Ask a dietitian what one of the biggest food trends has been over the last few years, and most agree: protein is a meaty issue. This kind of hyper-focus on a single nutrient isn’t new: First we feared fat. Then it was carbs. To compensate, people are eating more protein, sending the food industry into a flurry to meet caveman demands. And the protein push has gone way beyond bars and shakes—there’s now protein-infused bread, pancakes, water, coffee, even beer.
But there’s a big difference between getting the right amount of protein from a variety of healthy sources and just pounding meat and shakes. And adding protein to unhealthy foods doesn’t magically transform them to a health food (seriously, sugary cereal?!). Here’s why overloading on protein, at the cost of other key foods, could be harming your health.
Protein Alone Does Not Build Muscles
There’s a misconception that protein is the only nutrient needed to build muscle. Many athletes overlook the importance of calories and carbohydrate in repairing and building muscle tissue. If you aren’t eating enough calories, you risk breaking down your existing muscles to meet your calorie needs. Also, the protein you’re gulping down will be burned for energy rather than used to grow stronger muscles. Including good quality carbs in your diet, not only ensures you have the energy to lift those dumbbells, but adding some to your post-workout snack also helps release insulin, which stimulates muscle growth.
Protein Crowds Out Other Healthy Foods
Protein is a macronutrient that’s vital for making and repairing substances throughout the body, including hormones, muscles, skin, hair, and nails. But unlike carbohydrate and fat, protein can’t be stored in the body for later use. If you eat more than you need, you’ll convert it to fat or lose it in the loo.
Although past studies raised concerns about kidney disease and osteoporosis, the National Academies of Sciences doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence to show that eating too much protein will do you any harm. But a problem could arise if you happen to be following one of a number of fad diets that pushes protein at the expense of other key food groups, like grains, fruit, and dairy—foods the majority of the U.S. population doesn’t eat enough of already. And you could get into even more trouble if you mistake protein for meat.
Protein Does Not Equal Meat
Protein is a nutrient, not a food. Meat contains protein, but also less desirable nutrients, like saturated fat, and, in processed meat, sodium—when you eat these in excess, they can have a negative impact on your health. Other animal products like poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs are also high in protein and less harmful to your health.
Turning to plants is another healthy place to find your protein, a move that comes with huge health benefits, too. A recent Harvard study analyzed long-term data and found that eating more plant proteins (nuts, legumes, whole grains, and vegetables) than animal proteins increases your chances of living longer.
A better way to think about protein is as one supporting player in your healthy diet. As soon as you start focusing too much on one particular nutrient, you lose balance and things can start to go wrong. People eat food, not individual nutrients. Skip the packaged foods pumped with protein and trust that nature knows best—fill your diet with mostly protein- and fiber-rich plants, like legumes, whole grains, nuts, and vegetables. Then add in fish, poultry, eggs and dairy, and put good quality, lean meat in it’s place—as a side dish.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.