Diet fads come and go like bellbottoms and ripped blue jeans, but lately it seems as if the food industry is trying to pack protein onto every aisle in the grocery store. The country’s newest fixation with protein has doctors and dieticians wondering how long it’ll last, especially now that we’ve entered overkill mode.

Proteins are the building blocks of our body. They form structural tissue, muscle fibers, hormones, antibodies, blood plasma, enzymes — you name it, and there's a good chance protein is responsible for building it. But in a meat-loving country such as America, the fear of not incorporating enough protein into our diets isn’t as great of a concern as consuming too much.

The majority of Americans aren’t body builders with active lifestyles and highly regimented eating routines. Instead, they’re often people who spend a lot of time going from sitting at their desks, to subway trains or cars, to the dinner table, and finally, to their couches where they sit in front of the TV until they head to bed. That’s an enormous amount of time to spent sedentary, which means the body isn’t converting all that protein into muscle as the body repairs itself. Instead, the body stores it, and if left unused, it turns right into fat.

How Much Protein Are We Eating, Anyway?

An average adult needs roughly 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight a day, which adds up to around 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women, according to the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine. But how much are we really getting? Men who are 20 years and older consume an average of 98.9 grams of protein a day, and their female age mates consume over 68 grams, according to What We Eat In America, a 2010 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Protein is a macronutrient that while having many benefits, also has many downfalls when we overdose on it,” Alyssa Miller, a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor who’s currently working on her Fitness Nutrition Specialist Certification, told Medical Daily. “The average American diet should consist of a maximum of 35 percent protein. In a 2,000-calorie diet, this would be 175 grams of protein. Exceeding 35 percent of protein in a diet over a long period of time will wreak havoc on your body.”

Bringing your protein expenditure to its limits is not recommended. In fact, consistent protein overload will flood the kidneys, and cause digestive issues, nausea, harm to your brain and nervous system, and unusual weight gain. You’ll also be putting your body at risk of developing more serious long-term health problems, such as a build up of amino acids, insulin, ammonia, and other toxic substances in your bloodstream.  

“Protein, when broken down in the body, forms an acidic substance. Anything acidic in the body is a breeding ground for disease,” Miller said. “To maintain the pH balance in the body and make it a healthy body, it needs to be alkaline. This happens through eating vegetables and other things that are not animal products."

Balance is key. Instead of consuming a constant flow of meat and carbohydrates, which is what fried chicken, French fries, hamburgers, and basically any of the items listed on a fast food menu are, look for healthier protein sources. The Japanese vegetable dish edamame, for example, packs in 16 grams of protein per cup. Other reliable non-animal sources of protein are chia seeds, quinoa, lentils, Greek yogurt, tempeh, peanut butter, and chickpeas.

Why are Americans still consuming such high rates of animal protein, despite the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism's recommendations that we only consume protein from nutritious, low-fat, low-cholesterol sources? It doesn't sound like bacon and bologna qualify.

Edamame is a nutritious, high-protein food. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Protein Propaganda

With the recent launches of Oscar Meyer’s P3 Protein packs, Cheerios Protein cereal, and Special K Protein bars, it’s clear how the industry is trying to meet the public's demand with forever changing dietary fads. Since 2008, there’s been a 54 percent increase in the amount of new products with a high-protein or vegan claim. High-protein diets have quickly gained popularity in a country that is more than one-third obese — strangely juxtaposed with an obsession to live healthy.

With the average American eating three to five times more protein than necessary to sustain healthy muscle density, it’s difficult to determine where or why the overload started. Meat consumption has risen dramatically over the past century, but that can’t be the reason protein powder, bars, shakes, and pills flooded the weight-loss and body-building market so dramatically. Scientists have known for decades that protein builds lean muscle mass, provides a feeling of fullness, and can help aid in weight loss. So why now?

Maybe we’re just behind the rest of the world. In 2011, a French doctor by the name of Pierre Dukan, designed an abnormally high protein diet called the “Dukan Diet.” It came equipped with weight loss promises, a savvy accent, and copious amounts of protein. It set up the consumer for seven stages; the final stage lasts for the rest of your life and allows you to eat whatever you want for six days a week, except for the seventh day, which is a designated protein-only day. The claim is that eating high amounts of lean protein will eliminate hunger and naturally drop the amount of calories the body craves.

Are we just late on the trends or is our infatuation with protein the result of something else? Protein campaigns promise the macronutrient will help us lose weight, build muscles, and avoid age-related muscle loss. Seventy-one percent of Americans say they want to incorporate even more into their diets. Who is responsible for telling someone to slow down, you’ve had too much? Nutrition labels are convoluted and riddled with jargon, making it even more difficult to figure out how much we’re supposed to be eating. Have we become victims to our own naiveté, or is it simply clever marketing?

In 2014, milk lobbyists were looking for a new catch phrase that could compare to their famous “Got Milk" campaign. They surveyed 2,500 teens and adults and asked them what could help make milk more appetizing, and elicit a liking comparable to the insurmountable love this country has for juice, soda, or even water. What did they say could do this? It wasn’t that milk was 25 cents a glass, or that it has a heaping serving of calcium. It was the protein.

A glass of milk has 8 grams of protein per glass, and with that, the $50 million “Milk Life” campaign came to fruition in the same year.  The market is making magic on our endless search for the "perfect pill" for health, and the “secret” to health, happiness, and a tiny tummy or big biceps. In the last year there’s been a 49 percent increase in snacks making high-protein claims alone.

Experts believe that protein's popularity has the potential to survive longer than its ancestors, the Atkins, the Zone, and Paleo diets. If protein’s promises don’t leave a hollow feeling in dieters’ stomachs, and consumers learn to master the balancing act, the high-protein fad may never leave.