The Protein Backlash

You want to shed fat and get lean, so you need to be eating more protein, right? It’s not quite so simple. Devinder Bains, Co-Founder of Fit Squad DXB, investigates.

There was a time when we were all obsessed with low-carb, high-fat diets like Atkins. Then the Dukan and paleo diets came along and we switched our attention to protein. It took over as the go-to macronutrient for losing weight, building muscle and being healthy. Supermarket shelves are now stacked high with protein-rich foods including shakes, bars and cereals, and the message we’ve been getting is that you can’t eat too much. But is that really the case?

Experts are concerned that although protein is needed for maintaining cells, including muscle, hair, skin and organs, by eating more than we need we could be putting our health at risk. Yep, too much can lead to weight gain, increased body fat, stress on the kidneys, dehydration, leaching of bone minerals and even growth of cancer cells.

The UK national dietary guidelines advise your minimum protein intake should be 0.75g per kilo of body weight per day to keep your cells healthy, although it can be up to 2.5g if you’re working out. Yet worryingly, the World Health Organisation reports that our current protein intake is three to four times the recommended amount. So why are we going above what’s needed?

“Some diet plans, such as the Dukan, support unlimited lean protein consumption, as it’s become associated with fitness, especially muscle recovery,” says Ewa Hudson, head of health and wellness research at Euromonitor. “Sports nutrition products have gone mass market in recent years and are no longer viewed as something just for professional athletes or bodybuilders. Protein powders are now added to shakes by non-athletes, and are viewed as a convenient way to be healthier.” 

What are the risks?

Although protein is associated with staying lean, eating too much of it can lead to weight gain. If you have more protein than your body requires, it will convert the surplus calories to sugar and then fat. “Weight gain and increased body fat occurs if we consume more energy than we expend, irrespective of which macronutrients are providing the calories,” says Anita Bean, nutritionist and author of The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook. “Most foods don’t include just one macronutrient, they’re a combination. For example, 100g of lean beef provides 125 cals, made up of 22g of protein (88 cals) and 4.1g of fat (37 cals).”

And weight gain is only part of the issue. “Too much protein can lead to the build-up of toxic substances called ketones, which can bring about kidney damage,” says naturopathic nutritionist Amy Morris. “They can cause dehydration and problems with your body’s ability to break down glucose. High-protein diets can also trigger bad breath, mood swings, constipation and bloating.”

More seriously, there could be a risk of developing cancerous cells. “The World Cancer Research Fund has found associations between certain protein sources and the risk of developing cancer,” says Rick Miller, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “The relationship seems to be strongest with highly processed red meats. They advise to focus on more plant-based sources of protein [such as lentils and quinoa], plus dairy products, fish and eggs, and to eat less red meat.”

What can you do?

To improve your diet, ditch those burgers and sausages, and be selective about where your animal protein comes from, choosing organic where possible. “Most of us would benefit from eating less animal protein and more plant protein from beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and whole grains,” says Dubai-based personal trainer and nutrition coach Daniel Wells. “These foods provide fibre, vitamins and minerals. You don’t have to cut out meat completely, but adding in these plant sources means you’re also getting carbohydrates and essential fatty acids.”

Even those of us who work out for longer than the recommended minimum of 2 1/2 hours’ cardio exercise a week will find their performance won’t suffer if they swap meat with protein-rich foods. “You don’t need meat to reach your potential, nor to build muscle,” says Anita. It’s time to be protein clever. 

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Devinder Bains is a personal trainer, PN1 nutrition coach and international editor and journalist. 

Devinder Bains