The Protein Myth: How much do we really need?

The Protein Myth: How much do we really need?

We live in a world where every weeks will throw up a hot new health trend, or fad, depending on your perspective. Some are more short-lived than others, like detox teas or raspberry kerotene tablets. While some are enduring. The protein craze is one of these more sustainable ‘crazes’, if there is such a thing. Almost everyone these days wants to incorporate more protein in their diets; in fact, a recent study conducted by the NPD group, suggests that 78% of people want to increase their protein intake. But is it really necessary?

Our current obsession with protein can be traced back to the 1930s, when nutritionists believed we needed a high level of protein in our diets. Many studies during the interwar years suggested that the majority of the population weren’t consuming sufficient amounts of protein. This, for the most part, can be put down to rationing and a lack of nutritious food  readily available. The idea that we need high levels of protein began to dissipate in the 1970s, when it was revealed that the majority of people were hitting their daily targets, even surpassing them, and were still not a healthy nation on the whole. Thus, it became largely accepted in the science world that protein wasn’t the answer to all of our health problems as a nation.

This was also around the time that negative associations began to emerge concerning fats, especially saturated fats, as the low-fat diet fad took the world by a storm. The emergence of the Dukan diet, ABC diet and others demonised fats, and by default, proteins too, to an extent. Meat and eggs being the main sources of protein, yet also containing huge amounts of saturated fat were shunned once more.

So, what now? Our turbulent relationship with protein has peaked, and its never been more popular. This is partly to do with the emerging trends in the fitness industry, as cardio is shunned for weight lifting and HIIT (high intensity interval training), and strong becomes the new skinny, protein is finding its place at the epicentre of our health, fitness and lifestyle regimes. Protein is naturally responsible for cellular growth and repair and muscle gains, but its also linked to a decrease in age related muscle mass and contributes to a improved nervous system. So far, so good, but those expecting to eat as much protein as they want and stay trim are in for a surprise: to lose weight you have to maintain a calorie deficit, and it doesn’t matter what you eat to surpass it, if it’s too much, you’ll gain weight. Industry experts are suggesting that the protein craze is here to stay. Crucially because it focuses on consumption, not restriction, which is a motif most people can get behind. Indeed, 2017 saw a 49% increase in the number of snacks on shelves featuring a high protein claim.

The following table shows what percentage of people admitted that when they look at a nutritional label, that they’re looking for protein content:

But away from the trend and the hype, how much protein do our bodies actually need? Studies of the Western world reveal that an inadequate protein intake is extremely rare, even amongst vegetarians. The WHO recommends that the average male’s daily protein intake should be around 55g per day, while the amount for a woman is 46g. This is loosely based on the idea that we need 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight. Try this handy calculator to see how much you require daily:

It may be easier than you think to hit your target, even without that chocolately post gym shake. 100g of chicken contains 30g of protein, as does 100g of steak, 12g for tofu. 100g of salmon racks up 35g, with a tin of tuna coming in at 25g. Red quinoa offers almost 14g of protein per 100g. Combine these big players with the small amounts of protein in day to day foods, like oats, bread, cheese, milk and lentils and its very easy to get your recommended daily allowance, even without having any of the latest protein packed products omnipresent on shelves these days.

The bottom line is this, no single food, or single food group can provide your body with everything it needs, and it can be dangerous to focus to intensely on a specific food or nutrient in this way. Chances are, unless you’re an elite athlete, pregnant or have medical complications, you’re getting enough protein in your daily diet, and the worrying to keep up with the latest trend isn’t worth it.