Protein Pandemonium

Protein has become BIG in the consumer world. Big brands appear to be sneaking it into all your everyday items. Why is there a sudden surge in protein and are these products going to help me with my goals?

Currently, the UK dietary reference value (DRV) for protein is a mere 55.5g for males and 45g for females (aged 19-65). Now when you put this into context, that is the equivalent of one medium chicken breast and two medium eggs, that’s not a lot of protein. It should be noted that these recommendations are a minimum, suggesting that this is all that is required to prevent deficiencies. But you can literally buy a protein shake in your local Tesco with a whopping 50g of protein, so evidently something is out of sync here?

Protein has long been recognised for influencing your muscle growth rates. Gym bro’s have been chugging protein shakes for decades and the supplement market is worth billions. However, I do wonder if they actually know how much protein they should be having and why.

(Without going too far off topic, optimal protein consumption for muscle growth is 0.4g/kg/body weight. E.g. 70kg individual = 28g protein. Which is roughly one scoop of protein).

So why has protein suddenly exploded into everyone’s shopping trolleys?

Research has lately (I say lately in a scientific sense that the last 15 years is deemed as ‘lately’) shown higher protein diets are incredibly effective for weight management as well as the known benefits for muscle growth. So what is the science saying?

Higher protein diets can:

  • Lead to an increased thermic effect compared to carbohydrates and fats

Protein consumption requires 20-30% of its useable energy to be expended for metabolism/storage compared to 5-10% for carbohydrates and 0-3% for fats. This is particularly useful for dieters. When you diet, you reduce your energy expenditure. Higher protein intakes help damage limitations.

  • Retain lean muscle mass when on a calorie deficit

If looking to lose weight but also hold onto your hard-earned muscle, a higher protein intake retains this while you lose body fat. A higher protein diet preserved 142kcal extra energy expenditure per day which was subsequently lost on lower protein diets. So, despite eating the same amount of calories, if more comes from protein, you burn more energy (WINNER WINNER, high protein chicken dinner).

  • Increase your satiety (fullness)

Protein plays a role in regulating your appetite hormones, in essence making you feel much fuller for longer. When looking to lose weight, hunger is probably the number one enemy. Increasing your protein intake will help to beat those hunger pangs and help you stay consistent. And, as I always say, consistency is key.

How much protein is a ‘high-protein’ diet?

For the general population, it has been suggested that aiming for 1.2 – 1.6g/kg/body weight can induce all the above benefits (appetite, body weight management and even health markers). So, again for a 70kg individual, you are looking at 84 – 112g of protein per day. Ideally, if you aim to spread this out into several feeds of 25-30g per snack/meal, it will help optimise your muscle growth and satiety.

Take a look at the protein content of common foods below to visualise what 25-30g may look like

Is a higher protein diet safe?

Yes. If anything it is better to over-calculate your protein requirements then to under-calculate.

So, do you need to buy foods marketed as ‘high protein’?

100% not. But marketers have clicked on that if you promote something as ‘high protein’, customers are more inclined to purchase the product. And, to no surprise, these products are A) not worth the money B) not significantly higher in protein C) not as effective as whole food sources. Just have a look at these comparisons below.

What really cracks me up is that companies are resorting to advertising foods that are already renowned for being relatively high in protein (nuts/yoghurts) e.g. graze nuts. It is often overlooked how much protein you also get from carbohydrate sources. Oats, beans, wholegrains and pulses can all add up to a significant amount over the day.

When are high-protein foods/supplements useful?

Foods such as protein bars, protein shakes and other quick-grab protein products can be useful, particularly for athletes who are rushing or travelling. However, some foods can be high in sugar and calories. Therefore, it is always useful to learn how to read the nutrition information on the packaging on foods.

Take home message:
  • Don’t fall for the gimmicks and consumer tricks
  • Educate yourself on natural sources of protein
  • Think about including regular sources of protein with your snacks/meals throughout the day
  • Use high-protein foods/supplements when natural sources are unavailable or your time doesn’t allow you
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