5 reasons you don’t need all that protein

No benefit from excess protein (photo by soyculto via Flickr)

Do you think Protein = Nutrition?  You aren’t alone.  Judging from the ads, headlines, food labels and internet hype, all you need is protein.  Website images clearly imply that protein makes you thin and muscular.  Eat more protein; get a Sixpack.  Protein doesn’t just have a Health Halo.  We think it equals Health.  I’m here to tell you this is all false marketing hype.

What’s this fixation all about?  Most people associate protein with meat or dairy.  These are expensive foods.  So it starts to look like the protein fixation reflects a rather elitist attitude: expensive animal-source foods mean wealth and prestige, so the more you eat of those foods the better.   Cheap plant foods are frequently described as dreaded undesirable carbohydrates or starch.  Yuck.

We use protein for muscle repair, maintenance of organs like the liver and digestive tract, and to create enzymes, cells and other metabolic products. How much do you need?  Do the math: normally active healthy people need about 0.8 grams protein per kg of weight, or 0.36 grams per pound.  And when you do that calculation, use Ideal Body Weight, not actual, in case you’re overweight or obese.  Being overfat does not increase your protein requirement.   You’ll likely find that your daily requirement to meet all those metabolic needs is quite modest, in the vicinity of 50-60 grams/day.  Most people in developed countries get far more.  In the US it’s up to twice as much.  What does all that excess protein do?  Make more muscle?  Make you thinner?  No.

  1. Excess protein is metabolized into sugar.  Yes, sugar.  Glucose.  It’s burned for energy, just like actual sugar or starch.
  2. If you don’t burn that extra sugar from protein for energy, it’s turned into FAT.
  3. Protein production is environmentally expensive.  Animal agriculture requires vast inputs of petroleum-based energy and water resources.
  4. High protein intake leads to high levels of metabolism by-products, some of which can increase risk for gout.  Ever wonder why there are so many new ads for gout medications in the media lately?
  5. Over-eating animal protein means you aren’t eating enough high fiber and highly nutritious plant foods.  Your diet becomes one-sided.

Eating excess environmentally expensive protein based on the idea that it’s an energy food is just wrong.  The metabolic process that turns protein into carbohydrate, which is then burned for energy, is a terrible waste of resources.  Protein isn’t going to give you energy or make you thin.  Over-eating protein doesn’t make you healthier.

What’s enough?  Here’s a sample of one day’s worth of high protein foods that provides more than 60 grams, considering that other foods (like bread, vegetables, grains) also contain some protein:

  • 1 cup milk or yoghurt
  • 1 egg
  • 4 oz chicken (typical boneless chicken breasts are larger than this)
  • 2 Tb peanut butter
  • 1 cup cooked beans

Do you need protein bars or protein shakes?  Not if you eat other high protein foods at meals and snacks.  The only possible reason to buy those is to use them as a meal replacement.  Adding them to a diet that already has enough protein is not going to give you any health advantage.  Not going to magically create muscle, decrease fat or give you energy you couldn’t get far more efficiently from carbohydrates.

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