The Science Behind the High-Protein Craze

The Science Behind the High-Protein Craze

Move over, fat and carbs. Protein’s grabbing the spotlight. Half of all consumers want more of this healthy nutrient -- and new surveys reveal one in five is paying extra to get it. Protein-fortified milk, bread, breakfast cereal, cookies, water and even gummy bears are crowding grocery-store shelves.

We’re not quite ready for high-protein bugs for dinner or dessert -- or -- a steady diet of fried crickets and chocolate-covered mealworms, we do know the right protein’s important. It provides essential building blocks for muscles, internal organs, blood cells, hormones, enzymes and disease-fighting antibodies. Getting enough can help you maintain strong muscles, stave off hunger pangs, help control blood pressure and lower stroke risk.

However, too much of the wrong protein sources, like fatty meats, whey and casein, milk proteins and processed stuff like bacon, lunch meat, sausage and ham or tricked-up, sugar-laden “protein treats”, can change your gut bacteria, cause inflammation and boost your cancer risk as much as smoking does.

So here are our science-based answers to your questions about protein:

Q: I’m middle aged. Should I eat more protein?

A: Probably not. Women need about 46 grams of protein daily, men about 56 grams. That’s about the amount in a four-ounce salmon filet, a glass of skim almond milk, two tablespoons of peanut butter, plus a small amount of protein from whole grains and veggies. Add a cup of oatmeal for the guys. Most of us get way more -- an average of 70 grams for women, 101 for men.

Q: Who needs more protein?

A: About one in 13 teen-aged girls and up to 41% of older adults need more proteins. Research suggests older people may need extra protein to help maintain muscle. Muscle mass declines naturally with age, which can increase your risk for falls, frailty, weakness and even health issues like diabetes. (Muscle cells burn lots of blood sugar; the fewer you have the less you burn.) You also need a bit more if you’re pregnant, breast-feeding or are extremely active.

Q: What are the best sources of protein?

A: A high-protein diet packed with meat increases your risk for heart disease and cancer as much as smoking says one headline-grabbing University of Southern California study. Munching more plant-based proteins, such as nuts, quinoa and chia seeds, as well as lean proteins, like salmon, ocean trout and skinless poultry, is a better idea. That way, you’ll avoid the high levels of saturated fat found in red meat, pork and egg yolks, along with heart-threatening carnitine. You’ll also dodge the sodium and nitrite preservatives in bacon, processed meats and sausage that raise blood pressure, interfere with healthy blood sugar and make arteries less flexible.

Q: Can a vegetarian get enough protein?

A: Yes! Compared to a typical, three-ounce serving of beef, chicken or fish with 15-27 grams (g) of protein, here’s how plant proteins stack up: 1 cup cooked lentils (18g); ½ cup tofu (20g), 1 cup cooked black beans (15g), 1 cup cooked quinoa (11g), 2 tablespoons peanut butter (8g), 1 cup cooked spinach or broccoli (about 5g). Great idea: Try going meatless on Mondays. Cook a pot of three-bean chili, stir-fry tofu with your favorite veggies or tuck black beans into a whole-wheat burrito topped with salsa, sliced avocado and a dollop of no-sugar-added yogurt.

Q: Do I need to buy foods and drinks with added protein?   

A: Probably not, unless you’re a hardcore body-builder or endurance athlete. Eating or sipping some protein within two hours after a work-out fuels optimal muscle recovery -- but most of us get enough protein from a snack or our next meal to do that.

Q: Does it matter when I eat or drink protein-packed foods? 

Yes. It’s smart to have protein at every meal, rather than skimping through the day and having a big serving at dinner. You’ll feel more satisfied (protein helps prevent between-meal hunger pangs) and maintain strong, sexy muscle.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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