We need to talk about protein.
We need to talk about protein. And why I feel the need to ruin every breakfast with it.
It’s everywhere. Protein pancakes, protein waffles, protein bread, protein pasta, protein crisps, protein added to everything that MyProtein can possibly think of. In just two minutes of scrolling through my Instagram explore I could easily find 10+ posts with ‘high protein’ recipes or videos of instagram influencers ruining a normal chocolate muffin with whey protein to make it the chewiest food ever to exist. Then don’t forget to factor in the extortionate price tags added to these ‘high protein’ food products.
Now don’t get me wrong, protein is important. It’s a non negotiable element of your diet - irrespective of where you source it and even more important if you’re veggie/vegan. We use it for muscle repair, growth, hormone production amongst a whole host of other processes and we need a variety of different protein sources (and via that, amino acids) to ensure our bodies are functioning properly. It can also make a huge difference to someone’s weight loss/gain journey if they have a low protein intake and begin to prioritise it. But when did we forget that a lot of foods naturally have a decent amount of protein in them?
I feel like at this point I have been brainwashed and it’s definitely the fault of the fitness industry. Protein intake has been the ‘thing’ that’ll help get you the body or the results that you want for a few years now and I have definitely pushed that point with my clients and with my own diet. But this obsession with protein powder, protein bars, protein ice cream, protein crisps (why would anyone need protein crisps?) has gone a little too far in my opinion. I reached a point before lockdown where I felt like in order to justify eating or for a meal to have significant value it had to have loads of protein in it - otherwise it was just a waste of calories, even if I enjoyed it. And that applied to every single meal or snack.
This mostly affected my breakfasts and resulted in me sticking protein powder in pretty much everything from porridge to attempted protein pancakes. But I also tried various recipes for high protein bread, mug cakes, brownies etc and none of them tasted that nice. The overall texture was rubbery and if it’s flavoured protein powder that tends to be the overriding taste - even worse if it’s unflavoured.
Things like pancake day have been absolutely ruined by the fitness industry too. It’s the one day of the year where we’ve basically stuck it in the calendar to ‘eat as many pancakes filled with sugar or jam as you want’ - ONE DAY A YEAR - and yet the amount of ‘Protein Pancake Recipe’ posts I saw on my instagram was infuriating. Why can’t we just enjoy our one day of the year where we eat pancakes covered in sugar? Why does it have to contain protein powder? Did we just forget that eggs have protein in them too?
I wonder how much this protein obsession actually links back to just a poor relationship with food. As if a higher protein content gives us the permission to binge on those foods or over consume them - because hey, more protein makes it healthier right? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that actually learning to enjoy and moderate our consumption of sweet or savoury treats like cakes or crisps is more important. We need to be able to allow ourselves to enjoy the foods that we eat without feeling guilt about it. Eat the occasional slice of cake, enjoy it and move on.
That’s not an easy thing to learn - especially when those foods are labelled as ‘syns’, ‘cheats’ or just plain villainized. Yet they’re so readily accessible in supermarkets with cheap prices and huge multipacks that they’re hard to ignore. But if we can delve into why we over consume these things, why we feel the need to eat foods that give us instant sugary gratification then that might go a long way. Education at the primary and school level certainly plays a factor and I think there is likely a mental health aspect at play for a lot of people struggling with their weight. That in itself often presents as a vicious cycle of binge eating for those suffering from eating disorders too.
Clearly there are lots of factors at play - but I do not think that adding protein to literally everything is the answer (again, protein crisps wtf?). It won’t magically fix everything, especially if your diet is lacking nutrients and whole sources of protein. So fix that first and then start to look for supplements to top things up. If you like protein in your porridge by all means go wild with it but if you’re weighing up whether to have a protein mug cake or a tasty triple chocolate cookie on a Saturday afternoon and you’re thinking about protein intake - just eat the cookie and chug a scoop of protein powder with some skimmed/almond milk. You’ll enjoy the cookie much more and won’t spend the rest of the day thinking about it - which might have led you to overeat later - and you've kept your protein high. Or just eat the cookie! One snack or meal without mega high protein isn't going to ruin anything.
Remember, the value of the food on your plate is not dictated by how much protein it has got in it. There are other important factors like fibre, vitamins and sheer enjoyment whilst eating it. That’s a much more sustainable way of going about it. Not to mention lighter on your bank balance. And who doesn’t want that, right? It is important to ensure we are getting a good mixture of protein sources in our diet. It does not mean that every single snack or meal you eat has to have protein powder or added protein in it - especially if that compromises your enjoyment.
Help, I spent an hour looking at ‘protein cereals’. But I made something useful out of it, so I guess that’s something?
Picture this. You’re in the cereal aisle at the supermarket trying to find something that looks tasty, has some semblance of ‘health’ and isn’t too expensive. Then BAM you spot a boujee looking packet of [insert generic woman’s name]’s Protein Granola. It boasts over 25g of protein per serving and when you check out the website everyone is super slim and athletic looking. Must be the perfect cereal right? The only issue is you can only get a 350g bag (approx 7 or 8 portions?) and it costs £4. Is it worth it? Well let me take the deliberation out of your hands because I procrastinated for an hour looking at protein cereals and here’s my verdict.
All these comparisons are based on information taken from the nutritional info available on supermarket/supplier websites and I’m making the assumption that the average serving of cereal is about 40g. Chances are, if you’re free pouring your cereal you’ll be eating even more than that and that makes the price per serving go up even higher. I’ve even added a couple of milk or yogurt options to hopefully show you that you don’t need to spend a fortune on ‘protein’ foods when the normal options are pretty good too. That being said, the supermarket own brand protein granolas are reasonably priced so if you were so inclined you wouldn’t empty your wallet! Those fancy little packets or big brands though? I’d say they’re not worth the money - Kellogg’s was especially disappointing!