Et tu, Protein?

It seems that everywhere you go, protein is being pushed as the key to healthy living. High-protein diets are very trendy, whether it's a specific diet like Atkins, Paleo, and Dukan, or just a push for high protein items, protein is EVERYWHERE. But a Huffington Post article from 2014 highlighted a study published in Cell Metabolism that says high levels of protein can be harmful to your health.

As in, could be worse for you than smoking.

What?!?

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Ok, let’s break this down. Is it just sensationalized science? A cheap click-bait line? Or is there something to it?

First let's make a note that this came from data already collected by NHANES III, which is a national survey of what Americans eat. This isn't a study with a control, this is a look at life outside of the lab.

The study was looking at the role of protein in longevity of life. The researchers found a correlation between moderate and high protein diets, and death from diabetes-related causes in subjects over 50. They even adjusted for the fact that when people are diagnosed with diabetes, they tend toward high-protein diets.

No correlation was found between moderate or high protein diets and death in general. 

The study also looked to see if the association between protein and mortality was different for different age groups. Low protein diets seemed to be more beneficial in mid-life. But, those benefits lessened as people got older. 

A big point here is that the study found these affects to be true for high ANIMAL protein diets. When plant-derived protein made up more of the protein in the individual's diet, the risk for death decreased. Literally, plant-based proteins showed the opposite effect that animal protein diets did.

So what are we really learning here?

No macro nutrient deserves to be put on a pedestal, shunned, or otherwise made extreme.

Research continues to affirm the health benefits of plant-based diets, and this is no exception. Also, the key is always moderation! First there was a big trend in low-fat diets, almost to the exclusion of fat. Then came all of the low-carb diets, causing a lot of cranky and tired individuals. We are now seeing a push towards keto, meaning extremely low in carbs and very high in fat. See? It’s cyclical.

No macro nutrient deserves to be put on a pedestal, shunned, or otherwise made extreme..png

Another thing that I would add is that more research is needed to control for the QUALITY of the animal protein. Is it mostly bacon or chicken breast? Is it mostly fried or baked? Does organic, grass-fed, or hormone-free make a difference? There are a lot of factors that a study of previously collected data can't take into account.

Until then...balance, my friends, balance!

What is “balance” when it comes to protein?

I wrote two other pieces about protein intake awhile back, which you can reference here and here. These posts go over the daily recommendations of protein and how your body actually uses it.

Without getting into any calculations or “tracking” your calories or macronutrients, here are a few highlights from those posts and tips on finding balance:

Aim for ~20g of protein at every meal and ~5-10g protein at every snack. This ensures that you’re regularly getting protein for your body to use without going crazy. This is even more important when you’re pregnant or nursing, as your protein needs increase (but again, you can’t “stockpile” protein).

Choose a variety of animal proteins and plant-based proteins. You don’t have to go crazy every day tryin to find that perfect variety and balance. Think about your week as a whole - are you just relying on chicken (animal) or beans (plants) for your protein? Consider eggs, chicken, beef, pork, fatty fish, shellfish, white fish, greek yogurt/skyr, cheese, kefir, nuts, beans, soy, seeds, hemp, pea, etc. By including a variety of these foods into your diet means that you’re not overdoing it on any of them.

Include carbs and fat with each meal and snack. This means that you’re not overemphasizing protein, and helps you feel the most satisfied by your food choices.

Think twice before choosing a protein-added food. You don’t need protein water. You just don’t. There are so many food products on the market that have protein added in places that you might not need it. You don’t need to fill your diet with protein powder, (though it can be a great way to help in some situations). If you prioritize real food, you can meet your protein requirements for meals and snacks without resorting to chalky-tasting foods.

What questions do you have about protein?

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Katie Goldberg

Katie Goldberg, MCN, RDN, LDN, has been a registered dietitian since 2013, but has always had a passion for good food and a healthy lifestyle. Katie earned her Master’s of Clinical Nutrition from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and has worked in private practice, higher education, in a clinical setting, and as an in-house dietitian for a food company. Whether it's at through large groups or one-on-one, Katie enjoys connecting people with easy and practical solutions for better health.