Pop quiz: What’s the better snack choice — an apple or a packaged protein bar? If you answered protein bar, you might be in trouble, at least according to a new book called Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession with Meat Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It.
The book’s title might sound extreme, but author Garth Davis, MD, medical director of the Davis Clinic at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, is setting out to change the way we think about protein. “I’m not saying that protein is necessarily bad for you, but I want to stop this idea that you have to choose food based on protein claims,” he says.
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So, should you give protein a starring role on your plate? Or should you reconsider? We explored both sides of the controversy.
The Case for a Plant-Based Diet
“Of all the nutrients our bodies need for various functions, protein is the most vital.”
We hate to say it, but not all protein is created equal. Protein can come from both plant and animal sources, and it’s the animal-based protein that carries more danger, says Davis. Meat is a big source of saturated fat, which raises your risk of heart disease. It also increases inflammatory markers like cortisol and c-reactive protein, which can also cause issues with your ticker.
That being said, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Davis follows an entirely vegan diet. And while he doesn’t suggest everyone do the same, he does recommend eating plant-based — and limiting meat and dairy.
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The Problem with Processed Protein
Even if you limit your meat and dairy intake, packaged protein bars can carry a whole other set of risks. “I see vegans and vegetarians that are so obsessed with protein that they eat all these processed foods [with added protein],” he says. Those items often carry a “health halo” — the appearance of being good for you, when in fact, they may have more calories, artificial ingredients and fat than whole foods.
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Luckily, there are a lot of protein and nutrient-rich foods you can eat to your stomach’s content. “Research shows the foods that are the most associated with health are fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and seeds,” says Davis. These foods are also chock-full of fiber, protein’s less sexy (but just as filling) stepsister. “Fiber keeps your blood sugar stable, increases fullness, and reduces your cholesterol,” Davis says.
The Pro-Animal Protein Argument
It won’t surprise you to know that not everyone agrees with Davis. Caroline Cederquist, MD, says most of her clients aren’t getting enough protein in their daily diets. “Of all the nutrients our bodies need for various functions, protein is the most vital. If you eat enough at regular intervals during the day, your metabolism will run at an optimal level,” Cederquist, creator of bistroMD and author of The MD Factor, says.
She has her clients eat 25 to 35 grams at each meal (especially at breakfast) and 10 to 15 grams per snack. For perspective, the Institute of Medicine recommends at least 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams for men — the amount needed to prevent deficiency. Cederquist says she encourages people to eat more than 100 grams of protein a day so that individuals can preserve muscle mass (especially if they’re trying to lose weight).
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However, that doesn’t give you permission to indulge big honking steak. Eat too much protein and your body may store the excess as fat, Cederquist says. She suggests four to six ounces of lean protein, like chicken beast and pork tenderloin, per meal. (That’s about the size of a deck of cards.) Davis, on the other hand, recommends not counting protein or calories — and instead focusing on eating a well-rounded diet of real, whole foods.
The jury’s out (probably for good) on which argument is better. But the one place they agree: Plant-based protein is always a good choice. Check out these 14 best proteins for meatless meals for a guilt-free fix any time of day.