Whether you're watching your weight, trying to grow bigger muscles or simply care about eating right, you're probably at least a little bit concerned about protein. High-protein diets are touted as fat-loss solutions and necessary for building strength--usually by diet gurus selling books, or supplement manufacturers hawking shakes and bars--but the truth is that most people don't need more protein, and taking supplements has no proven advantage over simply eating balanced meals and snacks.
It's All About the Calories
First of all, weight loss boils down to eating fewer calories than you burn, regardless of where those calories come from. Adding protein supplements to your normal diet will make you gain weight, not lose it. Plus, supplements don't have the broad array of nutrients that whole-food protein sources do.
Although high-protein, low-carb diets may lead to initial weight loss, that weight comes from water, not fat. In the long run, high-protein diets are no more effective for weight loss than low-fat or Mediterranean diets, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers observed four groups of dieters, each consuming different proportions of fat, protein and carbs, and found that all groups lost the same amount of weight over two years with a reduced-calorie diet.
Do High-Protein Diets Increase Muscle Mass?
While dietary protein is important for protein synthesis, the process by which muscles grow, even serious athletes don't need much more protein than the average person, according to the National Institutes of Health. The organization reports that despite common beliefs, high-protein diets are not linked to increased muscle mass, and that athletes trying to build muscle will meet protein needs by increasing caloric intake--which is necessary for muscle gain, anyway
Are You Eating Too Much Protein?
Protein is undeniably a vital nutrient. It's in every cell in the body, and is essential for healthy skin, hair and internal organs. But the average American eats double the recommended daily allowance, and should focus on reducing protein intake rather than increasing it. Too much protein can cause diarrhea, and might be responsible for more serious side effects such as bone demineralization. Plus, excess protein can cause problems for diabetics, pre-diabetics or anyone else with kidney issues.
If you're worried about getting too little protein (the average adult should get 10 to 35 percent of total calories from this nutrient, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans), include a serving of lean, high-quality protein in most meals. Tofu, low-fat cheese, beans and seafood are all good choices. Balance is important for health, so also strive to get your share of carbs and fat. Healthy carb sources include whole grains such as whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, while healthy fats come from plant foods such as olive oil and avocados.
For all nutrients, supplements are usually only necessary with a poor diet, and won't make up for bad eating habits. So save your money and choose quality fare at the grocery store rather than springing for unnecessary, often overpriced, drinks and pills.
DO YOU REALLY NEED DAIRY IN YOUR DIET?
Nina Kate is a certified fitness nutrition specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). She also studied journalism at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and has contributed to numerous major publications as a freelance writer. Nina thrives on sharing nutrition and fitness knowledge to help readers lead healthy, active lives. Visit her wellness blog at BodyFlourish.com.