Everything you know about protein is wrong…

In a recent article from the Telegraph newspaper about our current “obsession” with higher protein intakes was an interesting read, if for no other reason than how wrong it was on so many levels and how cherry-picked the supporting evidence was.

I’m going to break down the articles points and show where these errors are and what the current research actually says.

In all fairness, it does start by going into the marketing of “high protein” foods, such as cereals, bagels and the rest that play on the protein hype. While some of these foods do have a bit more protein than their normal versions, the protein content is far from high. If you want cereal or a bagel, just have regular ones.

Now, on to the rest.

“The average adult needs 0.75g of protein daily per kilo they weigh; someone weighing 70kg, or 11 stone, should thus be eating 52.5g each day – equivalent to a large bowl of oats, three eggs and a chicken breast. Yet the current average rate of consumption in the UK among 19-64 year olds each day is now 72g – some 39 per cent more than a 70kg person needs.”

There is a big difference between the minimum amount needed to avoid a deficiency and what is needed to be anywhere close to healthy. These are not the same thing.

Research into the minimum dose of protein for sedentary adults shows a range of 1.2 -1.8g per kilo of bodyweight per day to retain lean mass in a hypocaloric diet. Which, funnily enough, is still more than the amount claimed to be excessive.

But why is retaining lean mass important?

As we age, there is an associated loss of muscle mass and reduction in metabolic rate, this is commonly seen as being an inevitable fate once you pass the age of about 40. Getting older, according to a lot of people is a slippery slope into feebleness and everything is an injury risk. In fact, if you fall and break your hip as an older person, your chances of getting out of hospital alive and lasting more than about 6 months is less than 50%.

But the loss of muscle mass and the associated loss of power, resilience and ability to recover is preventable. Adding in resistance training to maintain or build strength and muscle, and providing your body with adequate protein to offset the breakdown of muscle mass.

“A protein overload can put added pressure on the kidneys, which are responsible for breaking down the excess – particularly damaging for those with pre-existing conditions.”

If you have a pre-existing kidney issue, then higher protein intakes can be problematic, but if you have normal functioning kidneys there is no issue unless you triple your protein intake overnight. However, if your protein intake is gradually increased over a period of time, there are no issues and your kidney function adapts to the new higher intake.

“Studies show that eating lots of red meat and full-fat dairy, which diets like Keto and Paleo espouse, are associated with higher risk of health issues such as cancer and heart disease, while Finnish research found that men who ate an average of 109g of protein each day were 33 per cent more likely to have heart failure than those who ate 78g. There is also the problem of going far beyond caloric needs in the mistaken belief that, because protein is good for us, there is no such thing as too much.”

The Finnish study they are talking about is this one – here

What is actually says is this –

the association of total protein with mortality appeared more evident among those with a history of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or cancer compared with those without disease history. Intakes of fish, eggs, dairy, or plant protein sources were not associated with mortality.”

The increase in mortality is linked to pre-existing conditions. If you have a history of type II diabetes, cardiovasccular disease and cancer, increased red meat, particularly processed red meat, increases the likelihood of mortality.

If you are a healthy, normal functioning adult, and you have a reasonable protein intake (between 1.2 and 1.8g/kg/day) mostly from a mix of poultry, fish, eggs, dairy and plant based protein sources, you’re going to be fine. And you’ll retain more of that valuable muscle mass to maintain your quality of life as you age.

“A 2010 study by the European Food Safety Authority found claims purporting that whey protein boosted muscle mass in the general population were unfounded.”

What the study acknowledges is this, “In weighing the evidence, the Panel took into account only three small intervention studies in humans that were pertinent to the claim, and that these studies reported conflicting results with respect to the effects of whey protein on muscle mass compared to other protein sources (i.e. casein and soy protein).”

Here’s what more recent, bigger studies have to say on the subject:

“Among persons living in a controlled setting, calories alone account for the increase in fat; protein affected energy expenditure and storage of lean body mass, but not body fat storage.” 

In other words, increased protein intakes increased lean body mass (when in a calorie surplus) in healthy, sedentary adults.

For building muscle, it is more of a case of when – as opposed to how much – protein is consumed that can really make a difference. 
The article goes on to say as long as you eat some protein within 24 hours of resistance training, and spreading your intake throughout the day works best.
The current research says this, “A recent meta-analysis on protein supplementation involving resistance trainees reported an upper 95% confidence interval (CI) of 2.2 g/kg/day [6]. Bandegan et al.”  and then, “It is therefore a relatively simple and elegant solution to consume protein at a target intake of 0.4 g/kg/meal across a minimum of four meals in order to reach a minimum of 1.6 g/kg/day – if indeed the primary goal is to build muscle. Using the upper CI daily intake of 2.2 g/kg/day over the same four meals would necessitate a maximum of 0.55 g/kg/meal. This tactic would apply what is currently known to maximize acute anabolic responses as well as chronic anabolic adaptations.”
It is the combination of both how much and when you consume protein that matters for the goal of increasing muscle mass. Further, in order to start the process of muscle protein synthesis,  you need around 20g of protein to trigger muscle protein synthesis, getting 20+ grams of protein spaced evenly throughout the day means you will spend more time in MPS and improving the retention and building of lean mass.

Interestingly, the article starts to contradict itself slightly by saying that older adults need to increase their protein intake to offset age related muscle loss but goes no further into how much is necessary.
What the research says for older adults is this, “Notably, doubling protein intake from 0.8g to 1.6g/kg has been shown to significantly increase lean body mass in elderly men. Similar observations have been made in elderly women who increase their protein intake from 0.9 to 1.4g/kg.

Overall, this article, (while, ironically, quoting the recent finding that fitness influencers spread poor nutrition guidance) sends the misguided message that protein is not essential for health, performance, strength and lean mass retention, completely ignoring the research and, worse, cherry picking, what research and expert views they choose to share.
While you don’t need to start worrying whether you get 1.2, 1.8 or 2.2g of protein per kilo/day, you should try to get 1-2 palm-sized servings of protein at most meals.
If you eat a plant based diet, make sure to get a wide variety of protein sources, vegetables/ beans/ nuts/ meat alternatives etc to ensure you get a full intake of amino acids.
If you have any questions, just fire me an email at dave@edinburgh-pt.com

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