For years we’ve been fed the line that a diet of red meat, supplements and protein shakes can have real health benefits. If only it were that simple...
For the past two decades, the benefits of high-protein diets have been marketed to the public, largely through the booming diet, fitness and protein supplement industries. Whey protein supplement industry alone was worth £6.9bn in 2015 – scientific research has suggested time and again that it may be harming our health.
Studies have shown that a high-protein diet results in:
- Greater risk of heart failure
- More likely to be obese or develop type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer
One of the main drivers for increased protein consumption has been the gym culture that took off in the late 1990s, and the accompanying trend for putting on muscle mass. But scientists believe that the idea of requiring additional protein in your diet to build up muscle, either through meat or supplements such as protein shakes, is a myth.
What builds up muscle is exercise and load bearing, and the body has ways of conserving its existing protein to do that. If you eat more protein, the body just breaks it down into ammonia and urea and you excrete it.
In fact, compared to other mammals, humans are actually naturally adapted for a relatively low protein intake, requiring protein to make up just 10% of our daily calorie requirement. This equates to around 50-60 grams for the average person, but we typically eat considerably more – in the region of 75-100 grams.
In adults, high intakes of particular protein sources, for example red meats such as lamb, beef and pork, as well as processed or charred meat, have been linked to a variety of chronic illnesses.
The link between red or processed meat and heart disease is a particularly complex one, but one clue could be the content of these proteins. Red meat is very high in iron, while processed meats are typically high in salt, both known to be bad for the heart in large concentrations. In addition, excessive protein increases the amount of urea the body produces, putting greater strain on the kidneys.
But not all protein has been associated with negative consequences. Protein sourced from poultry, dairy and plants such as beans, peas and nuts, is thought to have a neutral or even beneficial impact on kidney and heart health, provided it is consumed in moderation.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with high-protein diets is that the excess protein typically indicates an imbalanced diet, as it comes with a deficiency in another crucial food source. A balanced diet is one that meets all your nutrient requirements and prevents chronic disease. High-protein diets are often low in fibre, and colorectal cancer and obesity are linked to low intakes of fibre.
So to stay healthy, eat a balanced diet with 50-60g protein/day, with less red or processed meat.
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