The number of added protein items sold in grocery stores has skyrocketed in recent years. Protein supplements used to come primarily in pill or powder and sold in pharmacies and health food stores. Now an endless variety of added protein in cereals and snacks are offered everywhere. The promise is to attain stronger muscles and healthier bodies just by ingesting more protein. Is there science behind this peddling or is it mainly marketing wizardry?
The government's recommended daily allowance (RDA) for the average American adult is 50 to 60 grams of protein a day. Registered dietitian Angela Pipitone with Johns Hopkins McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine asserts: "The typical American diet is a lot higher in protein than a lot of us think. We get bits of protein here and there and that really adds up throughout the day. You can get enough protein and meet the RDA before you even get to dinner.”
Just counting breakfast and lunch gives a good sampling: “If you ate two eggs topped with a little bit of cheese and an orange on the side, you already have 22 grams of protein. Each egg gives you 7 grams, the cheese gives you about 6 grams and the orange — about 2 grams. Add a lunch of chicken, rice and broccoli, and you are already over the recommended 50 grams.”
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said, "If you eat a lot of extra protein, you're either breaking it down for energy or you're turning it into sugar and into fat — one or the other."
Her general advice is for people to stop obsessing over protein. "It is most definitely not a nutrient of concern. Most people get twice as much as they need without thinking about it," she said. "My nutrition pet peeve is calling foods 'protein,' as in 'Would you like some protein with that salad?' If the salad has beans or grains or cheese, it already has protein."
Munching on the Snickers Protein Bar
“There are fewer calories, less sugar and way more protein in a Snickers Protein bar compared to the original candy bar. While the added protein doesn't come as a surprise—it is a protein bar after all—it was a little shocking to see how little sugar they've added to the Snickers Protein bars. There is noncaloric sweetener added, in the form of sugar alcohol (maltitol), which helps sweeten the protein bars without adding sugar. (FYI: Too many sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea.) The Mars, Milky Way and Bounty versions of the candy bars and protein bars break down similarly.
“In terms of calories and protein, the Snickers Protein bar is similar to many other protein bars on the market. We compared it to the Quest Bar here, which contains fewer ingredients and slightly less sugar (they also use sugar alcohol and stevia to sweeten their bars). But for being made by a candy company, the Snickers Protein bar is not unreasonably different from a leading protein bar on the market.”
The Risks of Protein Overload
Researchers conducted an analysis of 32 studies of healthy adults who over-consumed protein, both in natural and supplement form:
“Despite the fact that short-term high protein diet could be necessary in several pathological conditions (malnutrition, sarcopenia, etc.), it is evident that too much of a good thing in diet could be useless or even harmful for healthy individuals. Many adults or even adolescents (especially athletes or body builders) self-prescribe protein supplements and overlook the risks of using them, mainly due to misguided beliefs in their performance-enhancing abilities. Individuals who follow these diets are therefore at risk. Extra protein is not used efficiently by the body and may impose a metabolic burden on the bones, kidneys, and liver. Moreover, high-protein/high-meat diets may also be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease due to intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol or even cancer. Guidelines for diet should adhere closely to what has been clinically proved, and by this standard there is currently no basis to recommend high protein/high meat intake above the recommended dietary allowance for healthy adults.”
Protein and Weight-Training
It used to be widely believed by fitness buffs that consuming extra protein immediately after a workout will maximize muscle growth. This has long since proven to be false:
“The so-called ‘anabolic window’ is a period of time after your training when your body is most primed to accept nutrients—specifically carbs and protein—and deliver them to your muscles to help with repair and recovery. While it was once thought this window was only open for 30-60 minutes post-workout, we now know that it exists for a much longer period of time. In fact, it extends several hours after you finish your training session.
“When it comes to packing on muscle mass, it appears protein timing isn't as important as once thought. What seems to be more crucial is the amount of protein you're consuming throughout the day. Regular doses of around 30 grams of protein are usually sufficient to support the growth and recovery of your muscles. Although post-workout nutrition is important—it's a great time to maximize muscle growth when protein synthesis is at its highest—your focus should be on the bigger daily picture, not just 30 minutes post-workout.”
How to Choose Healthier Protein-Added Foods
Compare it to the "regular" version. Does the protein-enhanced variety have more calories (or sugar and sodium-more on those below) than the regular item you'd normally pick? If so, just go for the classic.
Avoid heavily processed foods. If you're on the hunt for a high-protein snack, protein-enhanced packaged pudding powder is never going to be as healthy for you as a bowl of cottage cheese with berries. Don't let good nutrition judgment fly out the window because of this trend.
Limit sugar. Adding protein sometimes means the sugar content needs to increase to make the food taste better. Not a great trade-off, is it? As a general rule, make sure the sugar content in your protein-added bar or cereal is less than 5g per serving.
Limit sodium. With savory snack options or even protein-enhanced bread, sodium can be off the charts. Look for products that have less than 200mg of sodium per serving.
Look for fiber. Choose foods that have 5g or more of fiber from whole grains.
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