THE BLOG

Are You Getting Enough Protein?

23/10/2015 17:45 | Updated 23 October 2016

It seems as though everyone is pretty preoccupied with how much protein they're getting these days, (if my Instagram feed is anything to go by) but also according to reliable sources - the sales of high protein snacks are rising in the UK.

As a nutritionist I'm asked all the time how people can get more protein in their diet, but my question back to them is, WHY? I mean, when was the last time you met someone who had a protein deficiency in this country? Exactly! Protein deficiencies are super rare outside of developing countries. Chances are, you're getting more than enough protein, brah. The problem is, like with a lot of things, we assume that more is better. In the case of protein, it's not.

The recommendation for protein in the UK is 0.6g/kg body weight/day. So, for a person weighing 70kg they need around 42g/day (and potentially even less for women, depending on who you ask). But based on estimates from the EPIC Study, in the UK women eat, on average 74g and men eat more than 90g A DAY, that's way more than they need. It's a similar story using data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

However what's really important to understand (and what no one ever talks about) is the fact that the protein recommendations in the UK (and worldwide) are based on bad science from a really, really long time ago. No seriously, the studies our protein estimates are based on are older than I am; you have to go into an actual library if you want to read the document because it doesn't exist online. I've read the report, and spoiler: the studies were massively flawed, resulting in erroneous data, which caused an inflated protein recommendation (due to positive calorie balance and failure to measure misc. nitrogen loss in the studies, if you're interested). They also only used a handful of studies, which weren't really representative of the UK population. Bad news bears.

All right so, do we have any more up to date numbers that indicate how much protein we actually need? Well, in 2007, the World Health Organisation updated their recommendations, but ultimately increased the requirement to 0.66g protein/kg body weight. This was based on a study that was published in 2003 and unsurprisingly this study (which was actually a collection of smaller studies) had a lot of problems - for instance, they only looked at data from around 200 people, a number way too small to detect differences for different groups like age, sex, and race. Whatsmore they didn't take into consideration some important variables, like physical activity, and body type. Lastly, and what I consider to be most important, is that they don't look at the type of protein, and we're learning more and more about how the source of protein we eat can have a really big impact on health.

Lots of studies (as in legit, credible ones) that explore the relationship between the diet and health of whole populations (not just 200 random people), show that there seems to be a problem with eating too much animal protein. Lots of meat, milk, and cheese in the diet is related to higher death rates and cancer in middle aged people. And drinking a lot of milk can actually increase fracture rates among women and increase death rates in both men and women. One of the largest data sets we have on women's health, the Nurses Health Study, which followed almost 90,000 women over 20 years, showed that each additional serving of red meat per day resulted in a 13% increased chance of breast cancer. In fact, red meat is classified by the World Cancer Research Fund as a carcinogen, with red and processed meat likely causing bowel cancer. High intakes of protein from animal sources have also been found to increase the risk of heart disease, even when you account for saturated fats BUT, the same is not true for diets high in plant proteins, with these diets actually having a preventative effect and reducing the risk of heart disease. And eating too much protein, especially animal protein is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. WOOF.

Ok so, there are lots of theories on why these relationships may exist; cholesterol, saturated fat, and an ominous sounding hormone called IGF1, are just a few of them. But the way I think of it is that eating lots of animal based foods displaces plant based foods; you know the ones with the fibre and the antioxidants? Yeah, the ones we should be aiming to get more of because we know they're absolutely boss for you. When you eat lots of animal foods, there's simply just less space for the good stuff.

And based on the numbers I quoted at the beginning of this post, people in the UK are eating a shit-ton of protein, mostly coming from animal sources. I suspect that swapping that out for plant based foods is a better idea.

So, at the risk of pissing off the entire Paleo community, we don't need a ton of protein. (Side note: Paleo is BS btw, you go kill a cow with your bare hands and then tell me otherwise.) As a general rule of thumb, as long as you're getting enough calories, you're getting enough protein. You don't have to go to great lengths to get the protein you need, and the best data we have indicates that too much protein probably has negative health consequences. People on a plant based diet can get lots of high quality plant protein - vegetarians and vegans don't need to do anything special like combine proteins in the same meal. That's a scientific relic and we now understand that our bodies are smart enough to take what they need for now and save what they need for later - they don't mysteriously reset after a meal, or at midnight.

Even if you're hitting the gym pretty hard, chances are a couple tablespoons of hemp seeds in your recovery smoothie or some hummus with veggies are plenty of protein to help you repair and rebuild the muscles you've worked out, so don't sweat it. The antioxidants from plant foods like watermelons and berries can help prevent DOMS too. Don't even get me started on protein shakes. No whey, bro. Ultimately, lots of protein may help you with your #gains, but this short term 'health' goal to look swole AF or to lose lots of weight is completely undermining your long-term health. Plus, if this guy can get jacked on a plant based diet then so can you. (Check out The 300lb Vegan)

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So, rather than asking if you're getting enough protein, ask where are you getting your protein from? The answer could have huge implications for your health.