by vegetables, fruit and complex carbohydrates,” Marber explains.
Beyond this, prioritising one food group over another can be problematic. When I speak with Pandora Paloma, an Intuitive Eating Coach, she explains that thinking this way takes us further from listening to our bodies and feeding it what it needs. “Research has shown that diets that restrict certain food groups can create a desire or increases our focus on such food. When we feel restricted we can then have a tendency to overeat on the food we have restricted.” Additionally, she warns against the negative mental health benefits of counting macros (i.e. meticulously calculating protein, carbohydrates and fats). “It can lead us to obsessing over foods or creating an obsession with being ‘healthy’. This is a condition called orthorexia and something I am seeing more and more in my practise.”
As always, a balanced approach is the healthiest. “We like black and white solutions to topics that are very nuanced. However, there is no one answer, just a balanced diet,” Marber preaches. “All food groups play a role and the best possible food group is a combination of them all.” After all, there is no magic panacea when it comes to health and protein is merely one part of the puzzle.