The protein myth: why high-protein diets are utterly pointless

Nonsensical nutritional claims have been with us for years. Stanley Green, the Protein Man, paraded up and down Oxford Street warning against the dangers of protein for 25 years until his death in 1993, his placards proclaiming gems of protein wisdom such as ‘Less lust, by [sic] less protein.’

Today’s nutribabble comes in the form of high-protein diets. Food manufacturers are offering high-protein versions of everything from Weetabix to Mars bars, along with supplements, powders and snack bars.

Protein makes up the structures of hair, nails, muscle and other tissues, enzymes, hormones and molecules that transport nutrients in the body. When we eat food, the protein is broken down into amino acids in the stomach and then absorbed in the small intestine. The liver sorts out which amino acids the body needs and breaks down those it does not need into urea and ammonia. Excess protein is not stored but excreted by the kidney in urine mainly as urea.

Humans have slow rates of growth and relatively low protein requirements compared to other animals such as pigs. As a rule of thumb roughly 10 per cent of food energy needs to be supplied by protein. On average, protein provides 15 per cent of the energy in the British diet, with 35 per cent of the intake coming from meat, 22 per cent from cereals and 14 per cent from dairy products.

Animal proteins generally provide all the essential amino acids required but the proteins in cereals are deficient in lysine. This is of no consequence if they are consumed with legumes, which are high in lysine. For example, baked beans on toast will meet requirements for the essential amino acids. This explains why even vegans have adequate intakes of protein.

Protein has a growth promoting effect when demands for growth are high. However, once growth has ceased, extra protein does not promote growth. Whey protein is a by-product of cheese-making and has long been known to promote growth in pigs. Hence the association of Melton Mowbray pork pies with stilton production or Parma ham with Parmesan where whey was put in pig swill.

Whey protein is cheap, about $0.9 a pound, but commands a 10-fold greater price when sold as a protein supplement to body builders. The whey protein supplement industry (worth $9.2 billion in 2015) seems to have been telling porky pies. An application for official endorsement of the health claims that whey protein increased muscle mass, muscle strength, endurance capacity, muscle fatigue and repair was trounced by the European Food Safety Authority in 2010. A recent high-quality trial found no effect taking whey protein on top of a normal diet on muscle protein synthesis in older men.

There are many reasons why high-protein diets (more than 20 per cent of energy) are not healthy. They increase the rate of loss of calcium from bones, have adverse effects on pregnancy outcome, are toxic to people with renal or liver disease and are probably best avoided in people with diabetes. Large, long-term observational studies consistently find that people who eat a lot of meat, particularly red meat, sausages and burgers, are more likely to be overweight, develop type-2 diabetes, and die from cardiovascular disease and colon cancer.

The Paleo diet paints a rosy picture of Paleolithic man and advocates a high-protein diet consisting of mainly meat and fish, eggs, nuts, with some fruit and vegetables, but recommends avoiding any processed food including cereals, legumes and dairy products.

However, this diet is based on speculation, as there are no written records. Our knowledge of indigenous hunter-gatherer nomads suggests that their lives were harsh and short. For example, the life expectancy of the Arctic Inuit was only about 28 years. Cereal cultivation and the development of food processing provided food security and allowed the establishment of human settlements, the domestication of animals and caused civilisations to flourish. Indeed, wheat was the key food commodity underpinning Roman civilisation. The labelling of gluten-free products for the benefit of the one per cent of the population with coeliac disease has wrongly encouraged people to think they need to avoid wheat and other cereals.

Increasing protein intake does not increase loss of body fat. While lean meat and fish are quite satiating foods, this is not the case for bacon, sausages, burgers, cheese and salted nuts. Maintaining an adequate intake of protein on a reduced energy intake is important to prevent loss of lean tissue. This is easily achieved by eating everyday foods. For example, porridge with milk for breakfast, a bowl of pea soup with bread, a chicken breast and a small piece of cheese provide enough protein.

Nobody took the Protein Man seriously with his proclamation that protein increased lust. What worries me is that social media and the web have allowed nutribabble to flourish, spreading wrong-headed information, offering false hope and peddling dangerous dietary advice.

Tom Sanders is professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London


  • So Angry

    Rubbish. The science is clear. If you want to build mass and lose fat it’s protein all the way. As an older male I’ve tried it – and it works.

    • King Kibbutz

      It’s all bollux.

    • Graeme Harrison

      Wow – who needs science when you’ve got anecdote posted anonymously online?

      • Kingofthemountain

        So you don’t work out then or play sport I take it? Protein is key, the shakes allow an easy ~25g of protein but with low calories to help build muscle… protein builds muscle… the article is not ‘Science’ it doesn’t make sense.

        • Shabba Ukelele

          erm. there are two dozens of different proteins we need half of those. some good for muscles some for blood or skin or whatever. proteins are building blocks to our body. the whole body not just muscles

      • foljs

        How is a random article more “scientific”?

    • Jon

      I think a key line that I almost overlooked was this:
      “Protein has a growth promoting effect when demands for growth are high.”
      So, if you’re working out, high protein makes sense. Its for the average person burning the average amount of energy that doesn’t really need excessive amounts of protein. Which is what a lot of so-called nutritionists espouse these days.
      The author really isn’t very clear on these points though, which results in a poorly-made argument, IMO.

      • ChrisM

        I lost 12Kg over 6 months on a high protein, low carb diet (Slow carb diet to be precise) with absolutely zero exercise. I think it’s fine to say these diets long term may cause damage (if true) but to deny that they work is just plain wrong and makes them look stupid.

    • chris66

      Me too! I started weight training and changed my diet at aged 47, I am now 50. Whey and casein powder have contributed in helping change my body composition from borderline obese to where I am now (I was almost 90kg, now 74kg at 5’7″). Protein supplements are a must, especially at as we get older, to ensure we get enough raw protein without consuming other needless calories. Eating good *whole) foods is just as, if not more important, too.

    • OzzyLovesBabyShampoo

      Actually, not really. If you take a look at something called “protein cycling” it will dawn on you right away that protein is not the answer to building mass at all. Think about it: when people inject themselves with steroids is it more protein that’s causing huge gains? No, it isn’t. Protein cycling is a natural way to make your body create it’s OWN steroids. Intermittent fasting is a similar idea and we all saw how huge Hugh Jackman became with that 16:8 regimen. Of course, he said he was eating a lot of protein during those 8 hours, but protein cycling shows that tons of protein is not what causes big gains. What causes big gains is putting stress on your body to make it boost its growth hormone and testosterone. Then, when your body gets some protein, it uses it well. The idea that we need so many grams of protein per day depending on our weight goals is not correct and will cause stagnation in growth.

  • quercus33

    Gluten intolerance is rising – about 33 out of 1,000 have some form of gluten intolerance. This is probably due to changes in cereals like GM crops and with it the increased use of glyphosates like Round-up, so it is not only coeliacs that need to seek out gluten-free foods.

    • Oh come on. People self-diagnose and they like to feel special. They’d be far better off choosing better-quality restaurant meals and ready-mades, learning to cook for themselves, and avoiding sugar as a daily additive. The wheat hysteria will pass, as these things do.

      • palustris2

        ‘ready-mades’ = low sugar. lol

        • Callipygian

          Note the whole statement: ‘better-quality restaurant meals and ready-mades’: the term ‘better-quality’ applies to the ready-mades, as well. There are high-quality ones and low-quality ones. If you can’t afford the former, that’s too bad.

      • OzzyLovesBabyShampoo

        No, actually, gluten intolerance goes well beyond the small number afflicted with coeliac. It’s been proven to greatly benefit people suffering from very common autoimmune diseases like lupus, Hashimoto’s, etc. Your annoying know-it-all attitude makes you look about as silly as the people you’re making fun of. Funny how you just assume “self-diagnosing” and faddism is the problem here when the fact is it often takes doctors 10-20 years to properly diagnose (or even test for) Hashimoto’s. The entire time, the patient is suffering with about 20 very serious symptoms and seeing a variety of specialists and general practitioners only to be told there doesn’t seem to be any problem. Maybe self-diagnosis isn’t so bad after all, then. Especially when many of those doctors are happy to prescribe you medicine for allergies they’ve said you don’t have or prescribe you SSRIs for a mental condition you don’t actually have which can then destroy your life (very often the case with Hashimoto’s patients).

    • lolexplosm

      [citation needed]

      GM foods are safe.

      Trace amounts of glyphosate can’t possibly have such a large systemic change in one’s biology.

      • palustris2

        There is so much evidence to the contrary.
        https://gmo-awareness.com/resources/glyphosate/

        • lolexplosm

          Top of page tells me to buy organic and there’s a tomato being injected with a large syringe and a stupid volume of evil looking liquid. Seems legit.

      • quercus33

        You don’t work for Monsanto or Bayer by any chance?

        • lolexplosm

          A logical fallacy. Not that it’s relevant to the discussion but no.

          Do you think they are literally the only companies that make pesticides and GMOs and that scientific consensus is completely wrong? Glyphosate is out of patent, anyone can make it for one.

    • OzzyLovesBabyShampoo

      Very true. Gluten is a huge problem for people with autoimmune diseases (and may even have caused the disease in some cases). Only now are they starting to realize this. If you have anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings, depression, fatigue, low testosterone, metabolic syndrome, skin rashes, night sweats, tinnitus, headaches, and about a dozen other symptoms I can’t think of at the moment, they may be mostly cured by giving up gluten. Check out the AIP diet (Auto Immune Protocol) to learn more. It’s a pain, but once you see and feel the results after about a month and a half on the diet, you won’t find pizza and sweets very tempting anymore at all.

      • dandelion

        Why, from a scientific perspective, would gluten, which is a combinations of proteins, be responsible for all those ills? Sounds like ‘fibromyalgia’. Who defines what is real and what is mistaken diagnosis?

        • OzzyLovesBabyShampoo

          Why?
          One reason is that one or more of those proteins in wheat is completely indigestible, unlike other proteins, and it creates an irritation in your gut. Your body then produces antibodies to fight off the irritation in the gut, which starts your body fighting itself. This is how auto-immune diseases get started.

          Another reason is probably due to glyphosate killing our gut bacteria. Those bacteria are extremely important.

          The symptoms I listed above are all symptoms of auto-immune diseases such as Hashimoto’s, which is a disease I have myself and those symptoms are all symptoms I had myself, before connecting with a large online group of Hashimoto’s patients and knowledgable doctors who have collected the info and shared what works for free. Every day, new people are sharing their latest lab results and stories of remission.

          Who defines what is real?
          Hashimoto’s has a specific test which is considered the proof you have Hashimoto’s and this test is standard medical knowledge. The antibodies are measurable and Hashimoto’s patients get their antibody, TSH, T3 and T4 levels checked regularly (at least every 6 months). So, the determination of what’s real and what works is very easy: the presence of the antibodies proves you have Hashimoto’s and the lowering of antibodies proves the AIP diet works. AIP stands for “autoimmune protocol” and it works by a process of elimination. The first stage is the elimination of all known possible culprits, which makes it a very strict diet. As a result of this one dietary change, a patient will see his antibodies drop by several hundred points in the span of a few months. While this is happening, the patients symptoms disappear. There are no other factors involved here.

          The AIP diet is not necessarily intended to be a lifelong diet. A person is free to reintroduce foods after at least 3 months to see if specific foods cause a recurrence of any symptoms. This stage is done methodically and intelligently, so we can keep track of what foods we are eating. We don’t just add back eggs, nightshades, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit spices, sugar, coffee, alcohol, dairy and gluten all at once.

          The main problem with Hashimoto’s is that most doctors are not knowledgable enough about Hashimoto’s to know when to test for it, so they definitely don’t know anything about AIP in most cases. Doctors will usually only test for Hashimoto’s if you present a combination of hypothyroid and hyperthyroid symptoms and have an elevated TSH level and tell them Hashimoto’s runs in your family. But, if they just did the test for Hashimoto’s when people came to doctors with help for these symptoms I listed in my previous post, they would diagnose a lot more Hashimoto’s patients because you can have Hashimoto’s for 10 years or more before you actually develop hypothyroidsim. Several Hashimoto’s patients have been wrongly diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic and put on drugs which only made their conditions worse because they weren’t bipolar or schizophrenic at all. This happened to someone I know very well and it has happened to several people in the Hashimoto’s online community.

          Who defines what is real and what is a mistaken diagnosis?
          I just covered this topic a little in answer to your last question. The established medical community has established the presence of antibodies = 100% proof of accurate diagnosis. When someone was previously diagnosed as bipolar or something and suffered for 15 years with no success on drugs for bipolar disorder is eventually found to be in actuality a Hashimoto’s sufferer, then that pretty much proves what the mistaken diagnosis was. Once off the wrong medication and treated with AIP, these people recover very quickly.

          Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease which causes your body to attack its own healthy cells and gluten makes it go crazy. At this point, I would confidently say 100% of people suffering from Hashimoto’s disease would benefit from a gluten-free diet if they ever think to try it. The same is probably true for people with Lupus and all other autoimmune diseases. The AIP diet is finding great success with all kinds of patients.

          I am most knowledgable about Hashimoto’s because that’s what I have and that’s what I spend all my time researching, but I know there have been a few scientific studies and clinical trials with Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Multiple Sclerosis in the last decade or so and all research points to improvement with the elimination of wheat.
          Most of these symptoms are caused by chronic inflammation, which may not sound so serious, but it is serious.

          Sounds like ‘fibromyalgia’
          Hmm, well if you’re one of those people who thinks fibromyalgia is an imagined disease, I won’t try to change your opinion on that, but nobody thinks Hashimoto’s or Lupus or MS is “all in your head.” Nobody thinks that.

          BTW, the Mayo Clinic says fibromyalgia is a real disease, if you happen to trust their opinion at all. They wrote a whole article about why the misperception still exists that it’s “all in your head.” But, what do they know? They’re just the Mayo Clinic.

          • dandelion

            I don’t have time to read all your remarks as I’m getting ready for a long vacation — but I’ll pick out one that I read, since it seems interesting and plausible that gut biota is being adversely affected by people’s diets. But in a way, that means not so much that gluten is to blame as that gluten becomes a problem when other more fundamental mechanisms are out of whack.

          • OzzyLovesBabyShampoo

            You can’t just not read a comment, cherrypick the part that sounds good for your argument and reply like that makes any sense at all. You’re completely wrong, but thanks for wasting my time.

          • dandelion

            Well you quite obviously didn’t read/consider mine, as my reply did NOT ‘sound good for [my] argument’ but was instead a further consideration. Who is wasting whose time? Anyway, I know you didn’t write all that for me: presumably you wish to sway others, and that’s why you bothered with the slightly tailored cut-and-paste. Bon voyage, I’m on vacation!

          • OzzyLovesBabyShampoo

            I like how you don’t have time to read, but you have plenty of time to argue. And there was no cut and paste whatsoever. I wasted way too long trying to write a reasonably comprehensive reply that would answer any questions you had in one go. Silly me. It’s good you wrote “presumably” in your reply because you are definitely presumptuous.

  • david torres

    Yea low protein diets are better. Only a pencil neck with no gainz would say something stupid like this. Protein builds muscle that is torn when you workout and you need it to rebuild it back. One gram per body weight

    • lolexplosm

      No one needs 1g per body weight, not even professional body builders. It’s a myth partly promoted by the supplement industry.

      • OzzyLovesBabyShampoo

        You are correct and protein cycling proves it. It’s like people never figured out that steroid injections are not protein. Obviously, there is something other than protein that causes muscle growth if you can boost your muscle to ridiculous size by injecting steroids. Protein cycling causes your body to make its own steroids, basically, which is much healthier. Intermittent fasting is a similar idea and if you want to boost growth hormone by about 2000% you can work out after not eating for about 18 or 20 hours. Eat plenty right after, of course. The longer you go without eating anything, the more HGH your body will produce and training after 18 hours boosts it as much as possible.

  • JabbaPapa

    So the high protein diet is necessary, even according to the author, during the growth stage — and BTW this is ordinary high protein one should be talking about here, not industrialised junk marketed to body builders, which we do not feed to our children — and he even grudgingly admits a truth, that it’s a useful element to help stave off muscular degeneration in handicapped or geriatric persons.

    That’s hardly “utterly pointless”.

    Professor Sanders appears to define “protein” rather strangely — most of us think of it as found in things like lean meat, eggs, lentils, chick peas and other such ordinary, simple foods ; not whey, porridge, baked beans on toast, hamburgers, and bacon sarnies.

    The underlying truth here is that not everyone has the same type of metabolism nor digestive functionality, and so there is no one-size-fits-all diet that all should follow. (though a traditional French/Provençal/Catalan Mediterranean diet, if you live there, is the closest I know of to being just that)

    As for the so-called “caveman diet”, it’s not “high protein” except seasonally — it’s based on a hunter-gatherer conception, and whilst of course the hunter part is high protein, the gatherer part does not exclude the vegetable patch, fruits and berries, greens and beans. But one does avoid foods out of season if one follows it, as I understand it, so that it does get a bit high protein in the leaner winter months.

    The extreme example of the Arctic Inuit is utterly ridiculous — it would be like using Eskimos today as an example of ordinary dietary habits in the 21st Century.

    • lolexplosm

      Yes it is silly but the promoters of fad diets like LCHF and paleo use the Inuit and other niche populations as “proof” of their diet’s efficacy.

  • Russ Franey

    I can easily lose weight eating bacon,sausage,hamburgers,and salted nuts. Why in the world would I want to eat porridge and peas?