The claim ‘high protein’ is seemingly fast becoming the new ‘low fat’, as a plethora of products on the supermarket shelves boast of ‘added’ protein, which apparently promotes increased satiety, lean muscle mass and greater vitality in general. While protein is indeed essential in our diets, the growth in protein ‘enriched’ food and drink may not be quite as healthy or beneficial as marketeers might have you believe. Given that everything from pasta to ice cream to frosting is available in ‘high protein’ form these days (for a considerable mark up), has the pro-protein endorsement gone a little too far? Let’s weigh it up…
There’s no doubt that the current wave of wellness that we’re riding has lead to an increased importance being levelled at protein as a macronutrient, and that’s not a bad thing in itself considering that protein is chock full of amino acids, the building blocks for muscle, as nutritional therapist Jenna Zoe explains:
“Protein is essentially long chains of amino acids. If you imagine the protein is a necklace, all the amino acids are little pearls. When we ingest protein, the body breaks down the necklace so that it can use the pearls for literally hundreds of amazing functions it needs to perform. Some of these include creating and maintaining healthy hair, skin and nails, making new cells, repairing muscles, and regulating hormone function, which in turn leads to a speedier metabolism."
The wide-ranging benefits linked to protein have been responsible for pushing it into the spotlight in the context of healthy eating
A lightening fast metabolism and lean, mean muscles are both particularly appealing if you’re looking to get into shape, and as such protein-heavy sports nutrition has transitioned from a bodybuilding and professional sporting sector to the wider market. According to Mintel research, 25% of us have consumed a protein shake/drink, bar, gel or similar in the last three months, and our spending in the sports nutrition sector is up by 27% since 2013 (it now stands at £66 million). The added protein effect is even more marked amongst the young and high earning, with 42% of those aged 16-24 having consumed a sports nutrition product within the last three months (64% of these exercise at least once a week) and 31% of those earning £50,000 or more buying into the sports nutrition market (63% of this group exercise at least once a week). Workouts aside, of those that buy protein enriched food and drinks, 47% report that they form a part of their everyday diet, which isn’t surprisingly given the wide array of option on the market; Mintel data indicates that the number of food and drink products launched in the UK with a high-protein claim rose by 97% between 2014 and 2015 and 498% between 2010 and 2015.
Emma Clifford, Senior Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel, thinks that shifting lifestyles and a wider availability of sports nutrition products are propelling the likes of protein shakes and bars to public consciousness, and by proxy, consumption :
“Used by one in four people, sports nutrition food and drink enjoys surprisingly widespread use, despite its specific function as supporting sports and fitness. As a result, sales are booming and at the heart of this strong performance is that the appeal of these products is expanding beyond the small pool of the most elite sportspeople and gym fans. The category is increasingly attracting ‘lifestyle’ users who see these products fitting in with a healthy, active lifestyle. Fuelling the shift towards the mainstream use is the growing availability and visibility of accessible snacks and drinks from sports nutrition brands."
“High-profile activity from big-hitting brands has also given the high-protein trend mainstream visibility in recent years. The wide-ranging benefits linked to protein have been responsible for pushing it into the spotlight in the context of healthy eating. These multiple positive associations mean that usage of high-protein products is not limited to consumers with a single dietary want or need.”
So what’s seducing us to pay a premium for ‘supplementary’ protein? Mintel stats reveal that, for those that buy high-protein products, 41% do so because they believe they’re not getting enough protein in their day to day diet, while 37% consume protein rich food and drink to complement a healthy lifestyle, and 36% want feel fuller for longer (recalling a certain ready meal range). As for other motivations, 25% of consumers believe that high protein products will help them to lose or maintain weight, which is understandable given protein’s health credentials and the ripped abs often displayed on many a shake bottle.
The intentions are virtuous, but it’s the quality of the protein that we consume, not the amount of it, that could hold the key to better health, as Jenna emphasises:
“The only protein chains the body can really use are the ones it’s programmed to break down, AKA, the ones found in nature. Most of the commercial protein-enriched products use cheap isolates (such as whey protein isolate and soy protein isolate) to boost the marketability of their goods, but these proteins are so highly processed and far removed from nature that the body works very hard to flush them out. As a result, they add to the toxic load of your body, which in turn compromises efficient metabolic function (not to mention anything with the word ‘isolate’ is a legal synonym for ‘contains MSG’).”
In the same way that everything ‘gluten-free’ does not provide a dietary holy grail, so high-protein doesn’t equate to healthy
Given that, in the UK, men are advised to consume 55g of protein a day, and women 45g, it is should be easy to hit our protein target by including two palm sized portions of high quality protein in our daily diet. What’s more, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey indicates that we generally exceed our daily recommended intake of protein in the UK by between 44-55%, so topping up with poor quality protein is unlikely to improve our endurance or accelerate weight loss, especially if the likes of protein ‘enhanced’ muffins, crisps and beer (seriously) pad out our regular meals with extra unnecessary calories. In the same way that everything ‘gluten-free’ does not provide a dietary holy grail , so high-protein doesn’t equate to healthy. That being said, a high quality protein supplement does have its place when combined with a balanced diet and regular exercise programme. As Jenna highlights, there are some gems out there that can restore your energy levels and help you to recover quickly if you’ve been training hard:
“Not all high protein products are bad for you. If you’re looking to supplement your protein intake, look for protein powders that are made of either pure whey, egg white or high-quality plant proteins such as rice, pea, or hemp. Stay away from anything that isn’t plain, vanilla, or chocolate flavour. That cookies and cream protein bar isn’t helping your cause.”
“ Neat Nutrition , Sunwarrior , and PurePharma all make great protein products. Most importantly, don’t overly worry about your protein intake. Amino acids are found in almost every plant, grain and animal food, so if you’re eating enough calories, you’re probably getting enough protein. Some people do thrive off of more protein than others, but don’t buy into the myth that you need a huge whack of protein in order to become skinny or ripped. Your healthiest, leanest body comes from eating as natural a diet as possible, with some fun stuff thrown in there too for sanity.”
“Having said that, if that sickly-sweet protein bar is your favourite treat on earth, keep it in your diet. But let’s get honest and call it what it is- a candy bar.”
In short, swapping out nourishing and natural protein sources for artificial, sugar laden ‘supplements’ is clearly not a shortcut to better health (healthy quick fixes rarely prove fixative it seems), but choosing vitamin and nutrient rich protein over processed, highly refined alternatives, for example, is a good idea.
This was nutritionist (dip) and model Danielle Copperman’s approach when pioneering her quinoa based cereal range, Qnola , which is soon to launch at Waitrose:
“Simply put, I was making Qnola for myself as a protein rich, gluten-free alternative to other breakfast cereals on the market that didn't suit my dietary requirements. Only when I began giving it to friends and family did discussions begin about how there was nothing genuinely as nutritious on the market.”
“I think that the issue, in some cases, is not limited to the bad things that traditional cereals can contain, but also the lack of healthy additions that would instantly make them more nutrient-dense. For instance quinoa is a fibrous seed naturally high in protein and full of amino acids, omega 3 and antioxidants. I started eating quinoa when I first began to work out a lot, as it provides you with plenty of long lasting energy, along with amino acids for muscle repair, rebuilding and growth. High in fibre, quinoa is easy to digest for most people, and aids digestion. It is ideal in the morning because the protein content gives you sustainable energy to see you through until at least lunch time, reducing cravings or premature hunger.”
“Qnola contains between 11g and 18g of protein per 100g, depending on the flavour. Other granolas like Jordan’s range between 9g -11g, Spoons Cereals about 9g-10g, Lizi's Granola around 10g and Dorset cereals, around 8g, so in general it’s naturally higher in protein than many alternatives on the shelves.”
Gradually increasing her intake of good quality protein, rather than relying solely on supplements or cheap cuts of meat, and not punishing her body to achieve strength have helped Danielle to feel better in herself, both mentally and physically:
“When I began working on my blog and Qnola, I was working out a lot and I would probably go as far as admitting that I was mildly on the verge of orthorexia . I was obsessed with working out, but I wasn't incredibly preoccupied with body image, I just wanted to feel great all the time. I believed that workouts and consuming a really high level of protein would do this, plus I used to eat a lot of animal protein, but I began to discover that, personally, it wasn't doing great things for my digestion. In the past year, I have become much more plant based but still eat a lot of nuts, seeds and plant proteins, as well as fish and occasionally white meat. I’ve noticed an improvement in my muscle strength and definition, which makes me feel stronger, more toned and consequently more confident. However, I don't feel that my overall health has suffered since lowering my animal protein content, as quality of meat these days can be terrible, whilst the content of fresh, organic vegetables is so nutritious and rich in a powerful variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants."
However you look at it, listening to your body, rather than taking an extreme approach, is always the way forward. If you know that you can’t squeeze in a protein rich meal within a few hours of a workout, by all means whizz up a high quality protein smoothie, but don’t forget the veggies, slow release carbs, good fats and other nutritious elements that constitute ‘real food’ in your quest for form and fitness. Woman cannot live on protein pumped bread alone, plus, if you fear that you might be protein deficient, it’s always best to check out what’s going on underneath the surface with your GP before bulking up.
Check out Peta Bee’s ultimate guide to protein sources here