Any vegetarian can tell you that the most common question they get asked by omnivores is "how do you get enough protein?" (Aside from "don't you miss bacon?")
Virtually everything you eat, including vegetables, contains protein, and we don't actually need that much to be healthy. Yet many meat-eaters and vegetarians alike are preoccupied with this nutrient, and it's driving a market boom.
A report published Monday showed that the global protein ingredient industry (which is used to make products like protein powders and power bars), is expected to be worth $58 billion by 2022. That's more than double the projections for the cannabis market. With the popularity of protein-focused fad diets like Atkins and the paleo diet, protein has become a darling of the nutrition industry in recent years.
It's clear we've become protein-obsessed: Americans currently make up 80 percent of the protein ingredient market, according to the report, though other regions are quickly catching up.
But our protein predilection is not necessarily making us healthier. We're already eating more than enough protein—sometimes twice as much—and a lot of our favorite protein-laced products have as much sugar as a milkshake or a candy bar. A classic chocolate chip flavor Clif Bar, for example, has 22 grams of sugar, the same as a Kit Kat.
"They're basically just protein-fortified candy," said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an Ottawa-based physician and professor who has a blog on nutrition and diet.
Freedhoff told me that any time the food industry markets a product as healthy, he likes to flip it over and compare the label. On his social media feeds, he's posted many high-protein "fitness" products with surprisingly high levels of sugar.
Protein is one of the most essential nutrients our bodies need. It's used for everything from maintaining muscle, to building blood cells, to growing your hair. But we don't need heaps of it to function: the average adult man needs 56 grams, and the average woman needs 46 grams. You can get this easily from a healthy, balanced diet, and even if you work out, unless you're a bodybuilder, you really don't need any special protein intake.
Freedhoff told me our obsession with protein may stem from a misunderstanding of protein's benefits for weight loss.
"Meals that are not inclusive of some protein might leave people struggling more with satiety than meals that include protein," Freedhoff said. "But rather than worry about an absolute amount, we steer people just to ensuring they include some protein with every meal and snack."
And Freedhoff said that if you're a fan of shakes or snack bars with lots of protein, just be sure to check the label. Not all are created equal and there are options that don't come with tablespoons of sugar.
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