If you’re anything like me and your instagram feed is filled with fitness accounts displaying workouts, healthy pizzas and wankers clenching their abs so hard that their eye balls might pop out of their skull (I, too, am guilty of a few lost eye balls), then you’re probably well-aware about the hype around protein. The way that some of these people bang on about protein shakes, it’s almost as if it’s some mystical substance that has the power to save lives, cure disease and make Donald Trump humble. This focus on the importance of protein begs the question: why all the fuss? Is it protein merely just an overhyped nutrient, or is it as imperative as fitness influencers depict it to be?
What Is Protein
To answer the question about why all the fuss about protein, we must first explore what exactly protein is. On a general level, proteins are large molecules that play a critical role in all cell function. Indeed, proteins provide the necessary structure and function of the body’s tissues and organs. When we see “protein” discussed by gym bro’s and fitness fanatics on social media, they are usually discussing it in the context of nutrition, diet and strength-training. From this perspective, protein can be described as an essential macronutrient required in our diets to survive and function adequately. Moreover, through the process of muscle-protein synthesis occurring within the body, the consumption of protein aids in the growth (and also the repair) of muscle. Foods high in protein include animal sources such as meat, eggs, fish, poultry and dairy produces, as well as plant-based foods such as legumes, nuts and grains. There’s also now a wide-range of protein supplements available on the market, enabling us to consume a quarter of our required protein-intake in one drink. Gyms are now filled with fitness gurus aggressively jiggling their protein shakes and chugging it downs though it’s going to give them superhuman strength. I even saw someone at the movies the other day with a protein shake, which made me incredibly grateful that my family and friends would bully me if I had anything other than soft drink with my popcorn.
Benefit #1: Muscle repair and growth
One of the key benefits of dietary protein is that it contributes significantly to the repair of damaged muscle tissue, and consequently aids the growth of that particularly muscle. Gone are the days where appearing “toned” and “muscly” was just for self-obsessed weirdos or men who possessed the questionable desire to emulate Brock Lesnar from WWE wrestling. Nowadays, strength-training and the physique that arises from a consistent gym routine is sought after by a vast array of people. It’s common to see squat racks filled up by women, and the amount of chats i’ve had with elderly gym-goers makes me feel like i’ve done community service at a retirement village. These people are often the most tenacious and consistent gym attendees (and friendly, too) and it’s common for me to see them on Friday nights sweating it up and lifting heavier than I ever could.
Beyond the benefits of strength-training such as enjoyment and health reasons, one of the key reasons we see a huge popularity in it is because of the appealing physique. It is a well-known fact that the way to achieve the “toned” look is through growing our muscles and reducing our body fat. We know that in order to achieve these goals, it is necessary for us to consume a certain amount of protein and implement a consistent gym routine. If we are consuming protein at a rate greater than we are “using up” our protein stores, and we are engaging in resistance training exercises, then we should be seeing consistent growth in our muscles. It is recommended that we eat 1.2-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day if we want to increase our muscle mass. So, if you were to weigh 60kg – you should be consuming 72g – 102g of protein per day, combined with a strength-training routine, to achieve muscle growth.
Benefit #2 Protein is satiating
When comparing the satisfaction rating of a packet of malteasers and a chicken breast, you’d be considered a bit of a weirdo if you preferred the latter. The immediate pleasure us chocolate lovers receive as the soft and creamy texture melts in our mouth can be pretty enticing when choosing what food we should be eating. Sadly, whilst a small box of malteasers may have similar calories than a large chicken salad, clearly the nutrients derived from the salad are far more beneficial for our day-to-day functioning. Importantly, protein has a satiating affect that causes us to feel fuller for much longer than the quick-carbohydrate and calorie-dense chocolate and lollies we all love. Therefore, whilst eating protein may not be as pleasurable in the immediate sense, it often sustains us for far longer and can keep up feeling full and satisfied. This is particularly helpful if you’re like me, constantly snacking your way through the day – only briefly feeling satiated before you feel the urge to reach for a cookie. If you fill up your plate with sources of lean protein, you will most likely find that you won’t be snacking as much throughout the day, and you can feel satisfied with the larger meals you are able to have.
Benefit #3 General health reasons
As an essential macronutrient, protein isn’t just needed to make us look fit and to keep constant cravings at bay. The consumption of protein in our diets is necessary for our bodies to function adequately. On a biological level, protein plays a critical role in the creation and maintenance of all the cells in our body and without it we wouldn’t be able to perform functions to sustain life. Protein is necessary for the transportation of oxygen around the body, as well as playing an important role in digestion and hormone regulation. Furthermore, studies have also shown that protein has significant benefits for our bone health. Individual’s with diets high in protein have a reduced risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. This might not be at the forefront of your mind when you’re young and the main concern in your life is how create an instagram reel without looking like a dickhead to your mates. But bone health is certainly something we should at least think about, especially for women who are at a greater risk of experiencing osteoporosis after menopause.
Downside #1: Environmental Costs
Now that we have considered all the reasons why you should immediately stuff your face with a chicken schnitzel or cheeseburger, it’s important to look at the negative side of increased protein consumption. Conversations about protein intake often occur in a gym between obsessed narcissists intensely focussed on increasing the size of their biceps or gluteus maximus. There’s a strong chance these people aren’t environmental activists, and it’s unlikely you’d see them waving signs manically at protests and passionately arguing for the protection of the planet. Inaccurate stereotypes and hideous generalisations aside (I am a narcissistic gym-goer so I am allowed to joke), it is probably accurate to say that many people may not consider the deleterious impact that increased protein consumption may have on the environment, and as such it’s worth highlighting it as an important deliberation.
Consuming protein from animal sources is problematic because of its contribution to the release of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere, and the direct impact this has on global warming and climate change. The destruction of ecosystems for agricultural and farming purposes, and the subsequent raising of the livestock, causes significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane to be released into the atmosphere. Like most things related to the environment, we might all adopt the attitude that our individual protein consumption would have negligible impacts on climate change. However, the collective adoption of this attitude by large masses of people can have significant implications on a larger scale, and all individual behaviours add up to create an overall negative impact. Nevertheless, balancing our desire to increase our protein consumption and our concerns over the environmental impact can certainly invoke a moral dilemma in us modern and muscly folk.
Downside #2: Potential Health Side Affects
I suspect I am going to receive a lot of criticism from the two people who access this page for raising this point, but there is some evidence to suggest that eating too much protein can have negative side effects on the body. For example, reduced fluid intake combined with excessive protein consumption can be a noteworthy risk-factor for the development of kidney stones. Moreover, in individual’s with reduced kidney function, increasing their dietary intake of protein can use renal distress and can cause chronic kidney problems. Furthermore, unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan, the main source of your protein intake would be animal meat, including red or processed meat. Evidence suggests that consuming excessive amounts of red or processed meat can increase your chance of developing certain types of cancers. For example, eating more than 700 grams of red meat a week can increase our risk of developing bowel cancer, and consuming processed meat increases your risk of bowl and stomach cancer. The good news is that other sources of protein, such as chicken and legumes, are not implicated in cancer development, and therefore it is recommended we prioritise these over red and processed meat.
Downside #3 Can Be Difficult to Reach Protein Goals
Finally, if you’re a fruit and vegetable lover, or you eat enough carbohydrates to keep a small pizza shop afloat, then a downside to the protein/gym life is that it can be difficult to eat enough of it and still stay within your calorie goals. Whilst protein is satiating, our body certainly doesn’t crave a slab of chicken breast or a bowl of chickpeas like it would an ice cream or hot dog. Let’s be honest, the best part of a chicken pasta salad is the carbohydrates and the tub of cream cheese accompanied with it. But if your goals are fat loss or muscle gain, you will sadly need to make sacrifices and focus heavily on the chicken consumption which might mean increased agitation and general disappointment (or is it just me who is so affected by food?). Here’s where instagram can come in handy, where there are thousands of recipe’s and protein-based food ideas that look remarkably delicious, even making turkey bacon appear appetising.
In a world filled with uncertainty and confusion, we can say one thing with a sense of complete conviction: protein is the answer to all gym-goers problems. Without it, we would be flimsy, fallible and overwhelmingly hungry. We certainly wouldn’t be able to grow muscle nearly as effectively without it, and our ability to function adequately would be significantly limited. It’s worth taking into consideration the environmental impacts of increased protein-consumption, as well as the link between red and processed meat intake with certain types of cancers. Moreover, there have been instances of people experiencing health issues that has been directly linked with protein. However, for most people, eating within the recommended dietary intake for muscle growth will not cause any adverse affects and it is a perfectly safe and effective means of improving your physique without flying to Thailand to get breast implants for the cost of a used Suzuki Swift.