Many people think that the root of all diet evils is carbohydrates and fats. Protein, on the other hand, seems as if it can do no wrong. Who can forget the scene in the boxing flick “Rocky” where actor Sylvester Stallone drinks five raw eggs to build muscle? Remember the Atkins Diet craze? Did you know that in 2003, one in 11 North Americans followed this high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet to lose weight?
Meat, which is primarily composed of protein except for some fat, is a big favorite – literally – from sea to sea. For example, the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, advertises a free steak dinner for anyone who can eat its 72-ounce sirloin in an hour or less. Burgers at Blacks in the London borough of Croydon boasts serving Europe’s largest burger: 7 pounds of prime Black Angus beef topped with a half-pound of cheddar cheese and seven strips of bacon.
Is protein really the poster child for a healthy diet, especially if you want to build muscle and lose weight?
Yes, and no.
Protein is an essential nutrient in our diets. Without it, we would die. That’s because our bodies can’t make it, meaning we need to consume it through the foods we eat. In addition, nearly one third of our body weight is protein.
Protein also plays a role in every cell in our bodies. In fact, protein’s three most important jobs are growth, repair and formation of new tissues; regulating body functions since all hormones and enzymes are protein; and providing energy or calories.
The foods with the highest amount of complete protein per ounce come from animals. This means all types of meats such as beef, pork and lamb; poultry such as chicken, turkey and duck; and all types of fish and shellfish such as lobster, shrimp, clams and oysters. Other high-protein foods are cow’s milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs.
Many plant foods are rich in protein, too. These include dried beans and peas, soybeans and soy foods such as tofu, and most kinds of nuts. Most vegetables, breads and grain foods contain some protein, while fruits and fats such as butter, margarine, oil, and mayonnaise have none.
The idea that plenty of protein is needed to build muscle stems from the fact that muscles are made of protein. It’s true that athletes and bodybuilders who want to build muscle need to eat twice the amount of protein as someone sits at a desk all day and doesn’t care about six-pack abs.
The misconception is that this amount requires extraordinarily large servings of meat or the help of protein shakes and supplements. That’s because the recommended protein intake for the average person is 0.8 grams per kilogram per day. This equals 55 grams a day for a 150-pound person. Twice this amount is 110 grams or the amount of protein found in 10 ounces of meat, chicken or fish (i.e. a 5-ounce serving each at lunch and dinner); three 1-cup servings of milk or yogurt; or 3 ounces of cheese and two eggs (as you might have at breakfast). Even vegetarian athletes can eat plenty of protein by focusing on beans, peas, soy foods, nuts and other plant foods.
Yes, high protein diets can cause weight loss. However, much of this is water and muscle loss because, with minimal carbohydrates, the body is forced to burn muscle for energy. With long term use of a high-protein diet, the body starts to burn fat and a condition called ketosis kicks in. Ketosis causes more weight loss, but it’s also hard on your body, especially the heart and kidneys. Even without ketosis, a high-protein diet stresses your heart by serving up a lot of artery-clogging animal fat. It also stresses the kidneys because this organ has to work overtime ridding your body of the excess nitrogen that is naturally occurring in protein.
So, the bottom line is that you don’t want to eat too much protein or too little. In addition, to really be healthy, choose lean and low-fat protein foods and fill the rest of your plate with healthy carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.