For starters, protein is critical for every cell in our body. It helps build nails, hair, bones and muscles. It can also help you feel fuller longer than eating foods without protein. And, unlike nutrients that are found only in a few foods, protein is pretty much ubiquitous, as previously mentioned. Here Bee Wilson, TheGuardian.com, reflects on the world of ‘protein mania’.
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“Are you getting enough protein? The question provides its own answer: if you are worrying about the amount of protein in your diet, then you are almost certainly eating more than enough. This is the paradox of our new protein obsession. For many people, protein has become a kind of secular unction: it instantly anoints any food with an aura of health and goodness. On the menu at the gym where I go, a salad niçoise is now repackaged as “high-protein tuna”. It comes without the usual capers or olives – those are items that merely add flavour, and who needs that?
On Pinterest, the lifestyle-sharing site, you can now choose “protein” as one of your interests in life, along with “cute animals” and “inspirational quotes”. In 2017, there were 64m Google searches for “protein”. Anxiety about protein is one of the things that drives a person to drink a flask of vitamin-padded beige slurry and call it lunch.
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You merely need to visit a western supermarket today to see that many people regard protein as some kind of universal elixir – one food companies are profitably adding to anything they can. “When the Box Says ‘Protein’, Shoppers Say ‘I’ll take it’” was the headline of a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal. In addition to the ubiquitous protein balls, protein bars and protein shakes, you can now buy protein noodles, protein bagels, protein cookies and – wait for it – protein coffee. Even foods that are naturally high in protein such as cheese and yoghurt are sold in protein-boosted versions. Strangest of all might be “protein water” – clear, fruit-flavoured drinks laced with whey protein, as if ordinary water was insufficiently healthy.
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Around half of all UK consumers are apparently seeking to add “extra protein” to their diets, according to market research from the cereal brand Weetabix – which has also cashed in on our hunger for protein. The protein version of Weetabix – a 24-pack of which costs 50p more than the same-sized pack of original Weetabix – is worth £7m in sales per year.
In a way, there’s nothing strange in the fact that we see protein as valuable, because it is. Along with fat and carbohydrate, it is one of the three basic macronutrients, and arguably the most important. We could survive without carbohydrates, but fat and protein are essential. Protein is the only macronutrient to contain nitrogen, without which we cannot grow or reproduce. There are nine amino-acid proteins – the building blocks of human tissue – that we can only get from food. Without them, we could grow neither healthy hair and nails nor strong bones and muscle, and our immune system would be impaired. A child who lacks vital protein in the first five years of life will suffer from stunting and sometimes wasting, too, as the dreadful persistence of malnutrition in the developing world reminds us.
So the puzzle is not that we should crave protein, but that our protein anxiety has become so acute at a time when the average person in developed countries has a surfeit of protein in their diet – at least according to official guidelines, which recommend a minimum of 0.8g of protein a day per kilogram of body weight. According to 2015 data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the average person in the US and Canada gets a full 90g a day, nearly twice the recommended amount (based on a supposedly normal adult weight of 62kg). The average European is not far behind with 85g of protein a day, and the average Chinese person consumes 75g.
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When we seek out extra protein to sprinkle over our diets, most of us in rich countries are fixating on “a problem that doesn’t exist”, said David L Katz, an American doctor and public health scholar who is the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. In his latest book, The Truth About Food, Katz notes that while the “mythology of protein tends to propagate the notion that more is better”, there are serious concerns that a very high protein intake over a lifetime can result in harm to the liver, kidneys and skeleton.
The current protein mania has partly come about because so many people now regard carbohydrates or fats (and sometimes both) with suspicion. In the current nutrition wars, protein has emerged as the last macronutrient left standing. But the whole “macronutrient fixation” is a “boondoggle” that has been calamitous for public health, Katz told me. “First they told us to cut fat. But instead of wholegrains and lentils, we ate low-fat junk food.” Then food marketers heard the message about cutting carbs and sold us protein-enriched junk foods instead. “When we talk about protein,” said Katz, “we are dissociating the nutrient from its food source.”
And yet still we try to get more protein. In this world of abundance, humans seem to be on an eternal quest for the one safe substance that we can consume in limitless quantities without gaining weight. Such is the appeal of Diet Coke.
Our protein anxiety drives us to take diets already high in meats, soya, sugars and ultra-processed foods and dose them with yet more meats, soya, sugary bars and ultra-processed foods because they are marketed to us as “protein” – even though many of these products are not even particularly high in protein.
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There is something paradoxical about our collective protein worship. When we pay good money for protein-enhanced food, we hope it will lead us to better health (however that is defined). Yet our single-minded pursuit of protein – as a disembodied nutrient whose presence trumps all other considerations – can lead us to behave as if we have forgotten everything we knew about food.
The intensity of our protein obsession can only be understood as part of a wider series of diet battles that go back half a century. If we now thirst for protein as if it were water, it may be because the other two macronutrients – fats and carbohydrates – have each in turn been made to seem toxic in the public mind.
Official dietary guidelines in the US and UK still insist that a healthy diet is one founded on plenty of carbohydrates with limited quantities of fat, especially saturated fat. The rationale for this low-fat advice goes back to the landmark Seven Countries Study, conducted in the 1950s by the American physiologist Ancel Keys. Based on his observation of healthy, olive oil-eating Mediterranean populations, Keys argued that affluent westerners would suffer fewer cases of heart disease if they could limit consumption of saturated fats such as those found in butter, lard and meat.
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But as interpreted in the modern supermarket, the low-fat diet often ended up being a high-sugar and high-refined-carbohydrate diet, which was not quite what nutritionists had originally envisaged. In recent years, the low-fat, high-carb orthodoxy has come under fierce attack. In 2015, a meta-analysis conducted by a team of Canadian researchers concluded that intake of saturated fat was not associated with raised risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes or death from heart disease. Vocal anti-sugar campaigners such as Gary Taubes – author of The Case Against Sugar – have argued that the true cause of our current epidemic of diet-related ill health is not in fact saturated fat, but refined carbohydrate.
While the low-fattists and the low-carbists continue to slug it out, protein comes out the winner as the one safe thing that most of the population feel they can still put their faith in, whether for weight loss or general health. We have to eat something, after all.
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The current protein fetish is merely the latest manifestation of a far larger phenomenon that Michael Pollan memorably referred to as “nutritionism” around 10 years ago. For decades now, there has been a tendency to think about what we eat and drink in terms of nutrients, rather than real whole ingredients in all their complexity. A combination of diet fads and clever marketing has got us here. It doesn’t matter whether we fixate on “low fat” or “low carbs” or “high protein” – we are making the same old mistakes about nutrition in a new form.
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For a while, on my kitchen counter, next to the jars of rice and flour, there was another canister made of black plastic, much larger than the others. Its label said “SOURCE OF HIGH QUALITY PROTEINS” in huge letters. In much smaller lettering it said “READY TO MIX PROTEIN POWDER WITH SWEETENERS” and listed three kinds of whey protein: whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate and hydrolysed whey protein. When you opened it, a fake vanilla smell wafted into the air and you saw a whitish powder and a black plastic scoop.”
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Read More … Article Source: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jan/04/protein-mania-the-rich-worlds-new-diet-obsession
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