Let me get this out of the way first, before all fitness and health professionals start sharpening their pitchforks—protein is really important. It is essential for all bodily functions and for building and repairing muscle tissue. You need protein to live, which is why there's so much emphasis on this miracle macronutrient, especially in a gym setting.
Now that it is crystal clear that I’m pro protein, here's why I have a beef with the protein obsession. (See what I did there?)
1. There's a myth about how much protein one needs and which sources are best.
As I stated above, protein is essential for the body. However, as Americans, there's not much of a need to worry about that. The standard American diet consists mostly of meat, cheese, and refined carbohydrates. Protein levels are the least of our concerns.
Even my ACSM’s Resources for the Personal Trainer textbook is on board, stating, "actually, humans are incapable of using protein for anabolic (tissue-building) purposes above the level of approximately 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Protein taken in excess of this amount is either burned as a source of energy (calories) or stored as fat."
What does this mean? You probably don't need protein shakes three times a day. No one wants to store excess fat, and burning that extra protein dehydrates the body.
2. People typically equate protein with animal sources.
Being a vegetarian, especially one that gets a lot of exercise, I often get the question, "But where do you get your protein?" Don’t worry, folks, I eat fully plant-based and can still shred—beans, quinoa, and buckwheat all have tons of protein. I do eat eggs and dairy but not very much of them. And don't just take my word for it. My vegan idols Rich Roll (ultramarathoner), Patrik Baboumian (strongest man in Germany), and tennis superstar Venus Williams can vouch for this as well!
3. The emphasis on protein puts other important nutrition factors on the back burner.
Many times my clients will tell me, "I’m really working on eating more protein." I will then ask them to food journal for me so I can see what a typical week looks like. Upon examination of their journal, it’s like playing "Where’s Waldo?" when it comes to fiber, antioxidants, and other vitamin- and mineral-rich food.
There’s little to no fruit, and vegetables are nowhere to be found. There are refined carbohydrates, sugar, and unhealthy fats everywhere. But thank goodness they got all of their protein, right? The healthiest thing a person can do is put their energy toward consuming more whole, unprocessed, plant-based foods. With plants, you are getting a much higher nutritional profile per serving, and lower calories are fueling your cells for optimal performance.
4. Excess protein can be harmful to the body.
Animal protein causes an acidic environment in the body, which most people don’t even out by eating enough alkaline foods (greens, berries, colorful fruits, and veggies). The body is always striving to maintain a balanced pH level. An overload of acidic foods can cause unnecessary strain on the kidneys to remove excess waste. This is coupled with the fact that the majority of animal foods in the grocery store contain growth hormones, antibiotics, and pesticide residues from the food and treatment of the animals.
5. The emphasis on protein wreaks havoc on the environment.
If you purchase meat from a grocery store like most Americans, you can bet that 99 percent of the time that meat is coming from a factory farm. If you haven’t educated yourselves on factory farming, I highly recommend looking into it. Not only are the animals in absolutely treacherous and inhumane conditions, but these massive conglomerates are horrible for the environment.
The animal waste, methane gas emissions, and the amount of grain and water necessary to sustain the operations are some of the biggest environmental hazards we face. Giving up meat can have a bigger environmental impact than driving an electric car. If you can’t fathom letting go of wings or burgers, please find a local farm to purchase your meat from. The website Local Harvest is a fantastic resource.
I could go on forever about this, so I'll leave you with this: Protein is important. But the cost of omitting other crucial components of the diet is high. Focus on "eating the rainbow"—lots of colorful vegetables and fruits—and get your fiber in check with whole grains, beans, and legumes.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drink a green smoothie and hit the weight room.