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At the beginning of the 20th century, the Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson spent five years eating only meat.
20 years later, in 1928, he repeated the experiment for a year.
Stefansson wanted to refute those who argued that humans can not survive if they only eat meat.
But in both cases he got sick. He developed a “protein poisoning”, called “rabbit hunger”, because rabbit meat has very little fat.
His symptoms disappeared after he lowered his protein intake and increased his fat intake.
Then he adopted a diet low in carbohydrates, high in fat and protein until his death at 83 years.
These experiments are among the few recorded cases of high protein intake with extreme adverse effects.
But despite the growing sales of supplements, we are still not sure how much protein we need and how best to consume it.
The era of protein
We are increasingly aware of what we eat.
And in the center of attention is protein, with improved versions of basic products with aggregates of that substance, from cereals to soups.
And with the global protein supplement market valued at US $ 12.4 billion in 2016 , it is clear that we are buying the idea that we need as much protein as possible.
But some experts argue that foods with added protein are just a waste of money.
What is the protein for?
Protein is essential for muscle mass to grow and repair itself.
Foods rich in proteins such as dairy, meat, eggs, fish and beans are broken down into amino acids in the stomach and absorbed in the small intestine.
Then the liver classifies what amino acids the body needs and the rest goes to the urine.
Active adults are advised to eat approximately 0.75 grams of protein per day for each kilogram they weigh.
On average, this is 55 grams for men and 45 grams for women, or two portions the size of the palm of the hand of meat, fish, tofu, nuts or legumes.
Not having enough protein can cause hair loss, skin detachment and weight loss as muscle mass decreases, although this largely only occurs in people with eating disorders.
Most of us associate protein with muscle building. This is so. Exercise based on force causes that substance to decompose in the muscle.
For these to be strengthened, proteins must be rebuilt.
And that’s why the brands of supplements recommend drinking protein shakes after a workout , to help the growth and repair of muscle tissue.
But a 2014 analysis found that those supplements have no impact on muscle strength during the first weeks of resistance training in individuals who do not exercise regularly.
Another 2012 study says that protein “increases physical performance, recovery after training and lean body mass.” But for the benefit to be optimal, it must be combined with a fast-acting carbohydrate.
Food vs. supplements
But even if athletes and those who go to the gym can benefit from a protein boost after training, this does not mean that they should consume supplements and shakes.
For Kevin Tipton, a sports professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, supplements “are a convenient way to get protein, but there is nothing in them that can not be found in food.”
The protein bars are actually candy bars with a little extra protein, “he says.
Tipton adds that even among bodybuilders, products like whey protein are not as important as you think.
“There is too much focus on what supplements to take, instead of going to the gym and working more, there are many other variables, such as sleep, stress and diet,” he says.
There are also some exceptions, such as athletes who have difficulty reaching their daily protein targets.
In this case a shake can be useful, says Graeme Close, professor of human physiology at John Moores University in Liverpool, UK.
As we get older, we need more protein to retain muscle mass.
But we also tend to eat less protein when we get older because our taste buds prefer the sweet taste.
Emma Stevenson, professor of Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Newcastle, UK, works with food companies to add more protein to products that seniors buy regularly, such as biscuits.
“We need to maintain our muscle mass as we get older, because we become less active and fragile,” he says.
There are concerns about the damage that the protein can cause in the kidneys and bones.
Although the protein itself is not harmful, many supplements are rich in carbohydrates called FODMAP, which are oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and fermentable polyols and which trigger digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas and stomach pain.
Stevenson advises to read carefully the labels of the supplements.
“They are often very high in calories and contain large amounts of carbohydrates, usually in the form of sugar,” he says.
Protein is also related to weight loss, with low-carbohydrate and high-protein diets, such as Paleo and Atkins.
And there is enough evidence that protein helps satiate hunger, says Alex Johnstone of the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom.
If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important to have a breakfast rich in protein, such as beans with toast or a milkshake, instead of taking supplements.
But Johnston does not advocate “Atkins” type diets, since eliminating carbohydrates has adverse effects on intestinal health.
Instead, he recommends that people who are overweight consume a high-protein and moderate-carbohydrate diet: 30% protein, 40% carbohydrate and 30% fat.
But increasing protein intake alone does not help you lose weight. Choosing lean meat like chicken or fish is one of the keys.
It is worth mentioning that the risk of consuming too much protein is small in natural foods.
The biggest risk is in taking expensive supplements that offer us more protein than we need.
“Consuming more protein than necessary is a waste in terms of money and is also paid on the toilet,” concludes Johnstone.