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Protein Myths: How Much Do We Really Need?

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Lately, protein has been touted as the new magic macronutrient that will solve our athletic and weight-related goals. Gain lean muscle mass while dropping fat, so long as you’re consuming a high protein, low carb diet. Climbers of every stripe can be seen snacking on protein bars mid session and chugging shakes post-send.

But really, are these high protein snacks actually helping our performance and recovery? Or are they a waste of money?

The science is complicated. When we’re talking about how much protein you should actually consume, you have to consider gender, age, athletic activity, genetics and health status. Given all of these conflicting factors, which can be both static and dynamic, there’s no sorcery that can be done to offer you a perfect formula. Still, physicians can speculate.

Current US dietary recommendations prescribe a diet consisting of 10-35% protein content. Given a 2,000 calorie diet, that comes out to 200 to 650 calories from protein, or 50 to 163 grams of protein a day. According to the Center for Disease Control, the average protein intake for men and women in the US is 16.1% and 15.6%, respectively, or about 80 grams of protein per day.

For reference, an egg has six grams of protein, so a three egg omelette will have at least 18 grams of protein. Add in a quarter cup of cheese and two slices of bacon, and breakfast has 33 grams of protein. Most professional athletes have added protein powders, bars and gels to their routine to up their total daily protein dose. If each meal consumed by athletes contains around 30 grams of protein and if an after-workout shake has 20 grams, then the athlete gets around 110 grams of protein per day, which is still within the recommended daily values. 

Protein is important for growth and development. Consumption of protein containing essential amino acids is necessary to replenish amino acid stores. Broadly speaking, males, growing children, athletes, pregnant women and the elderly are all sectors of the population that tend to require slightly more protein than their counterparts. Climbers on heavy training cycles or attempting send burns should definitely consider how much protein they are consuming.

A closer look at nationwide habits, however, reveals interesting trends. The latest federal dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years, concluded that boys and men are consuming too much protein. The guidelines suggest that boys and men “reduce their overall intake of protein foods” such as meats, poultry, cheeses and snack foods and to increase vegetable intake.

Needless to say, the beef industry took issue with this suggestion. “A significant amount of research shows that many people can lose and maintain a healthy weight, support a healthy metabolism and age more vibrantly when they consume more high-quality protein,”  said Dr. Richard Thorpe, a Texas cattle rancher and doctor, on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

But the less-incentivized experts are skeptical. In his study on eating disorders in adolescent males conducted at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Jerel Calzo emphasized that “the body can only absorb so much protein. If you’re doubling up, you’re only getting the extra calories— sugars and fats.” According to Jim White, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist who spoke on behalf of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, that absorption number is about 20 to 40 grams. So a steak dinner followed by a protein shake would likely be a waste. Unfortunately, excess protein turning into fat is truly the best case scenario. 

A 2014 study that has since been cited over 400 times and involved a nationally representative sample of 6,381 Americans demonstrated that low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in cancer and overall mortality in the 65 and younger population. Indeed, the study found that those eating a high protein diet between the ages 50 and 65 were four times more likely to die of cancer than those eating less protein. 

“One of the benefits and concerns about high protein intake, especially animal protein, is that it tends to make cells multiply faster,” said Dr. Walter Willett in an interview with The New York Times. “That’s good in early life, when you’re a growing child. But in later life, this is one of the fundamental processes that increase the risk of cancer.” Willett is the chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Studies have also shown that protein-rich diets may lead to kidney damage in those that are already at risk for kidney disease, which according to the National Kidney Foundation, is up to one in three Americans. A big risk factor for kidney disease is diabetes. Large public health studies have demonstrated an association between high protein diets and type 2 diabetes risk. In the European Association for the Study of Diabetes 2011 Meeting, Swedish researchers suggested that replacing protein with carbohydrates, especially carbs high in fiber, may be better for avoiding diabetes. A small trial study conducted in 2016 showed that older women who lost weight on a high protein diet did not reap the usual benefits that follow weight reduction. They did not have improved insulin sensitivity, meaning their risk of diabetes remained high. 

Many climbers may opt for a high protein diet because it’s supposedly the key to losing weight while maintaining muscle mass. Studies have also shown that muscle mass is not necessarily preserved from high protein intake. Scientists at the Institute for Food and Nutrition in The Netherlands concluded that “increasing protein intake above habitual intake levels does not preserve lean body mass, strength or physical performance during prolonged energy intake restriction.” 

Still, the Hartman Group, a consumer research firm that has focused on the American food and beverage marketplace over the past 30 plus years, has found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are now actively trying to increase their protein intake. According to USDA estimates, the average American devoured a little under 10 ounces of meat and poultry every day in 2018. The US government, however, recommends adults eat 5 to 6.5 ounces per day.  While many Americans are currently giving carbs a cold shoulder, they’re missing out on many other important micronutrients. 

Originally designed for the elderly and malnourished, products like Ensure and Boost were not expected to become the new craze for the young and athletic. Now, climbers are not only tipping meat scales, they’re reaching for supplements and shakes. According to Grand View Research, a market research and consulting firm, “the global protein supplements market size was valued at USD 14 billion in 2018 and is driven by an increase in health and fitness centers and rising /health consciousness among consumers.”

The truth is that we don’t know what the upper limits are. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. John E. Swartzberg, chairman of a Wellness-focused editorial board at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “It’s an experiment. No one can tell you the long-term effects, and that’s what worries me as a physician. No one can tell you what the results are going to be in people’s bodies 10 or 15 years later.”

Is protein really the fairytale nutrient it’s made out to be? The answer seems to be no. “To me, protein is a nonissue,” said Dr. Marion Nestle, the recently retired Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University. “You can’t talk about protein in isolation from everything else people eat.”

The pragmatic rule: Everything in moderation. 

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