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Food trends these days have gotten better at begging you to pay attention to them. Instead of one brand convincing us it’s the new thing, we have every brand collectively on the same train. Today, the trend is protein-added foods.
“Now with 25 grams of protein!” shouts a shiny bar wrapper staring out at you at the grocery checkout. Even desserts have this label, proclaiming ice cream sandwiches to be a “high-protein indulgence.” Uber-protein-ified bars, balls, bites, shakes, and cookies — no food has been left behind in this protein rush.
And after years of vilifying carbs and fats, the uptick in protein in American foods makes sense. It’s the one macronutrient we can all agree upon.
Or perhaps it’s because many of us associate it with strength.
Gym culture particularity encourages the idea that mega-doses of protein are the key to staying fit or rebuilding muscle tissue (and, if you’re into it, getting totally ripped). Who doesn’t remember the early gym goer in middle school who was downing protein shakes after a workout?
Besides just building muscle, this nutrient serves innumerable other purposes, like giving structure to cells, regulating fluid balance, and creating enzymes that facilitate bodily functions.
Obviously, it’s a good idea to eat foods that provide enough of it. But what exactly is enough — and are protein-loaded snacks the answer?
Compared to the placement and popularity of high-protein products, protein requirements per standard governmental nutrition advice actually appears quite low. The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein for adults is just 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. By this standard, a 170-pound person needs only 58 grams of protein per day — less than what you’d find in a single serving of steak.
But many nutrition experts point out that calculations like these aren’t one-size-fits-all, and a variety of factors go into understanding individual protein needs.
“The DRIs for protein are based on studies that estimate the minimum amount of protein needed to prevent deficiencies, which is different than the amount needed to promote optimal health,” says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, of the International Food Information Council.
“Optimal protein intake is likely higher than this benchmark and is probably different for everyone: It can vary depending on age, sex, if a woman is pregnant or lactating, and level and type of physical activity,” she says.
If you’re shooting for weight loss, it’s also definitely a mistake to underestimate your protein needs.
“I have certainly had clients who are restricting their food intake or think they are making healthy choices but are actually low on protein intake,” says board-certified sports dietitian Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, of Simply Fuel. “Protein helps to satisfy, so I’m often getting people to increase their protein so they feel more satisfied to help assist with weight loss.”
“You really don’t ever need to go over 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight [per day],” says Dulan. And that’s for athletes. For anyone with compromised kidney function, Dulan notes, they should be especially careful about taking in too much. (To find how much you need, in pounds or based on your workout style, use this calculator.)
Despite concerns about under- and overconsuming protein, recent research indicates that most Americans aren’t at risk of either.
A 2018 analysis found that the majority of the U.S. population exceeds minimum recommendations for this macro, but doesn’t overstep what’s considered acceptable.
Translation: Except for special circumstances, most of us are probably doing just fine, protein-wise — so supplementing through high-protein bars, balls, and bites is likely unnecessary. This is especially true if you think opting for a high protein snack may be healthier than a regular snack.
Many of these popular snacks, blinged-out with protein exclamations, are highly processed, contain questionable ingredients, or large amounts of sugar and sodium.
Lenny & Larry’s Complete Chocolate Chip Cookie, for example, may be marketed for its 16 grams of protein, but they define a serving as half a cookie.
Likewise, Skinny Cow’s “protein-packed indulgence” Fudgetastic Java ice cream won’t actually offer you 23 grams of protein unless you’re eating the whole pint. You won’t want to get your power from PowerBar’s Cookies N Cream protein bar, either, whose ingredient list reads like a mystery novel of syrups and oils.
We’re not saying ban all high-protein snacks! For people who don’t eat meat, dairy, and/or have allergy concerns, these bars could be a real life saver. But we also think it’s worth taking a pause to read the label before throwing them into your cart.
“The healthfulness of any food is determined by everything it contains,” says Webster. “Make sure you read the Nutrition Facts label to see the big picture of how many total calories, types of fat and amount of sodium, fiber and added sugars are in a high-protein product.”
If you’re aiming to bulk up or need extra protein for any other reason, first try adding it to your diet through whole foods like eggs, soybeans, meats, fish, and nuts. (For folks allergic to all the above, there are some low sugar options out there, such as R.E.D.D, which you can buy online.)
These foods may not come with fancy packaging boasting their macros, but without added sugars or off-the-wall ingredients, they’re probably a lot better for you in the long run.
Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.