In 2017, the media around the world broke the sad news about the death of Australian bodybuilder Megan Heiford, at the age of only 25, after consuming large amounts of protein drink and nutritional supplements. The player took one of those products that can be easily noticed today on the shelves of supermarkets, such as protein balls, protein bars, protein powder, and other foods whose packaging bears the word that has recently become magic, and it became a sufficient reason for consumers to purchase any product.
Immediately, advocates of high-protein diets quickly cleared him of causing the player’s death, saying that she was suffering from a condition called urea cycle disorder, and that her body could not break down proteins and amino acids and build them according to its needs, and that she did not realize that she was suffering from this condition. Rare disease, this was a correct interpretation, there is a small percentage of people can not follow a diet rich in protein, as it may damage kidney function. (1)
Protein was not the direct cause then, and such products continued to proliferate and present in new forms. Today protein pasta, protein bread, protein water, and even foods that are already high in protein, such as cheese and yoghurt, are sold in protein-fortified packages. . Keeping track of these products in the markets and gyms tells us how we live today in what can be considered the “age of protein obsession.” These molecules surround any food we eat today with an aura of health and benefit. Is protein really the new elixir of life? Or is it an exaggeration?
More eggs and Greek yogurt
It does not seem completely strange, in fact, protein is one of the essential nutrients along with fats and carbohydrates, and it can be said that it is the most important, we can live without carbohydrates, but fats and proteins are essential and indispensable, and protein is the only one among the essential nutrients that contains nitrogen It is the element without which we cannot grow or reproduce. (2)
The word protein is derived from the Greek word “Protos” which means “of paramount importance.” It was named not only for its centrality in the ancient Greek diet, but also for its importance in the formation of the human body, as the amino acids that make up protein are the basic building blocks of human tissues. Which make up hair, nails, bones and muscles, and without their presence the immune system in our bodies is damaged, especially at an early age. A child whose food lacks protein in the first five years of his life suffers later from stunting and wasting. (3)
Our bodies don’t need that much
Well, it’s not surprising that we look for protein then, but the major concern about it is that the average person in developed countries actually consumes more protein than they need in their diet, even though official dietary guidelines in the US and UK consider a healthy diet to be what they need. It relies on a lot of carbohydrates and limited amounts of fat, especially saturated fat, and recommends only eating 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight of protein per day, which means that a person weighing 70 kilograms, for example, would need to eat 56 grams of protein in normal conditions, regardless About athletes whose bodies need a higher proportion of protein to build muscle, and the elderly, who in turn require greater proportions to compensate for the natural muscle loss. (4) (5)
But data issued in 2015 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations confirm that the average person in the United States and Canada gets 90 grams of protein per day, while the average European eats 85 grams, and the average Chinese consumes 75 grams (6), figures that far exceed the needs daily for a normal person.
World Health Organization data also indicates that Americans eat more than twice the amount of protein recommended in a healthy diet, and 30% of adults in Spain exceed the recommended amount, and in Canada market research shows that egg consumption has reached its highest level since the 1980s, and sales of yogurt have doubled Greece over the past decade only.
Why all this protein obsession?
This contemporary obsession with eating protein can be understood in the history of diet battles that go back half a century. The reason seems to be that other nutrients – fats and carbohydrates – were subjected to so much “skepticism” during those wars that they seemed to be more harmful in people’s minds.
During the constant human search for a safe nutrient that can be consumed in unlimited quantities without health problems, protein suddenly appeared to us as a magic solution.
Garth Davis, a bariatric surgeon, tells the story of an overweight patient who visited his Houston clinic. She was originally from Ghana, where sweet potatoes are a component of their traditional meals. The patient was not eating potatoes, but she told him that she was afraid that carbohydrates would cause her to gain weight, and that her diet consisted of eggs for breakfast daily, a salad with chicken at lunch, a light protein shake during the day, and then a slice of grilled chicken breast for dinner, And here Davis wondered about those carbohydrates that cause her to gain weight!
In fact, eating protein may lead to more calories, as foods rich in protein do not take up much space in the stomach, and therefore we need more food before the stomach receptors feel full, and this means getting more calories (two eggs contain, for example, More calories than a whole can of oats), while low-protein foods like fruits and vegetables take up a lot of room in the stomach and make us feel full quickly, while getting in fewer calories.
Also, although eating meat speeds up the metabolism by about one or two percent, this effect remains small compared to the effect of fiber that we can get by eating fruits and vegetables instead of meat, especially since much of its weight is from fiber that does not contain calories. In fact, what happened with Davis’ patient was that with more protein she was getting more calories and her body gained weight.
At first, eating protein powder without eating any carbs makes us feel full, but our bodies start to burn fats for the energy that carbohydrates provide us, which seems ideal for weight loss, but this is only in the early days. When burning fat, the body releases chemicals called ketones, which cause us to feel nausea, headache and fatigue. Our appetite decreases and we eat less food, so our weight decreases in the short term, but as we continue to eat a low-carb and high-protein diet, we return to gaining weight again.
On the other hand, in the quest for protein, we seem to have forgotten everything we know about food. Some people eat meals rich in meat, soy, sugar and ultra-processed foods because they are marketed to us as “proteins”, although many of them do not contain that high percentage. of protein, and in return, we overlook all the potentially harmful side ingredients in exchange for that percentage.
Unless you are an athlete, eat a balanced diet
It will remain controversial in gyms and among nutritionists, between those who see that the doses of protein in our food are not enough for our needs, and those who see that excessive consumption of them poses a threat to our health, while protein powders and supplements that come from animal products such as whey or plants continue Like soybeans and peas conquering the market, science does not give us a definitive answer about their long-term effects yet.
For his part, American physician and health scientist David L. Katz tells us in his latest book, The Truth about food, that there are serious concerns that eating too much protein over a lifetime will damage the liver, kidneys and skeleton. Jose Luis Flores, a Spanish sports nutritionist, agrees, noting that a high-protein diet can affect bone metabolism and increase the risk of kidney injury, and he stresses that consuming protein in excess of optimal amounts does not help in building muscle mass and may lead in the long run. Run to the body’s resistance to metabolism.
Protein does not seem like a panacea then, as modern diets assume, and unless you are a professional athlete who takes meals and protein supplements under the supervision of specialized trainers and doctors, it is clear that the best thing you can do is to eat in a balanced way between the three components (carbohydrates, fats and protein), and in this regard The Mediterranean diet, with the amount of protein it contains in proportion to each person’s weight and physical activity, can be an ideal starting step.