America's obsession with protein is just another silly health fad

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If it has protein, chances are it'll end up in your cart.

A 2014 report from the NPD Group, a market-research company, revealed nearly half of U.S. consumers buy protein-enriched products and are willing to shell out more cash if a food boasts the nutrient.

This explains the host of protein-puffed up items on the market: From protein-enriched potato chip alternatives (made from beans!) to protein Cheerios (also made from beans!), food manufacturers are capitalizing off the nation's obsession with the macronutrient. As good as protein can be, the belief that you need to eat a lot of it is just the workings of a standard fad diet trend.

Notice that you'll need to add milk to get the full 14g of protein.Source: Cheerios
Notice that you'll need to add milk to get the full 14g of protein.  Cheerios

A new report from Quartz claims that "wildly effective marketing has led Americans to eat way more protein than they actually need." The result is near-identical to the fall-out after the low-fat or fat-free fad that erupted in the late 1980s. Consumer beliefs about protein and its supposed cure-all powers have led some to overdose on the nutrient.

But most of us are getting enough of the nutrient as is.

"Protein deficiency is not a problem in the U.S.," registered dietitian Alexis Joseph said in an email. Indeed, it is recommended that adults get 10% to 35% of their daily calories from protein-rich foods. This equates to about 46 grams for women and 56 for men, according to WebMD. You can use the USDA's calculator to determine the right amount for you.

And yet, a 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the average American man consumes 102 grams of protein daily, which is a little more than double the recommended amount, the Huffington Post reported. 

Eat too much of this good thing and yes, there are associated health risks. Bad breath, mood swings and kidney damage are just a few, according to Women's Health.

Meat.Source: Markus Spiske/Stocksnap
Meat.  Markus Spiske/Stocksnap

Protein won't make you as fast as Usain Bolt, but you kind of think it will.

Protein is considered an athlete's fuel by the masses, because it can help build muscle mass, repair and strengthen muscle tissue and support weight loss. It's associated with intense workouts, strong muscles, endurance and sometimes masculinity.

"It makes sense that we've become enamored with protein," Quartz offered. "It's sold as a simple, easy way to be healthy and nutritious — who wouldn't want to think their workout habits necessitate them to refuel like Usain Bolt, with just a fraction of the actual commitment?"

This explanation supports the underlying problem American adults — 38% of whom are obese — have with food. Consumers are hungry for a quick fix, a magic-prescription that'll help them slim down, all while they continue with their often unhealthy daily diets. 

It's the same reason why the diet industry sees upwards of $60 billion on an annual basis. And even as American perspectives shift, "diet" foods are beginning to fail, while "health" food is on the rise, as NPR reported.

In essence, the protein craze might as well be the new cabbage soup diet. Yes, protein is good for you, just as high fiber and low-calorie cabbage is, but sustaining on the nutrient alone won't transform you into a superhero.

So we probably don't need protein in our cereal.

Eating naturally protein-rich food trumps eating foods with added protein. "Protein from whole foods always reigns supreme," Joseph said. "Relying on isolated protein in veggie burgers or protein bars means the protein is more processed and no longer working synergistically with the thousands of other nutrients in the original whole food," she continued. 

If you eat this, you don't need beans in your cereal.Source: Lisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock
If you eat this, you don't need beans in your cereal.  Lisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

Animal sources are certainly not the only sources of natural protein. Even plant-based proteins like quinoa and organic tofu do the job, because they contain all essential amino acids, Joseph said. While the myth that vegetarians don't get enough of the nutrient prevails, options like nuts, seeds, beans and vegetables make it easy to sustain a balanced diet. 

As cheesy as it sounds, balance really is key.

History repeats itself again and again in the case of any fad diet. Here's the cycle: Early enthusiasts promote it as the one that finally impacted the number on the scale, books and other products reveal themselves to the masses and, at last, the imbalanced diet is debunked. 

A mix of healthy fats, whole grains, veggies and plant-based proteins is where its at.Source: Jeffrey Betts/Stocksnap
A mix of healthy fats, whole grains, veggies and plant-based proteins is where its at.  Jeffrey Betts/Stocksnap

For example, after the Atkins diet peaked experts caught up and revealed the many health risks associated with the high-protein, low-carb plan: High cholesterol, kidney stones and osteoporosis. 

As for protein? Protein is good. Protein is a building block of human life. It supports the immune system, repairs tissue and regulates hormones, among many other functions, Joseph said. 

But it's just one component of what makes up a healthy lifestyle. Carbohydrates and fat are just as important. "Carbohydrates fuel our daily lives, namely our brain and central nervous system," Joseph said. "Fat helps insulate the body, digest vitamins, boost brain health, and aid in growth and development."

Some classic mediterranean food. Source: Sergey Yechikov/Shutterstock
Some classic mediterranean food.  Sergey Yechikov/Shutterstock

A diet that continues to be endorsed by healthcare professionals is one that encapsulates balance. The Mediterranean diet, which stresses consuming mostly plant-based foods, whole grains, healthy fats, legumes and nuts, balances the three macronutrients and has been shown to have health benefits that span beyond maintaining an ideal weight.

Instead of restricting certain foods or overdosing on single nutrients, the Mediterranean diet promotes a colorful eating plan with many tastes. Better yet, some say a nightly glass of wine can be included in the regimen. Feel free to drink to that.