Are we obsessed with protein?

Milica Stilinovic
Friday, February 11, 2011
Are we obsessed with protein? Image: Getty
The first step to reducing an excessive protein intake is to realise that we inadvertently consume protein from foods not usually considered a protein source.
Milica Stilinovic
Do you feel upset when your meal lacks protein or feel your weights session was wasted because you missed your after-work-out supplement? You might have "protein guilt".

Brad Pilon used to wake up to a plate full of egg whites. "Don't let anyone fool you. An egg white omelette is not an acquired taste. We suffer through it in the name of health," he says.

Throughout the day Pilon, author of How Much Protein, would down as much as three protein shakes a day and selectively eat only high-protein meals. "On a typical day my protein intake from shakes alone would be upwards of 150 grams," he says.

Pilon, a former protein supplement developer, was suffering from a term he coined "protein guilt".

Feeling guilty?
Hailing from Toronto Ontario and boasting a degree in human biology and nutritional science, Pilon spent more than a decade formulating and selling protein powders. "If there was ever a person absolutely convinced that protein was the 'key' to building muscle it was me," he says.

After consuming an overabundance of protein in a desire to build muscle mass, Pilon recognised his addiction was based on belief rather than scientific fact.

"Whilst protein plays an important role in the muscle building process there doesn't seem to be a dose response relationship that could warrant the average person eating 200g, 300g, even 400g of protein per day," he says.

According to Pilon you are suffering from "protein guilt" if you:

  • feel upset or angry when you can't get your protein;
  • constantly worry that you aren't eating enough and that you're losing muscle; or
  • feel as though your work-out was a complete waste of time if you didn't take protein 20 to 40 minutes afterwards.

Protein indulgence
Protein is necessary for healthy muscle function and repair. It assists in fighting disease and adds a healthy sheen to your skin, hair, and nails.

The Body Doctor, Dr Naras Lapsys, promotes slightly higher protein intakes for his clients who are trying to control their weight."It is a very satiated nutrient and can be a good way to make sure you don't overeat on other foods," he says.

However Dr Lapsys advises an average person of a healthy body weight should only be consuming 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If that person is partaking in heavy exercise the maximum should be 2g per kilo.

"On average that's about 150g to 200g of lean steak. Your higher protein needs have been covered just by that one steak," he says.

Protein panic
According to Pilon and Dr Lapsys, there are several culprits behind the instilment of "protein guilt". The first being the promotion of protein supplements driven by, what Pilon calls "fantastic marketers".

"The idea that if you don't eat 40g of protein every two to three hours or that [supplements] can help you lose fat without losing muscle are the sort of scaremongering used in the industry," Pilon says.

"Protein shakes are not at all necessary. We are exceeding our recommended intake of protein. It doesn't make any sense to have a protein shake," Dr Lapsys says.

Larissa Donaldson, marketing assistant for sport's supplement company Vital Strength Nutraceuticals, defends the consumption of protein supplements. According to Donaldson without adequate protein in the diet, the body may not be functioning properly.

"Most body types will benefit from utilising protein supplements," she says. Donaldson highlights that consuming a supplement may be better for the body in instances of high levels of cholesterol.

"Using a protein supplement is an easy way to consume extra protein without consuming unwanted saturated fats, cholesterol and high amounts of calories, that are so often found in high-protein foods," she says.

They also assist those controlling their weight, whether overweight or underweight, women, and strength builders, she says. "The key benefits will vary depending on the individual's goals and the type of protein supplement they are using."

Another reason for our obsession with protein which rates high on Dr Lapsys' list is the advocating of "no carb" eating regimes.

"You see these people become obsessively carb restricted. In extreme cases they're paying the price by having no energy as carbohydrates are the body's main fuel," he says.

A way out
Pilon now adheres to a controversial eating plan he devised, outlined in his bestseller Eat, Stop Eat, which promotes intermittent fasting.

He says the first step to reducing an excessive protein intake is to realise that we inadvertently consume protein from foods not usually considered a protein source.

"You can get protein from a lot of foods, not just your chicken, fish, and beef. You do not need to eat copious amounts of lean meat at every meal," Pilon says.

He has managed to curb his intake to 60g to 100g of protein a day but still admits he struggles at times.

"I'm still working on it. It's not uncommon for me to still lean towards adding extra chicken to a salad, or convince myself to have an extra glass of milk before bed," he says.

Pilon warns weaning off excessive protein is a slow process with a lot of self motivation. "It all starts by telling yourself, this extra 10g of protein is not going to turn me into the incredible hulk," he says.

Have your say: do you have "protein guilt"?

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