Protein, Hero of the Plate — Or Is It?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

Jim had inched his way up the side of the mountain, pitch after pitch, belay after belay. He and two friends, all seasoned climbers, stopped for lunch on one of the death-drop sheets of rock perpendicular to the earth. Strung up at a dizzying height, safely hooked in, his friends unpacked their whey powders, their protein bars, and their gels, and dug in.

Jim, however, pulled out the slab of hanger steak he’d cooked the night before, waving it in the air, taunting his buddies. (They cursed him angrily.)

It’s an idyllic vignette, the man on the mountain, tearing into a steak. It’s primal and Paleo and very of the moment. And at a time when the protein powder and supplement industry is such a major force, with more than $7 billion in sales in 2014 and projected to reach $9 billion by 2020 — not to mention beef consumption on the rise in America for the first time in a decade — it’s a picture that asks a question: Does protein deserve its nutritional pedestal?

(Image credit: The Kitchn)
(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

PROTEIN — whether in tidy processed packages, or as actual hunks of meat, beans, cheese, or nuts — is what many of us think will get up the mountain, metaphorically and literally.

Remember the Snickers commercials from the 1980s and their feathered, eyeliner-sporting heroines? “I was cramming for a huge history final … it was way after dinner, and I was getting hungry!” Cue the slogan: “Packed with peanuts, Snickers really satisfies!” The message: Even a candy bar can help you ace a final as long as there’s protein in there.

I have a strong memory from the ’80s of my own father, a 6-foot-2 Vietnam vet, with one pawful of salted peanuts and another of Ibuprofen, standing and opining about something or other, popping a few of each. It was only when he was reprimanded by his doctor sister that he gave up his beloved “Ibu” for every ache and pain, but his love of protein remains strong.

My siblings panic when he is about to visit, as they quickly realize they have insufficient stashes of red meat in their homes. “I can’t buy enough for the fridge or the freezer,” said my sister. “He just goes through it. I don’t even understand.” (At 69, a regular gym-goer, he is fit as can be.)

Dad’s about to visit me, so I made meatballs. I set aside three for him, pausing to consider whether he’d want four, and pictured him looming over me, frowning, saying what he always says when he thinks you don’t understand how much he needs his food: “WOOF.”

My father’s impression seems to be, “If I don’t eat enough protein, I might die today.”

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

It’s something like that, he corrected me when I called to check if I had this right. After reminding me that his cholesterol is “so low it made my own doctor jealous,” he said, “I happen to like forms of protein that happen to be meat. I think it helps me strength-wise. If I don’t have protein, I get faint. That’s just the nature of this beast.”

Every body is unique, of course, but my dad’s not alone in this impression.

“Protein is sort of the hero in our tale of food, and the villain is carbs,” says registered dietician, nutritionist, and eating disorder specialist Marci Evans of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Evans counsels people with anorexia and bulimia, and has noticed that among those who struggle with feelings of guilt about eating, protein — particularly lean protein such as chicken and egg whites — feels emotionally safe. Fat has become more neutral over the years, but protein is this “safe good guy.”

Even among those who don’t struggle with disordered eating, carbs have arguably become the witch — and protein the princess — of the food world. There’s the Paleo diet movement, which eschews carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, bread, and beans in favor of meat, fish, eggs, and produce; and the gluten-free trend, which eliminates wheat, rye, and barley. Whole30, which has topped best-seller lists, asks its adherents to eliminate wheat, sugar, baked goods, dairy, soy, and legumes for 30 days.

Search the tags #paleo, #glutenfree, or #whole30 on Instagram — 27 million posts total, as of this writing — and see a parade of smoothie bowls, fried eggs, fat steaks, salads, and selfies.

(Image credit: The Kitchn)
(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

SO HOW DID PROTEIN — especially animal protein — become a mealtime idol?

Let’s ask Mr. California.

In a YouTube clip titled “Leaving Humanity Behind” that has garnered nearly 2 million views, musclebound former bodybuilder Rich Piana, captioned “Mr. California,” says, “I love to eat, and you know the most important part about putting size on — you gotta eat big to get big.”

After watching a minute-and-a-half-long montage of Piana in his car and lifting weights, we hit a screen titled NUTRITION. Cut to him sitting, shirtless, munching his breakfast scramble next to a container of Mutant Mayhem “pre-training supplement” powder, which its website claims “evokes killer instinct intensity and razor sharp focus.” Piana boasts, chewing, “I can eat 12 times a day. Basically my breakfast [is] 12 egg whites, 2 cups of oatmeal.”

If the road to ripped is paved with egg whites, it’s hard to imagine the teenage boy aspiring to Piana-like muscles ignoring this message.

The protein hype extends to mainstream publications, too. Take a look at almost any health magazine, and notice that protein supplements might be credited for weight loss, bulking up, or maybe even fighting cancer.

As recently as five years ago, a popular publication quotes doctors downplaying the reliability of plant protein in favor of animal protein, and encouraging men to take in more than their recommended daily allowance of protein.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

That protein is a haven from a world of overwhelming nutritional choices seems like it might be cementing itself culturally. “There’s a perception — whether true or not — that protein is a ‘safe’ nutrient,” says Kendrin Sonneville, RD, an assistant professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan who earned her ScD in Public Health Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. She has noticed this trend in her clinical work with adolescents and young adults with a range of eating concerns, and thinks it’s been encouraged by news articles that write up extreme diets that favor high protein. “Protein has been really safe and never been called into question as a nutrient to avoid.”

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

BUT IS PROTEIN actually the body’s favorite source of energy? The simple answer: No.

“Your body needs carbs as its preferred source of fuel,” says Sonneville. “One way or another, if you’re not feeding [carbohydrates to your body], it will convert stores in the body into carbs.”

“Eating high doses of protein in place of carbohydrates means you are robbing your body of the energy source it needs. From a basic metabolic standpoint, your body prefers carbs.”

Dr. Donald D. Hensrud, director of the Healthy Living Program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, has worked in clinical nutrition for 30 years, and observed wryly that “big things come and go, there are various fads. Years ago it was high-fat, low-carb.”

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

The trends cycle he thinks can prove challenging for people looking to stay healthy, but he’d agree that protein has somehow escaped the scrutiny of its fat and carbohydrate counterparts over the years. Although the Paleo philosophy has some good features, he says, “I think it’s taking too hard a view on carbs. Whole grains are healthy.”

And then there’s the question of how much protein people are eating — and what kind. “Many people have this false notion that we need lots of protein,” said Evans. “We don’t need loads except for people who are highly competitive athletes.”

In January 2016, the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments issued new diet guidelines that, in addition to a much-heralded dictate to cut back on sugar, suggested for the first time ever that men and teenage boys were eating too much animal protein. Males aged 14 to 70 were soaring beyond the recommended intake of red meat, eggs, and poultry.

Both genders were getting far too little of their protein from recommended sources such as fish, nuts, seeds, and soy products. And no one — no surprise, here — was eating enough vegetables.

Sonneville, for her part, is particularly concerned about protein powders, saying that “not all are created equal.” Some are simply a large dose of protein, but “others have additives or ingredients [intended] to improve athletic performance.”

It’s an issue, she says, “because we regulate products like this so poorly in this country. There’s no guarantee that these ingredients are in there in the dose that’s promised.” She points to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Legislation Act. “That changed how dietary supplements are regulated … in a way that’s really different from drugs.” Supplements can hit the market without the same rigorous testing drugs undergo.

(Image credit: The Kitchn)
(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

DO WE HAVE A PROTEIN PROBLEM? Should we care that a macronutrient is getting the movie star treatment? Maybe. The issue is that the scientific data doesn’t yet exist to tease out the long-term effects of contemporary diet trends glorifying protein. “No one can tell you the long-term effects, and that’s what worries me as a physician. No one can tell you what the results are going to be in people’s bodies 10 or 15 years later,” a doctor told The New York Times recently.

But we may have a clue, at least. Although it’s a truism in the world of health that you can always find a study to back up the theory you believe, there is evidence that protein-heavy diets might not deserve their vaunted status.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Dr. Hensrud pointed to an October 2016 study in JAMA Internal Medicine that followed 130,000 people for more than 20 years. What it found, he said, “was that animal protein was associated with higher cardiovascular mortality, and plant protein was associated with lower cardiovascular mortality and total mortality.” Although he noted that one major health variable tended to be involved — people who didn’t exercise, who smoked, or who drank a lot — in essence, he said, “there’s something about animal protein versus plant protein that bodies don’t like.”

Or, as the study abstract concluded, soberly:

Substitution of plant protein for animal protein, especially that from processed red meat, was associated with lower mortality, suggesting the importance of protein source. — Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality, JAMA Internal Medicine, October 2016

Dr. Hensrud, a pescatarian himself, also mentioned a smaller study of 6,300 people in which those younger than 65 who received most of their calories from protein “had a fourfold increase in cancer mortality over 18 years.” (Diabetes was also found more frequently in those consuming lots of red meat.) However, “the interesting thing is that these associations disappeared or were much lessened with plant protein.”

That said, there’s an always an exception, such as the fact that for those older than 65, “protein becomes a bit of a more critical nutrient” — which my dad will be gratified to hear.

Our collective wisdom about nutrition can shift by the year and as the bulk of evidence sways one way or another (think: red wine, sugar, fat), but Hensrud thinks this protein finding is significant. “People consume more protein than they really need,” he says.

In addition to the possible adverse health effects of an animal-centric diet, Dr. Hensrud also notes the potential environmental impact of Paleo and similar diets. He’s a fan of Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé’s 1985 book about how one’s diet impacts the environment. Lappé pointed out, among other things, how much more water a pound of beef requires to produce (in 2014, 1,799 gallons) versus a pound of wheat (132 gallons) — and all the trickle-down sustainability issues that ensue, with half of America’s water going to livestock production.

Hensrud, who has written books about diets for the Mayo Clinic but dislikes the word diet, has witnessed a protein obsession among patients. “There’s always been a fixation on protein. We see this in protein shakes, protein smoothies in the morning. People are always a little over-fixated.”

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

THE GLORIFICATION OF PROTEIN can also become problematic psychologically, especially for people who struggle with food, according to some experts. Evans, an adherent of the Health at Every Size and “intuitive eating” movements, suggests that diets like Paleo “are very black and white, with very little room for gray. It tends to discount a person’s psychological relationship to food.” She laughed that, “the only time I wrote about Paleo on my blog is the only time I got hate mail. I had these Paleo trolls coming after me.”

(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

(One might say it’s an opinionated community: Founder S. Boyd Eaton is reportedly in favor of massive, voluntary population reductions so that those who remain can eat meat without destroying the planet.)

Diets of any stripe typically entail a desire to pare the plate and to have a “right” and a “wrong” way of doing things. There are a lot of rules. The authors of Whole30 famously wrote of their 30-day diet, “It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You won’t get any coddling, and you won’t get any sympathy for your ‘struggles’.” (They have since, after getting blowback, re-parsed their words.)

But that sort of tough-love mentality creeps into our food choices. Whether it’s a smoothie bowl or a green shake or a steak, when one element of the food pyramid reigns supreme in our minds — “Plonk a chicken breast on your plate; you should feel great!” — it seeps into our dietary decisions, and even our psyches. Rules can feel like they provide easy answers to a complicated world.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

When protein is the angel and carbs are the devil, says Evans, it’s one more way to categorize food into good and bad — a way of thinking about eating that she says can be very harmful. “I’m not opposed to people developing healthy lifestyles, but where I get concerned is that we use it as a measuring stick to measure our own worthiness.”

Most of us have gone to a party and heard someone say, “I feel so guilty, I just ate four cookies!” or “I was good today; I went to the gym.” In a culture where the phrases “guilt-free” and “clean eating” are cultural currency, dominating food and fitness sites, we’re intimating that the inverse is also true. (You should feel guilty about that ice cream. That plate of pasta you just inhaled; don’t you feel a little dirty?)

If one food is always OK and another never is, it creates a way of thinking about food that is highly moralistic, says Evans. “If I’m eating protein, I’m good. If I’m eating carbs, I’m bad.”

It fuels a diet mentality based on deprivation that isn’t sustainable, she says, and feeds into unhealthy eating patterns. “From my standpoint, labeling protein as a ‘good thing’ turns it into this really chaotic pattern of eating,” she says.

It’d be so nice if there was a right — a virtuous — way of eating, or falling in love, or saving for retirement, or raising a child. And it’s true that our food choices matter for our health, the environment, and the economy. It makes sense that something prescriptive — such as Paleo or carb-free diets — provide short-term balms for the sense of order we might feel like we’re missing in our lives.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

But studies have shown that diets rarely work in the long term, so if protein has emerged as a white-hat hero figure, with no shades of gray, it can be part of the problem.

In working with her clients who have anorexia and bulimia, Evans has seen that it’s easy for a diet to develop into obsession. For many of her clients, “What they’re eating or not eating — it’s all they spend their time thinking about.” Many tell her, “I just don’t want this to take up so much of my brain space!” They complain that they can’t enjoy restaurants with friends anymore, or that they skipped seeing visiting out-of-town parents in order to go to the gym. Their field of vision, she says, has narrowed solely to what they eat and how they look. It has crowded out everything else.

“Protein = angel.” “Carbs = devil.” “Food = bad.” Our food chalkboard is getting full, and it’s wiped clean every couple of years as new data makes its rounds in the scientific community. It begs the questions: Could we live without these equations? What if we didn’t elevate one macronutrient and denigrate another? And what would we do with all the energy we had left over if we didn’t spend it thinking about our diets?

Note: NEDA, the National Eating Disorders site, has a hotline — 800-931-2237 — and a website.

About Alex Van Buren

(Image credit: Alex Van Buren)

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has appeared in, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.