Protein powders, drinks, bars and other supplements have been flying off the shelves for years. Companies have created products with Branch-Chain Amino Acids, or BCAA's, promoting better recovery and muscle growth. "Got Milk?" is a slogan most of us are familiar with. But, why are we so obsessed with protein, and do we really need as much of it as all of these companies advertise?
Let's first talk about what protein is. There are 3 macronutrients; protein, fat and carbohydrates. Each of which are necessary for our health; every 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories. On a chemical level, protein is made up of organic compounds called amino acids, which are made up of four key elements; carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. These are the building blocks of protein and have been linked to muscle tissue growth.
But, how much do we really need? Does a body-builder need more? What about raw vegans; how do they get their protein without the consumption of animal products, beans or legumes? Is animal-based protein superior to plant-based proteins? And why is America so obsessed with it, yet they deme the other macronutrients (carbs and fat) as "bad"? Could too much protein be harmful to our health? There are so many questions!
Diets such as Atkins, Keto, Paleo, etc. have been labelling carbs as "bad", while encouraging the consumption of protein and/or fat; especially the types derived from animals. We could get into a whole discussion on where most of these "studies" get funding from, but that would require the content of an entire book. Instead, I suggest you take a look at the documentaries What the Health and Forks Over Knives, which go into detail on government subsidies. Gamechangers did an amazing job of explaining the difference between animal-based and plant-based proteins as they do live doctor-supervised studies with multiple pro athletes and compared their results.
If we look back at hunter-gatherer days, we can see that most of their diets consisted of easy-to-gather items such as berries and other plants. It wasn't common that our ancestors caught an animal for food, and when they did, they surely didn't eat as much of it as we do today. They were also more active, thus burning more calories, as they spent a great deal of active time outdoors. Yet today, we see giant 20oz steaks on the dinner menu, paired with a small portion of simple carbs or a salad. But, guess what? We also see much higher rates of diet-related diseases that we've ever seen before. It seems there must be a correlation.
We still haven't answered the question, "How much protein do I really need?" Answers vary all over the web, and without some serious digging, it's nearly impossible to tell which doctors and scientists are publishing funded studies that have benefited them or the industry, rather than the patient or reader. Since I'm no expert on the topic, I turn to my friend and author of the book, Proteinaholic, Dr. Garth Davis. The book goes into great detail on how animal-based proteins can lead to serious complications such as Diabetes, Hypertension, Heart Disease and Cancer. Dr. Garth also goes into great detail on the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates and why we need the right ones in our diets, as well as the link between high-protein diets and inflammation.
I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Garth on my podcast last year, where he explained much of what's in his book, combined with decade-long studies of research he had been a part of. Dr. Garth also answers the many questions we've presented above. The podcast can be found below.
To summarize, I'm not saying all protein is bad, or that we shouldn't be consuming any of it, but what I am suggesting is that everyone do a bit of research before we feel the urgency to indulge in it. Look at who funds studies suggesting we need more protein, then, look at the funding provided for studies suggesting the opposite. Understand the importance of longer, peer-reviewed studies, vs. short-term studies with minimal data on patients' history and lifestyles. With all information provided, I'm confident you'll be convinced that we don't need as much protein as you once thought.