What’s wrong with protein?

In my daily facebook browsing I have come across an article about the harmful effects of too much protein that showed in my feed from one of the fellow fitness-nutrition enthusiasts. Since I have been contemplating the amount of protein, as in grams of protein, we should be consuming, for as long as I have been weight training, I found the title of the article quite fetching. So, in hopes of getting some valuable information I jumped right in to read it. 

It turns out that the article is mostly about how the supplement industry is being supported by the bodybuilding community in that the “athletes” promote the powders (mostly whey and casein according to the author) by signing up with the supplement companies to be sponsored. So, you see a bodybuilder touting a certain brand of protein powder and in return the company pays them. The consumer sees that and believes big muscles cannot be obtained but by consuming large amounts of expensive protein powders and pays in turn big bucks for said powders. And that’s why protein powders and by extension consumption of protein are bad. Simplistic? I should think so.

There is no doubt that there is a lot of consumer manipulation going on in this little scenario and one should always employ sound judgement and view the heavily photoshopped shiny marketing photos with a grain of salt. However, to make a claim that you don’t need a whole lot of protein in your diet to build muscle would be preposterous. So, the author does go on to point out that too much protein in the form of cow’s milk, of which both whey and casein are derivatives, is a proven cause of cancer. He quotes The China Study  to support this claim – as I have yet to read it, I will not argue this point. But I will argue how slyly the author interjects the statement that too much protein literally kills bodybuilders. He says:

Two of my favorite professional bodybuilders, Nasser El Sonbaty and Mike Matarazzo, recently died in their forties, likely from diet-related health issues. In all probability, their deaths were a result of too much protein consumption, coupled with the use of performance enhancing substances day after day until their organs failed.

Yes, anabolic steroids are a dangerous substance and they have claimed the lives of many – protein or protein powders are not the same thing as steroids. If it were true that too much protein caused death, then we would all be dead, because the western diet is already high in protein without the supplementation. Too much of any macronutrient (protein, fat, carbohydrate) will just make you gain weight, which in turn can lead to diet related illness that may cause death, but it’s not as simple as what the author would have you believe. You can’t say that, if a heroin addict, who overeats on a daily basis, overdoses that they died of too much food! Clearly the culprit will be the drug they overdosed on… 

The author clearly has a problem with the supplement industry and I can’t blame him for that. What’s more, I agree with his claim that providing protein in the form of supplements and making it seem like you need them, is a great way of ripping people off – take their money and run. So he attacks the supplement companies but to make his argument stronger and more believable he decides to prove that, in general, too much protein is bad. So, you shouldn’t go looking for other sources of protein because you only need about 5-10% of your daily caloric intake in the form of protein. Let me show you how little that is:

Let’s assume that a healthy adult eats on average 2000 calories – which is a bit of a stretch, most sedentary people don’t need this much food, but for argument’s sake, let’s assume that one needs this much. Most food base their daily values on 2000 calorie diets anyway. So here is how little protein 5-10% of your daily caloric intake is:  

5-10% of 2000 cal = 100-200cal

Since 1g of protein is 4cal –> 100:4= 25g of protein   and 200:4=50g of protein

So consuming 2000cal a day you should be getting 25-50g of protein according to this fella. If this was what you were doing it’s a sure thing that you would not need to reach for supplements because you would get that from 3.5oz of cooked chicken breast which is a very measly amount of meat and contains 22.6g of protein! So, you would be getting half your daily allotment of protein in one meal, let’s say at dinner time. You might have another 3.5oz cooked chicken at lunch to bring it to the maximum of 50g, but forget about bacon and eggs for breakfast or any milk in your cereal, you have no more room! No other meal could contain any significant amount of protein from other meats, eggs, dairy and I’m  not even going to mention trace protein from veggies, beans, nuts etc.. All your other meals would have to be composed in big part of carbohydrates and fats!

Let me give you another, more realistic example of 1500cal for an average woman:

5-10% of 1500cal = 75-150cal from protein

75:4 = 18.75g of protein a day
150:4 = 37.5g of protein  a day

This caloric intake would have you consuming between 18.75 and 37.5 grams of protein a day which equals to, yes you guessed it, 3.5oz of chicken at the most! You might have one egg for breakfast which is about 6g of protein, but watch out for those foods with trace protein because they all add up! Did you know that a serving of 40g of oats contains about 7g of protein? And 100g of cooked rice is 3g of protein and 150g of broccoli is 4.5g of protein, natural peanut butter adds up too…  Forget about it, you’re at your max. So how on earth would you be able to eat such a small amount of protein?  

3.5oz of chicken breast
This is what 3.5oz of baked chicken breast looks like: it contains 22.6g of protein. It is on a regular size dinner plate and when I asked if this looks like a decent amount of meat I was told, that yes, it looks like about enough. I believe most people would serve themselves more than that, but for argument’s sake let’s say that this is what anybody would be content with. Now imagine that that’s the only piece of meat you will have in an entire day. Would that seem like enough protein if it was all you were allowed all day? I personally would find it extremely difficult to make do with this amount and make sure my other meals didn’t contain trace protein.

This recommendation is ridiculously impossible to attain – and for the sole purpose of proving that supplement companies are scamming us out of our money? No, Robert Cheeke, the author of this article is a proponent of plant-based diet so he doesn’t get his 22.6g of protein from chicken breast and he thinks you should not either, so that’s why you don’t need supplements and by extension protein: 

As a semi-retired bodybuilder and current health and wellness advocate and multi-sport athlete, I endorse a whole-food, plant-based diet for optimal results, even when bodybuilding. I aim to put the desire for elevated levels of protein to rest by showing how a relatively low protein, whole-food, plant-based diet can support all athletic endeavors effectively and efficiently. I have achieved great results as a plant-based athlete for the past two decades, and have sought to lead by example.

But it turns out that he used to eat high protein diet and only recently made this switch. So, my conclusion is: don’t believe everything you read out there and make your own decisions based on how your body responds to what you feed it. There is no right or wrong way to reach your goals. Your body is your own and only you can tell what will work for it and what won’t. Don’t copy mindlessly somebody else’s formula, make your own. I know I learned this the hard way.