Less is More
We all have a tendency to embrace messages of restriction and avoidance when it comes to maximising our health, something that is likely to have been programmed into us from a young age. As children, we learn that the behaviours most likely to keep us safe involve not doing certain things. Don’t touch that, take that out your mouth, put those down, pull your finger out the cat’s bum, stop riding the dog like a horse. These simple messages are instilled in our impressionable young selves to keep us safe from danger, and those associations can stay with us long into adulthood.
When we have to deal with the complexities of the grown-up world, the behaviours that keep us healthy are often not so simple. We are left with an inbuilt tendency to resist advice telling us to do more of anything, even when we know the message to be well founded. Despite years of ubiquitous and consistent 5-a-day messages, UK consumption of fruits and vegetables remains woefully low. Few of us get anywhere near the recommended 30g of fibre that we should be eating to maximise our health. And when it comes to exercise, most people are well aware of the extraordinary benefits of doing a little more, yet few of us manage to get up off the sofa on a regular basis.
Less is Less
Meanwhile, the free-from market is in astounding growth, one of the few areas of food that has managed this in recent years. Although many people avoiding gluten, wheat, or dairy do so for legitimate medical reasons, many more are just following a fad, driven by the temptation of avoidance messages, regressing to a simpler time when a voice of authority told us to spit that harmful food out of our mouths.
For public health campaigners, it has proved far easier to persuade us to do fewer bad things than encourage us to do more good ones. Consumers have happily embraced messages of fat, saturated fat, and sugar reduction, creating lasting behaviour change and genuine shifts in dietary patterns. The message to eat less of something is cheerfully embraced by those looking for better health, although sadly we often pay too little attention to what we replace the avoided items with.
Protein Bucks the Trend
This is curious and a shame, although there is one foodstuff that seems to have bucked this trend in recent years. And that food is protein. Dieters, athletes, bodybuilders and wellness bloggers all embrace consumption of protein as a universal good, and to a limited extent, so do dietitians and other more qualified professionals.
As a result, the market for protein has boomed. From specialist shakes and supplements, through to yoghurts, ready meals and even Weetabix, front of back protein claims abound, driven by implications of health, wellbeing, performance, satiety and all-round natural goodness. Where fibre, fruits, vegetables, and exercise campaigns have failed, protein has succeeded, with consumers not only understanding the need to eat more, but actually changing their behaviour to do so.
This is perhaps a cause for celebration – protein is after all a very important nutrient. Many of the amino acids from which it is composed cannot be produced by the human body, and a diet deficient in any of them can lead to a number of serious health problems. As vegan and vegetarian diets become more and more popular among the younger generation, increased awareness of the importance of a balanced and diverse protein intake is vital, especially for growing and developing young bodies.
In addition, protein is known to help with satiety, and there is evidence that calories from protein will keep you fuller for longer than the same intake of carbohydrate (although there is not enough evidence for products to make any legal claims to that effect). Protein also has a far lower calorie density than fat, so increasing the ratio of protein in some people’s diets may have a role in weight management.
The Curious Case of the 20g Rule
In reality, most of us are already eating enough protein, and the health benefits of increasing our intake are likely to be minimal. But try telling that to the legions of dedicated protein advocates in the fitness and bodybuilding world, many of whom carefully ensure that after every workout they take on at least 20-25g, usually in the form of a shake, bar or supplement.
This 20-25g figure is not completely arbitrary (although many push higher, with 40-50g not being uncommon), and is based on research from Professor Mike Rennie, who sadly died earlier this year. Former colleague Francis Stephens, now Associate Professor of Sports and Health Sciences at Exeter University told me –
‘Mike actually established that you did not need too much protein to maximise muscle growth, with around being 20g enough, and he always maintained that this could be achieved through diet. But the fitness industry jumped on this claim, and now all protein shakes seem to have around 20g per serving.’
Another former colleague, Philip Atherton, Professor of Clinical, Metabolic and Molecular Physiology at The University of Nottingham added –
‘The studies involved measuring muscle building in the hours after a single bout of exercise and showed that there is a plateau at around 20 g protein (1). After that the excess amino acids are simply excreted. That being said, the main issue with these short term metabolic studies is that they may not represent what happens over the course of a training programme.
Overall there is likely to be a small impact of protein supplements in relation to muscle mass gains, but this depends upon how much protein you consume habitually, and on your training status. It is also likely that the ceiling of usefulness of supplements is quite low – people probably consume way too much. You cannot store excess amino acids in the body, so consuming more than 20-30 g “in one go” (like having protein supplements with a meal) is likely to be an ineffective strategy.
Studies have also shown that you don’t need expensive supplements, milk will suffice (2). And in reality, your genetics and not protein supplements are likely the largest determinant of your ability to grow muscle, and our studies have shown this (3)’
So it appears that a maximum level of useful intake has been misappropriated and misunderstood by the fitness industry and turned into a compelling marketing proposition. The result of this has been that many people investing in expensive protein shakes are doing little more than changing the composition of their urine. There does appear to be a certain amount of ‘you are what we eat’ about this, people wrongly believing that because muscles are made of protein, if they eat lots of protein they will gain lots of muscle. For an image obsessed culture, a shortcut to an enviable Hollywood style physique is a tempting prospect, but unfortunately the human body just does not work that way.
The marketing forces behind protein has succeeded in encouraging people to increase their intake, but for some it seems to have pushed consumption to a pointless level of excess. It has created a false belief that if something is good, then the more you have, the better things will be, which when it comes to our metabolism is rarely the case. Whilst it is generally easier to sell avoidance rather than persuade people to do more, perhaps the hardest thing of all is to encourage a bit of balance.
Anthony Warner is a development chef in the food manufacturing industry. He blogs as The Angry Chef. His first book, The Angry Chef – Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating will be published on the 6th July.