When eaten as part of a balanced diet, protein allows our body to grow and repair itself. But is there a risk of becoming obsessed with protein to the extent that behaviour becomes symptomatic of an eating disorder?
The term ‘protorexia’ has been coined to describe an unhealthy fixation with protein-heavy foods and supplements, such as protein shakes and chicken.
According to the numerous news outlets and bloggers writing on the subject, those suffering also tend to cut out foods they deem “unhealthy”, such as carbs, in a bid to lose weight or build muscle.
The term has been linked to orthorexia - a condition defined as an “unhealthy obsession with healthy eating”, which has yet to be formally recognised as an eating disorder.
According to eating disorders charity Beat, much like ‘orthorexia’, protorexia is not a recognised eating disorder and we should be careful how we are using the term. However, that doesn’t mean people are not displaying concerning or unhealthy behaviours when it comes to consuming protein.
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, a spokesperson from Beat said placing severe restrictions on diet “is obviously not healthy and may be an indication of an eating disorder”.
“But it’s important to remember that eating disorders are not really about food itself but about thoughts and feelings,” they added.
“A sufferer’s treatment of food, whether restricting, bingeing, purging, or any combination of these, may be about coping with these thoughts and feelings, or a way to feel in control.
“It’s entirely possible that someone might use clean eating or protein shakes in this way, but protorexia is not a clinical diagnosis.”
Despite this there are studies to suggest many are experiencing an unhealthy or obsessive relationship with protein.
A 2015 study by Dr Richard Achiro and Dr Peter Theodore found that many men who use protein powder to build muscle feel similar psychological pressure to people who’ve been diagnosed with recognised eating disorders.
In the study of almost 200 men who use the powders, 29% said they were worried by their supplement intake, while a further 8% admitted they’d been advised to reduce their use by a medical professional.
The study suggested body-conscious individuals often began consuming high levels of protein believing those with ripped torsos must be “healthy”, without realising the internal impact this may cause.
But how can you recognise if your gym buddy is using protein shakes to simply improve their workout or if they’re part of a more serious, underlying issue?
According to Beat, it’s common to believe you can “see” an eating disorder, but they are mental illnesses, and psychological and behavioural signs are likely to emerge long before physical ones.
“Secretiveness around or preoccupation with food, becoming withdrawn, mood swings, low self-esteem, tiredness, and distorted perceptions of weight are some of the signs that someone might be developing some form of eating disorder,” the spokesperson said.
“Beat has recently launched a campaign to help people recognise the early signs of eating disorders.”
Writing for Women’s Health, Sarah Shephard identified as a ‘protorexic’ and said she initially upped her protein intake to enhance her workouts, but things soon got out of hand.
“At first I found that a shake post workout upped my stamina and annulled my hunger,” she said.
“So I started subbing one in for breakfast and as I became more interested in how protein could fuel my workout – and the inevitable flipside: how carbs could be hindering my results – every meal became based around it. An inevitable part of the process was that carbs became all but banished from my diet.”
Shephard soon began to struggle to focus at work and constantly felt too tired to socialise with friends. Thankfully, she visited a nutritionist who explained her restrictive diet was to blame and helped her reintroduce balance to her life.
Nutritionist and British Dietetic Association spokesperson Chloe Miles told HuffPost UK by focusing on consuming a lot of one nutrient, such as protein, you are likely to be restricting other food groups such as carbohydrates.
“This may lead to you missing out on other important parts of a diet, such as fibre,” she said.
“Fibre is found in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains and is really important for a healthy digestive system.”
She explained that protein may fill someone up so much that they are “unable to eat enough of the other things we need in our diet”.
“Animal protein, often, contains saturated fat, so if people are increasing their protein intake using animal protein it may be detrimental to heart health, by increasing their intake of saturated fat,” she said.
“There are risks of having an unbalanced diet including vitamin and mineral deficiencies and in the long term increasing the risk of developing chronic conditions.”
According to Beat, anyone concerned that they or someone they know may be developing an eating disorder should “access treatment as quickly as possible, as this ensures the best chance of recovery”.
“The first port of call is usually your GP, who should ideally refer you for assessment by an eating disorders specialist,” they said.
“Beat has produced literature to help sufferers, those supporting them, and GPs during the appointment to help get a positive outcome here.
“And of course the Beat helpline is also available every day from 4pm – 10pm on 0808 801 0677 or at firstname.lastname@example.org for anyone who is worried about themselves or someone they know.”
While it’s important to be mindful of our protein intake and take any potential signs of any eating disorder seriously, nutrition consultant Charlotte Stirling-Reed confirmed that we should not fear protein.
“Protein is one of the building blocks of life and therefore is an important macronutrient to include in your diet every day,” she told HuffPost UK.
“Most of us get enough protein by eating a well balanced diet and varying the foods we eat every day, so there is no need to worry too much about getting enough.
“Including two to three protein rich foods such as lentils, nuts, beans, meat or fish everyday is what the government recommends for good health.”