There’s a halo hanging around all things high protein, these days. In fact, even foods not high in protein are labeled as if they are—simply to convince you to buy them! Case in point: which is lowest in protein— Starbuck’s Protein Bistro Box, Chicken and Hummus Bistro Box or their Turkey and Swiss on wheat bread?
The winner is? Their Protein Bistro Box! Yes, in spite of containing egg, cheddar cheese and peanut butter—a rather disgusting combination, I might add—it comes out the lowest at 13 grams, compared to its competitors at 16 grams and 34 grams of protein, respectively.
If you are selecting the Protein Bistro because you think all that protein (which doesn’t exist anyway) is going to help with weight management, let me break the news—it’s among their higher calorie meals! And for the record, it's the calories that make the difference. Personally, I’d rather have the lower cal sandwich and add on a mini whoopee pie or cupcake. Maybe that’s just me.
I could have kept this secret to myself. I mean, if you are underweight and struggling to eat more, and protein feels safe, what’s it to me? But here’s the thing. I believe you need to be well informed, that if you are striving to eat better you should have the facts. That goes for those of you who are trying to increase your intake and gain some weight, and it applies to everyone else too. If you are overweight and struggling to lose weight, it’s only fair that you, too, be well-informed. Being well-informed, well-equipped to handle misinformation, allows you to be in control.
So let me set the record straight—there’s nothing magical about protein, about any one nutrient, in fact, that’s going to resolve your weight struggle. And we don’t eat protein. Rather, we eat foods, not nutrients. In those foods there may be protein, but there will also be other macro (large) nutrients, such as fats or carbohydrate. If you assume that protein is good, or safe, it implies that carbs and fats are bad. And you know what I think about these descriptions of good and bad! We need all three macronutrients for health. And no one nutrient will cause weight gain—or weight loss. If only it were that simple.
Adequate protein intake without adequate total calories will still result in loss of muscle mass. Not a good thing! Loss of muscle mass decreases metabolic rate, necessitating fewer calories to maintain your weight.
Excess calories over and above your need for maintenance, regardless of their source—protein, fat, or carbohydrate—will help contribute to an increase in weight.
Yes, it really is about energy balance.
Take it from Harriet
Harriet, an overweight woman, came to see me last week for guidance on weight loss. She’d been working with a trainer recently, at her gym. And given his extensive training in nutritional science (you know, men’s work out magazines and the like) he guided her to do the following: eat virtually no carbs, but push protein—you know, to build muscle and increase metabolism. She was eating as he instructed, whole avocados without the crackers, and limiting her fruit to only grapefruits (3 times per day). Reminds me of the Scarsdale Diet I followed in my teens for no good reason and with no good outcome!
Her energy level plummeted, making her workouts quite the challenge. She reported feeling deprived following her current regimen, and she spent a great deal of time thinking about food, preoccupied with when and what she’d get to eat next. And so she wisely sought out more sensible guidance.
When she presented at her initial session with me, she left with a grin from ear to ear. “Now I can have starches? And other fruits?” She was so excited. At her one week follow up visit, she reported feeling great—greater energy, and so much happier, being able to enjoy foods she badly missed. And, her weight was down. In fact, I had to recommend she further increase her intake to slow the rate of weight loss. It certainly proved the point that carbs weren’t harmful, and large amounts of protein are hardly helpful!