Have a strawberry-banana protein smoothie for breakfast, a cookies ‘n’ cream protein bar for lunch, some chili nacho cheese protein chips for a snack, and a high-protein frozen pizza for dinner. And don’t forget your kids. There are protein products made just for them, too.
For many consumers, “protein” has become code for “healthy.” When Americans seek out healthy products, it’s the most-searched-for term, with 63 percent of consumers looking for it, according to a September health trend report from Mintel Group. It beat out fiber (61 percent), whole grains (57 percent), and even organic ingredients (36 percent).
Of those on weight-loss diets, 66 percent said they look for protein, once again beating out all the other terms listed. That preference is paying off for the food companies indulging it—$3.8 billion of food products claiming to be an “excellent source of protein” were sold in the U.S. from October 2015 to October 2016, according to data from Nielsen. That represents growth of 11.6 percent.
We need protein. It’s one of the macronutrients, along with fat and carbohydrates, that provide calories and therefore energy. But Americans are eating a lot of it, in both fresh and packaged foods, and much more than the average global consumer, according to data from Euromonitor.
Per capita, Americans consumed 48.5 grams of protein a day from fresh foods and 54.2 grams a day from packaged foods in 2015. Dairy, excluding ice cream and frozen desserts, was the top category, processed meat and seafood were in second place, and baked goods were in third. Globally, fresh foods contribute 30 grams of protein a day and packaged foods 16 grams.
In fact, Americans are wolfing down about twice as much protein as is recommended. The latest dietary guidelines from the U.S. government advise men to consume 56 grams of protein a day; for women it’s 46 grams.
So does all this protein make Americans more or less healthy?
“There is a fair amount of evidence that higher protein levels in the diet are good for filling you up and perhaps making it easier to lose weight,” said Lawrence J. Cheskin, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. That doesn’t mean Americans should eat more of it. “We’re already eating more protein than we need,” he said.
That’s true not just for average Americans, Cheskin said, but also for vegetarians and athletes, two groups who often think they need more. “Even people trying to work out and get stronger are eating plenty already,” he said.
Too much of a good thing can hurt you, especially if it translates into missing out on other important foods. “What we’re not eating is lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grains,” Cheskin said. Protein isn’t solely to blame for that—fats and empty carbohydrates are a problem, too.
Certain high-protein diets hurt more than just the people eating them, Cheskin said, noting the negative environmental impact of meat as well animal welfare concerns.
“With anything, if you eat too much of it and it’s not a trade-off for something else, it could be too many calories,” said Keri Gans, a New York City registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet: 10 Steps to a Thinner, Healthier You.
When choosing where to get the protein you do need, remember that not all sources are created equal. “The better choices always come from whole foods,” Gans said. And no, those high-protein pretzels are not a whole food.
Cheskin recommends plant-based whole foods as the best source—think lentils, chickpeas, edamame, quinoa—because they come with fiber and other micronutrients and phytochemicals.
“We don’t usually get those in processed foods, or even meats,” he said. For meat lovers, lean, white-colored meats are better than darker ones. There is conflicting evidence on the health impact of dairy products, he said, but yogurt is a good choice.
For those Americans who love their breakfast bars and smoothies, be discerning—don’t just compare grams of protein.
“We need to look at the whole, big picture and not single out any one nutrient,” Gans said. “Look at what else this product may have in it.” Too much sugar, not enough fiber, high sodium and fat—these can be problems in many processed foods, including those claiming to be an “excellent source of protein.”
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