Are We Overdosing On Protein?

From fitness buffs to schoolteachers, from mums to savvy students, as a nation, we have one thing in common. We are becoming obsessed with protein. Certainly, it is the only macronutrient to have been given a smooth run – both carbohydrates and fat have had their fair share of widespread criticism, criticism protein has so far managed to avoid.

Often referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’, protein is found within every cell of the human body. However, the body cannot synthesize protein by itself – instead it must be consumed as part of the diet, in accordance with the recommended daily allowance. This allowance is debated, although estimated at roughly 10% to 35% of total calorie allowance. This does, of course, depend on the amount of exercise undertaken – strength athletes and endurance athletes both require more than the standard consumer, and different amounts to each other.

The sports nutrition category – which protein is a major part of – is growing at an almost unfathomable rate – and showing no signs of slowing. In the UK alone, value sales were £92m according to a Kantar Worldpanel report on the 19th June 2016 (published via the Grocer), and protein drinks and supplements make up at least half of these. A report by leisure DB denoted how 2016 saw the number of UK Gym and Fitness Members hit 9 million for the first time. It’s not just sport and leisure users fuelling the trend.

Recent years have seen a huge increase in the popularity of high protein diets such as the Atkins, the Dukan, and the Paleo. Dieters from all walks of life are upping their protein intake, and many are consuming sports nutrition products as part of this – an increasing amount are being marketed on a lifestyle, rather than an athletic, basis.

On the shelves nowadays there seems to be protein-infused everything. Protein infused flapjacks, protein yoghurts, protein breads, even protein chocolate – and these are just a few of the products cropping up. They aren’t just in health stores or online either – these products are now on sale in supermarkets and popular multiple retailers. All of this is done and sold under the umbrella of ‘health’, ‘wellness’, and ‘clean eating’ – but is it really healthy? Alarm bells first sounded after research was published in the journal Cell Metabolism in 2014, concluding that people aged between 50 and 65 who got 20% or more of their calories from protein were 74% more likely to die from cancer.

This particular study however was criticised for taking dietary records for just 24 hours. The evidence however remains inconclusive. According to scientists, there are still several risks attached to consuming excess protein. Studies show that certain types of protein, for example red and processed meat proteins, are linked to colon cancer – although this does not speak for all types, implying it is not the protein to blame. Kidney disease and kidney stones however are two conditions for which excess protein has been blamed less controversially.

Excess nitrogen caused by consuming the protein must be expelled through urine, and too much of this can lead to damage. Excess calcium is also a factor in this – scientists have suggested that diets rich in animal protein lead to the excretion of too much calcium, which  can also increase the risk of osteoporosis, as less is taken in and used by the body.

The individual risks of protein aside, many of those adopting high-protein diets find themselves swapping out other helpful macronutrients such as carbohydrates and fibre, which brings with it a host of health problems.

Those eating mostly high protein foods such as meat and dairy often find themselves struggling to consume the recommended daily allowance of fibre, leading to digestive problems such as constipation and stomach pain. Cutting down on carbs themselves can be just as unhealthy – leading to reduced energy, headaches, fatigue and a decrease in mood among many other unpleasant side effects. So is protein bad? Not at all.

But the sudden increase in high protein diets has the potential to be, not to mention it isn’t strictly necessary. The vast majority of Western diets contain easily enough protein – a US study for example found that just two population groups were at all likely to be protein deficient: teenage girls, who have notoriously disturbed eating patterns; and elderly people – prone to losing muscle mass and appetite. The recommended daily allowance is not difficult to achieve, and the majority of people already achieve it by accident – there really is little need for the vast majority of supplements available.

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