Are high protein diets actually bad for you?
With the current popularity of low-carb, high-protein diets such as Atkins, Paleo, Keto and Primal, is it time to ask: are high protein diets bad for you?
Earlier in 2014, various news story declared that high protein diets are as bad for us as smoking 20-a-day. The truth is that the research (on which those headlines was based) didn't actually say anything of the sort. Let's get to the truth.
The actual facts emerged from a large study which did discover a link between eating very high amounts of protein, and an increased risk of dying, in adults aged 50-65. The study assessed participants' diets over one, single 24-hour period. Nothing long-term. The study was conducted at the University of Southern California (USC) and other research centres in the US and in Italy, was funded by US National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging, and the USC Norris Cancer Center, and was published in Cell Metabolism, a peer-reviewed journal. In fact, the purpose of the study was never about high protein diets at all. The data about the participants' macronutrient consumption was collected as part a survey designed to assess nutrition and health. It was gathered over one 24-hour period and computerised. The subsequent press release, PR spin and UK tabloid headlines (suggesting a high protein diet is as harmful to us as smoking), don't reflect any specific finding of the original study.
In the study, "high protein" was classed as 20% or more of total daily calories.
That's hardly what high protein means in the context of the many high-protein diets used by health eaters, bodybuilders, gym goers and other people you may know. Popular high-protein diets see people often eating 40-80% of their total caloric intake from protein. That's a lot higher than the figure given by those scaremongering headlines.
So, what exactly is protein and are high-protein diets OK?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (the others are carbohydrates and dietary fat). Protein is considered "essential", as the body can not metabolise it from any other macronutrient. Protein is needed for the repair and function of all cells, particularly healthy tissue including heart muscle, connective tissue and the skeleton.
As always, it's a good idea to find a balance. Moderation is key. It's not wise to cut out any macronutrient: we need all three for health, longevity, strength, fitness and happiness. But many of us don't eat enough protein, and eat too much in the way of processed, manmade carbohydrates. Protein fills you up, promotes satiety, and has a higher thermogenic effect than carbohydrates.
Try including a small amount of protein with every meal or snack: think a fist-sized amount of fish, white meat or poultry, a couple of eggs, a cup of cottage cheese or real Greek yoghurt, or a small palmful of nuts and seeds. For convenience, why not try protein powders or shakes. Eat red meat and oily fish 3-4 times per week. Balance this with healthy, natural carb sources, lots of vegetables, and good healthy dietary fats. Keep it natural, and steer clear of processed meats (and do control your consumption of red meat if you have any family history of bowel cancer). But don't fear protein, just as you shouldn't fear fats or carbs.
The bottom line? We need to eat protein. We do not need to smoke, drink alcohol, or do any number of other things which have been proven to be dangerous. Eat healthily, be strong, live well.