Most Americans don’t need protein supplements

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Hannah Cutting-Jones is Lecturer in History at the University of Oregon. This story originally published in The conversation.

Have you ever made a protein smoothie for breakfast or had a protein bar after an afternoon workout? If so, you are probably one of the millions of people looking for higher protein diets.

Protein-enriched products are ubiquitous, and these days it seems like protein can be infused into anything, even water. But the problem, as Mayo Clinic nutritionist Kristi Wempen points out, is that “unlike all the hype that everyone needs more protein, most Americans get twice as much as they get. need”.

Many of us living in the most economically developed countries buy into the protein deficiency myth created and perpetuated by food companies and a wide range of self-identified health experts. Global retail sales of protein supplement products, typically containing a combination of whey, casein, or plant-based proteins such as peas, soybeans or brown rice, reached $ 18.9 billion in 2020, with the United States representing about half of the market.

I’m a food historian and recently spent a month in the Library of Congress trying to answer the question of why we’ve historically been – and remain – so focused on dietary protein. I wanted to explore the ethical, social and cultural implications of this multi-billion dollar industry.

Experts intervene

Weight Loss Surgeon Garth Davis Writes In His Book Proteinaholic that “” eat more protein “is perhaps the worst advice” experts “give to the public. Davis argues that most doctors in the United States have never examined a patient with a protein deficiency, because just by eating an adequate number of calories per day, we are most likely also getting enough protein.

In fact, Americans currently consume nearly twice the National Academy of Medicine’s recommended daily protein intake: 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women – the equivalent of two eggs, half a cup of nuts. and 3 ounces of meat – although optimal protein intake may vary depending on age and activity level.

For example, if you are a dedicated athlete, you may need to consume higher amounts of protein. In general, however, a 140-pound person shouldn’t exceed 120 grams of protein per day, especially because a high-protein diet can strain kidney and liver function and increase the chances of developing heart disease. and cancer.

Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, describes high protein intake as “one of the fundamental processes that increase cancer risk.” Beyond these concerns, processed supplements and protein bars are often high in calories and may contain more sugar than a candy bar.

As reported in The New York Times, however, “the protein supplement market is booming among young and healthy people,” those who arguably need it the least. Retail sales of protein products in the United States were $ 9 billion in 2020, up from about $ 6.6 billion in 2015.

Fats and carbohydrates have, along with sugar, been vilified in turn since the identification of macronutrients (fats, proteins and carbohydrates) over a century ago. As culinary writer Bee Wilson points out, protein has managed to remain the “last remaining macronutrient”.

Why has protein remained the so-called holy grail of nutrients, as many of us wholeheartedly join the quest to consume ever greater amounts?

The scoop on protein products

The history of manufacturing and marketing protein-enriched products dates back almost as far as the discovery of protein itself.

German chemist Justus von Liebig, one of the first to identify and study macronutrients, came to view protein “as the only real nutrient”. Liebig was also the first to mass produce and distribute a protein-related product in the 1860s, “Liebig Meat Extract”.

Author Gyorgy Scrinis writes that through “publicity and favorable publicity, the [Liebig’s Extract of Meat] the company has achieved “considerable success”. Especially for those who couldn’t afford meat, the extract seemed a reasonable and satiating substitute.

French advertisement for Liebig meat extract. Illustration: Wikimedia Commons

Since then, protein consumption has remained a central part of nutritional advice and marketing campaigns, even amid recycled and recurring arguments about the optimal amount of protein and whether plant or animal sources are best.

Around the time Liebig started his extract company, John Harvey Kellogg, a staunch vegetarian, set out to redefine traditional American meals at his sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan.

The Kellogg family invented flake breakfast cereals, granola, nut butters and various “nut meats,” which they produced, packaged, marketed and sold across the country. Kellogg has written countless tracts denouncing high meat diets and assuring readers that high protein plant foods could easily replace meat.

In an April 1910 issue of his periodical “Good Health,” Kellogg asserted that “Beans, peas, lentils and nuts provide a sufficient proportion of the protein elements essential for blood and tissue building. “.

How the protein regained its status

Alongside meat and grain companies constantly touting the high protein content of their foods, the first processed protein shake hit the market in 1952 with bodybuilder Bob Hoffman’s Hi-Proteen shakes, made from a combination. soy protein, whey and flavorings.

In the 1970s until the 1990s, protein products remained visible but receded somewhat, with the dietary spotlight firmly fixed on low calorie, low fat, and sugar free snacks and drinks following the release of studies linking the consumption of sugar and saturated fat to heart disease. . These decades have given us Slimfast and Diet Coke along with Fat Free (and Guilt Free) SnackWell’s Cookies and Lay’s Crisps.

New research in 2003, however, suggested that high protein diets might help with weight loss, and protein quickly regained its former status as a nutrient superstar.

Complete diets followed, each offering a range of protein shakes and bars. Robert Atkins first published his “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution” in 1982. It became one of the 50 best-selling books of all time in the early 2000s, despite a New England Journal of Medicine 2003 article clearly recommending that “longer and larger studies [were] necessary to determine the safety and long-term effectiveness of low-carbohydrate, high-protein and high-fat diets, ”such as Atkins.

Long-term research for protein in the hopes of getting bigger muscles, smaller stature, and less hunger pangs shows no signs of slowing down, and there has never been a shortage of those who wish. take advantage of the public’s dietary goals by giving unnecessary advice. or a new product rich in protein.

Ultimately, most people living in high-income countries get enough protein. When we replace meals with a protein bar or shake, we also risk missing out on the rich sources of antioxidants, vitamins, and many other benefits of real food.

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