Protein is a powerful nutrient. But here’s why too much can be dangerous

A the protein craze seems to have conquered the world market. From fancy whey protein shakes to expensive protein bars, people seem to be skimping on every nutrient but this one.

With the onset of Covid-19, protein supplements have gained prominence for their apparent ability to boost immunity. According to a two-week study investigation conducted by nutritional supplement maker Glanbia PLC, 21% of US respondents said they ate protein bars to boost their immunity in the first week of March, a number that rose to 23% in the second week . A market analysis also found that whey and casein were the most consumed animal-based proteins in 2021.

Simultaneously, the demand for plant-based proteins is also increasing due to their popularity among vegan, vegetarian, climate-conscious, and dairy- and egg-allergic consumers. However, a high protein diet is not for everyone.

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Who needss high protein content diet?

Protein is essential for optimal health. An average adult needs 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. While the amount of protein to consume per meal is still debated, Harvard Medical School suggests that an individual should consume at least 10% of their daily calories as protein.

Additionally, the results of a 2015 study suggested that 25-30 grams of protein per meal may improve appetite, body weight management, cardiovascular risk factors, or all of these outcomes. Protein deficiencies lead to muscle atrophy, delayed wound healing and weakened immunity.

However, these results are seen in people with severe protein deficiencies and eating disorders. Often people drink protein shakes after intense exercise to repair damaged muscle tissue. This however is not appropriate for an untrained gym goer who does not engage in strenuous physical activity.

In a sports nutrition 2014 study, protein supplement consumption was found to have no effect on lean muscle mass or muscle strength in untrained individuals. According to a study 2020protein supplementation worked well with intense exercise programs, but was not effective for everyone.

Therefore, for most people who exercise, a daily protein intake admission of the order of 1.4 to 2 grams per kg per day is sufficient. In addition to these people, the elderly, young children, people with special needs and some medical conditions need more protein than recommended.

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Whole Foods Trump Supplements

Whole foods should always be preferred over processed variations or supplements, except for athletes and those with special nutritional needs. Indeed, eating protein-rich foods can also provide healthy fats, essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and reduce carb addiction.

Among supplements, whey protein is the best because it is quickly absorbed after consumption. According to journal of applied physiology, whey protein is absorbed 70% faster in the gut compared to other supplements containing casein and soy protein. Therefore, these proteins are preferred by people who lift weights or engage in other types of strength training.

Weight loss is also linked to high protein intake combined with calorie restriction, but whey protein was not considered to perform better than whole foods in defining these results. So protein shakes are just simple and convenient alternatives to whole foods without added health benefits for those who do not engage in strenuous physical activity.

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Protein consumption in India

Protein intake in India differs from that of developed countries. Our country always strives to ensure protein safety for its citizens. The disparity in access to affordable and healthy food among socio-economic classes in India is concerning. In many parts of the country, the vulnerable population, which includes young children, pregnant women and the elderly, remains at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

According to Global Nutrition Report 2021India is on track to tackle breastfeeding and nutritional anaemia, but falls far short of rivaling other Asian countries in managing childhood wasting, a condition directly linked to lack of high protein diet.

While the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) suggests between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight per day, protein intake in India touches just 0.6 grams per kg per day. Additionally, a 2012 study mentioned that 60% of India’s total protein intake comes from cereals that are relatively indigestible and low in amino acids.

However, recent Data from the National Health and Family Survey (NFHS-5) indicates that the consumption of meat, fish and eggs has increased significantly among Indians aged 15-49. These foods are considered complete sources of protein providing all essential amino acids. Given this trend, it remains to be seen whether India will overcome its protein deficiency in the coming years.

Excessive demand for high protein intakes fuels the production and distribution of synthetic protein supplements, leading to increased consumption. The side effects of high protein consumption on various organs are not well understood by the general population. Protein consumption should be individualized, goal-based, and specific to the nutritional target of different countries.

Dr. Subhasree Ray is a PhD student (ketogenic diet), certified diabetes educator, and clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.

(Editing by Zoya Bhatti)

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