Of the three macronutrients — protein, carbs and fat — protein has the best reputation, and it’s fairly well deserved. We need significant amounts of protein in our diet, and nothing particularly bad happens if we get too much. Dietary protein helps you build muscle, and if you’re trying to lose weight it helps stop you from losing too much muscle along with the fat. It also helps to make meals feel filling. Great! But.
Once the general public gets the idea that something is good for you, the companies that make packaged food start putting it in everything. Or, they make products where the good-for-you thing features prominently on the label, whether or not there is very much inside.
So a lot of packaged food now boasts protein on the label. Here’s what you should ask yourself about those foods:
How much protein is actually in it?
Take a close look here — sometimes a food will boast of a certain amount of food per package but the package contains two or three servings. (That was the case with these protein cookies, for example.)
It’s good to know how much protein you need in your diet. If you’re not gaining or losing weight, and not doing very much exercise, a 70kg person only needs about 54 grams of protein a day. (We have a breakdown for various body weights here.) If you’re working out a lot, or if you’re trying to gain or lose weight (yep, either way), that same 70kg person will need more like 81 to 95 grams of protein per day. More is ok, but not necessary.
So if you’re trying to get 90 grams per day, 30 grams per meal is a reasonable amount to shoot for. Coincidentally, 30 grams is the amount of protein that tends to make a meal feel satisfying. You can do the maths to figure out whether a protein-added product is going to be helpful in your day’s diet.
What would you eat if you weren’t eating this?
I think this is the most important question about protein-added foods. It’s not hard to get protein in a meal; meats, dairy, tofu, beans and grains all tend to supply plenty. So what is this protein-added thing you’re considering, and are you eating it instead of a traditional meal?
Here’s an example. If I’m heading straight from the gym to run some errands, and I need something to substitute for a meal — yeah, this isn’t great planning, but sometimes it happens — a protein bar with 20 grams of protein is a step in the right direction. Better than a candy bar, anyway.
Or take this “protein pack” of jerky, nuts and sunflower seeds. It’s 250 calories and 13 grams of protein. That’s not a lot, but it is more protein than a lot of other things you might grab when options are limited.
On the other hand, there are the chips my kid can’t stop eating. He loves Doritos and such; on a whim we bought him some protein chips (yes, these are a real thing). Are they better for him than the equivalent amount of Doritos? Arguably, sort of yes. But then he started arguing that since they have protein, he should be able to eat them in place of dinner.
We nixed that, but admit it: are you having that same argument with yourself? Feeling better about a snack food because it contains extra protein? If so, the marketing is working: you’re feeling good about yourself, even though you’re just eating a bag of chips.