Monday, March 12, 2012

Protein: The New Black

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!

Regardless of your eating struggles, trust that all nutrients are necessary, and safe to eat. Be flexible, to avoid deprivation, allowing you to sustain healthy dietary changes. And please don’t be misled by poorly trained trainers, or misleading food packaging! 


  1. But... but, I like protein. And the salmon head in the picture is telling me to buy a salmon and eat it in one go.

    Seriously and irrelevantly, it's the Pi day tomorrow, my current assignment is to find some factoids about edible molluscs so I'm browsing recipes and the following occurred to me: I like cooking. I don't like eating very much. I get hungry. I have nobody to eat stuff I make. There are two possible results: I cook and binge or I forgo eating and nibble on whatever is there. Why eating normally is so difficult, with life getting in the way all the time?

    1. Yes, it's complicated. Cook and freeze leftovers--that can help when living alone. But ultimately, your intentions need to change.

  2. Keen observation Lori..yes, unfortunately protein is "the new black" in diet world..with carbs completely vilified..and paleo/primal/Atkins have taken the place of the Scarsdale Diet I ridiculously followed in my college days as well. Interesting point regarding sentiments of deprivation as well...If you feel only certain recipes are "authorized" or "safe" because of their protein emphasis/carb banishment (I actually have several bookmarked in this fashion!)...I guarantee these will be the recipes you go to LEAST! Deprivation sentiments will lead you to a newly discovered passion for baking blogs, expensive-ingredient-fabulously-photographed gourmet cooking blogs...intensifying further this sense of "can look, but not touch" mentality so common in restricting ed modes...akin to what could only be considered as food pornography...One absolutely MUST get to the point where food, all food..becomes a friend and listen to (and respond to!)one's proper needs.

    On a personal level, I am trying to stop "eating-by-proxy" behaviors where I tend to take gourmet-cooking to ridiculous impress others you may ask?..No..I realize this as feeding "others" the sauce reductions, carefully prepared pastry or gateaux I would not "dare" to sample myself.

    Recognized too is that these "behaviors" (food blog addictions/running-compulsive exercise addictions..are evasion "tools" we use to take up our time and energy...taking the place of actually addressing what is truly bothering us.

    Wonderful post Lori..Thank you for exposing the dangers of "Exclude THIS macronutrient.." diets, how they foster feelings of deprivation, and how they truly sap health and happiness on every level...

    1. Yes, these eating-by-proxy behaviors are quite typical in restrictive eaters. And yes, the over focus on exercise and other such diversion are simply displacing the focus away from where it needs to be--address the eating disorder recovery! The first step is clearly awareness--now to do something about it!

  3. That picture of the fish is terrifying/gross haha!

    I'd love a good list of higher protein snack options, because I usually struggle to get anything other than peanut butter into my diet between meals. Any ideas?


  4. When I eat intuitively, I naturally shy away from grain based foods. They just do not make me feel very good if I eat more than a couple of ounces at a meal. A pasta based meal disintegrates my “get up and go” and practically puts me in a coma. I have a suspicion this has something to do with my genetic tendency for low-blood sugar, or maybe it’s a developing gluten intolerance (something my doctor seems to think is a likely possibility). Even foods like whole-grain oatmeal leave me hungry and needing to eat again in about 2 hours. I do okay with potatoes and beans as long as I have them with other foods.

    By far, my favorite meal is a HUGE salad of greens stuffed with veggies and some fruit, with maybe some nuts and cheese, with my own homemade dressing, and a good size piece of protein (especially salmon!). I can go for hours and hours with that. I’m so satisfied and happy that I have no need to snack before my next meal. In fact, I love that type of meal so much, I’ll have it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner whenever the mood strikes. :)

    I try not to banish any food from my diet, but it seems I just naturally gravitate towards those that really make me feel well, nourished, and energized. Rarely do I want to eat bread or pasta. I won’t refuse a meal if someone makes me something with those foods, but I generally don’t choose those foods on my own.

  5. I saw a bodybuilding talking about how calories are not created equal. You can eat more calories of protein, but not actually absorb them! Hurrah! It's true because when your body breaks down protein for "burnable" calories, it gets fewer of them than say the same calories of glucose.

    On the other hand, when I am truly HUNGRY, I can eat all the protein I want, but my body will keep telling me I am hungry - because I left out the carbohydrates. Bodies are smart, in their own way. Protein will not get low blood sugar back up. A suitable amount of carbs will.

    Our bodies do need protein, but they need it for building and maintenance - not to provide calories for fuel.

    1. This response is full of misinformation, perhaps propagated by the bodybuilder you speak of.
      Calories from protein are absorbed, as are calories from all macronutrients. And protein certainly contributes calories for fuel, for energy, as well as for muscle repair and other functions.

  6. I came across your blog and enjoyed reading this post! It always kills me a little inside when the media ousts or applauds one food group that people should be eating less or more of. Balance is KEY!

    1. So glad you found it! BTW, have you seen my photo from Zingerman's on a past post? What a great place to try to exercise balance!
      Please share with your nutrition colleagues! Much work needs to be done on better educating RDs!

  7. I'm a little late to this post, but found it very interesting. I'm reading a new book that just came out, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics', and they make the claim that an earlier commenter mentioned about a lower proportion of the calories from protein being assimilated into tissues relative to calories from fats and carbs. I found it a little hard to believe that could be a blanket rule for all proteins, though, since there is such a wide range of foods that provide proteins and amino acid composition varies so much between sources.

    I've been told by multiple nutritionists that people in the process of weight restoration need a higher proportion of calories from protein than the general population. Do you know how true that is, and just how one should calculate adequate protein intake if they are at that stage?

    1. I didn't quite understand the comment from the book you referenced--please clarify and I could respond. One very recent study with a small sample size did report that a diet to support weight gain with a higher percentage of calories coming from protein resulted in a greater percent lean mass versus fat. Most individuals consume much more than they need in terms of protein--need meaning the .8 gms per kg (lbs/2.2). So for most, they are already doing this.
      Hope that helps.

    2. Sorry I didn't quite explain that well. The authors (Marion Nestle and Maldon Nesheim) say that amino acids generate more thermic effects during the digestion process than do fatty acids and sugars, meaning proteins lose 20-30% of their calories to heat during digestion, compared to a loss of 5-10% of calories to heat from digestion of carbs and fats. So the basic claim is that you would actually absorb fewer calories from 100 ingested calories of protein than from 100 ingested calories of fat or carbs. I had never seen that anywhere before, and was wondering how widely accepted it is in the nutrition world.

  8. Last I tell my tribe..broken "COOKIES-IN-A-BOX"...

    "GLUTEN-FREE!"...plastered on more and more supermarket offerings...Unless you are truly dealing with celiac or allergy/intolerance issues...this proclamation offers a veiled proclamation that the product is "healthier"...when, in actuality, it can have a higher caloric and carb more processed...more expensive...and with less on the taste, texture AND SATISFACTION front....

    Finally...for now...the sudden rage for "copy-cat" foods...and the ground nut/tons of nut butter in everything in baked goods (phytates/lectins anyone?)..used to make them....Avocado, banana, medjool dates... in seemingly everything "parading" as "real-deal" desserts...

    There are those who do have dairy intolerance....I personally lack an enzyme for proper digestion....but for those who do not have dairy issues...and purchase these products...thinking they are somehow "healthier"...I think they actually are doing their tastebuds AND satisfaction levels a disservice...which could feasibly lead to overeating other things..

    I agree with MC...that having a sufficient amount of a "real-deal" product can lead to a sentiment of increased satisfaction ...and hence a decreased chance of bingeing...on inferior or "replacement" foods.