The nation continues its craze with protein everything—bars, powders, drinks, cereals, pastas, and on. The frenzy thrives on the idea that protein is a weight-loss miracle: Just stay away from those awful carbs! Here are a few things to bear in mind.
1. Processed food is processed food. Meaning: the vast majority of those well-marketed “high protein” foods in packages contain sugar and fat-addled, chemicalized forms of protein that are good for neither your weight nor health. Take a hint from the ingredient lists that are a mile long and full of unpronounceables.
Here is a comparison I came across between two popular protein bars and a Snicker’s bar. With the protein data excluded for the moment, can you tell which is the Snicker’s? I couldn’t.
- Bar A — 410 calories, 12 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 28 g sugar
- Bar B — 300 calories, 8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 25 g sugar
- Bar C — 250 calories, 12 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 27 g sugar
(The bars in order are: Met-Rx Big 100 Colossal Protein Bar, Pro-Max Protein Bar, Snicker’s.)
You want more protein? Try nuts and seeds, organic tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans and lentils, or, assuming your diet is not already too rich in animal foods, low-fat cheese, plain yogurt, or lean poultry and fish. Need something to beef up that morning smoothie? Toss in a tablespoon of PB or almond butter, or a plop of unsweetened yogurt. You really need a bar on the go? Make sure its ingredient list is very short and consists only of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. Or pack a snack-size baggie of these along with an apple or orange to throw in your bag for the day.
Want even more protein? Eat a lot of vegetables. You want a totally crazy fact from Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s, Eat to Live? I have to quote it so that you don’t think I’m making it up. Considered calorie for calorie, “broccoli has about twice as much protein as steak.”
Yes! If you’re doubtful that you can be big and strong without that chicken or sirloin, Fuhrman invites us to consider the physical heft of hippos, rhinos, gorillas, and elephants. They eat no meat. What gives? Their bodies, as ours, are more than capable of manufacturing the needed amino acids from plants. Further, when the lion gobbles up the grass-eating gazelle, whence do you think come his amino acids? If you guessed the plants that the gazelle dined upon, you are correct. “Green grass made the lion.”
2. Americans already eat too much protein. Furhman estimates that the average American consumes over 100g of protein a day—”an unhealthy amount.” To figure out your own RDA, multiply your weight in kg by 0.8. That will give you the approximate number of grams of daily protein you need. For a woman weighing 120, it’s around 44g; for a man weight 150, it’s 55g. Many protein bars and drinks have close to your entire RDA loaded into a single serving. Remember also that the room those nutrient-poor processed high protein foods take up in your stomach could have been filled with healthy food in far greater quantities—because you can just eat so much more volume for the same calories when it comes to plants versus packages.
3. The right carbs will help you stay thinner. There’s no question that white carbs—rice, noodles, breads, pretzels, cakes, crackers, etc.—have played a central role in making us fat. But vegetables and fruits are carbs. As are, of course, hearty whole grains like brown rice, kasha, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, and barley. The difference is that these are all complex. Rather than having their fiber and nutrients processed out of them so that they turn to sugar, and later fat, the minute they hit your bloodstream, they are delivered in the way nature intended—loaded with fiber, water, and a complex of nutrients all of which slow absorption and nourish rather than metabolically hijack the body.
Vegetables are the lowest in calories and nutritionally the most dense of foods, so you can eat them pretty much without limit. (For those who need to lose weight, best to limit the starchier veggies until you hit your target.) Fruits have more calories, but they are high in fiber and nutrients, so a few servings a day is great. They also help with your sweet tooth. Whole grains are the most caloric, but eaten in moderation, they provide longer-term satiety—unlike the whites which make you crash and burn, leaving you hungry an hour later.
Anyone who maintains a healthy weight over time will tell you the same thing: Dieting fads like “high protein” or “low fat” don’t work because they don’t address the underlying lifestyle habits that keep you fat and sick. They are temporary fixes with an expiration date. And they’re bad for you—you need the right amount of protein, not three times that, in your diet, and your body cannot function well without the proper carbs and fats. Change your eating and workout habits for good if you really want to weigh, look, and feel your very best. And don’t stress about protein!