Protein has undergone a sort of image makeover. The macronutrient is no longer confined to the pages of science textbooks and has recently appeared on our flashy screens and social media feeds in a new avatar as #highprotein.

According to reports, a high-protein diet is one of the biggest food trends to emerge online in recent years. An article on The Food Institute website, while quoting a study by Brandwatch, explained that "online search interest for the term 'high protein' reached a five-year high in early 2023 and has remained high since”. Additionally, a Forbes article reported last month that "TikTok data shows #highprotein scored a whopping 2 billion U.S. views over the last 12 months”.

Nathalie Jabrayan, head of nutrition at Enhance Fitness, says that the current high-protein trend emerged on social media during the Covid-19 pandemic. "All of us were stuck at home with not much to do, and many people started following online diet and workout programmes," she explains. "People began talking about how gaining muscle mass is the fountain of youth and how we need to increase protein intake for it - which is all true, but it needs to be done within a certain logical limit." She also explains that people often forget that one gram of protein and carbohydrate both provide 4 calories. "And if you consume more food than what your body burns, it will be stored as fat," she adds.

Although high-protein and low/no-carb diets like the Keto diet and Atkins diet have been around for a while, nutrition and mindset coach Charlie Ruby Baxter points out that the current trend is markedly different, in a good way. "Now, it’s about eating a high-protein diet alongside healthy fats and carbohydrates as part of a balanced diet, rather than cutting them out and following an unhealthy, restrictive diet," she says. It's a positive development, she adds, as it has helped to correct the popular misconception that a high-protein diet is ideal only for "gym bunnies or bodybuilders looking to build muscle."

"Our bodies are made up of protein – our bones, skin, and hair are all made out of protein — and it helps to build muscle and repair tissue, so eating a diet that’s high in protein is essential for your health," she explains. "It also keeps us feeling fuller longer; we are likely to snack less in between meals, adhere to diets longer, and consume fewer calories throughout the week, thus leading to weight loss as well."

Baxter, who runs a private coaching business and has a partnership with the sports nutrition brand My Protein, also posts about high-protein meals on social media. “The two things people question or struggle with are how to get protein into their meals and how to get the right amount, as it’s easy to overeat carbs like rice, pasta, and bread. So I like to post quick and easy high-protein recipes, like a 10-minute high-protein dinner, to help people eat balanced meals,” she says, adding that she gets tons of requests for such recipes.

Separating fact from fiction

There is no disputing the fact that protein is very important for us – they are called the 'building blocks of our body' for a reason. But as the age-old saying goes, too much of anything is good for nothing, and experts are concerned that half-truths parading as expert-approved facts on social media platforms might have tossed nuance out of the window.

With popular diets often casting carbs and fats as villains, people become obsessed with protein, considering it the elusive secret to weight loss. But medical experts have warned against consuming too much protein through foods high in saturated fat, as it can increase the risk of heart disease. They have also spoken about the ramifications for people with underlying medical issues, such as kidney disease, consuming more protein than recommended, and emphasised the importance of first checking whether one even has a protein deficiency to begin with.

Thirty-five-year-old Sarah* loves her regular runs around the neighbourhood park, sticks to a healthy diet, and prefers to take a 'moderate' approach to health and fitness. However, about two years ago, she uncharacteristically decided to embark on a high-protein diet soon after delivering her baby boy. “I wanted to lose those stubborn extra postpartum kilos,” she remembers. Her infant son was a terrible sleeper, and it didn’t help that Sarah tried to stay awake by scrolling through social media. “It might be the algorithm, but to me, every lean and toned person on Instagram seemed to talk only about protein and weight loss.”

She decided to cut down on carbs – gradually and later, drastically – and added protein shakes to her diet. “It had reached a point where I was only drinking protein shakes at breakfast and dinner and very little food.” She did lose the weight, but she also began to suffer from debilitating headaches and constipation. “I happened to mention this to my gynaecologist during a follow-up checkup, and she was alarmed by my diet. She advised me to have a well-balanced meal filled with complex carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and fibre.”

Jabrayan, who has 13.7k followers on Instagram, calls fitness “the topic of the century”. “So it is super common for companies to promote high-protein products through fitness and nutrition influencers who get paid, and in medical and fitness centres as well,” she continues, adding that she would promote products like protein shakes only ‘in certain cases and if there are specific medical needs’.

Swayed by social media posts, people like Sarah end up erroneously believing that they have to replace their meals with protein shakes. “One scoop of protein powder when mixed with water will give you 120 calories, which makes it a very low-calorie meal, but they fail to understand that it lacks vitamins, minerals, fibre, and real ingredients,” points out Jabrayan.

It’s even more concerning when the trend percolates through gullible teenagers, who adopt such trends with little thought or research. Cynthia Bou Khalil, a dietitian at Medcare Dr Saeed Al Shaikh Gastro & Obesity Centre, explains that fitness influencers promote the use of protein powders like creatine, “which the younger generation probably does not require”. “Teenagers will follow anyone with a great physique, and they believe in a one-size-fits-all strategy which is not advisable in nutrition,” she says.

A billion dollar market

Multiple studies have shown that the global protein supplements market is worth billions of dollars and is estimated to grow even further. And this is evident on the ground too – the range of protein powders alone is mind-boggling.

Experts are frequently asked about protein supplements, especially popular ones like protein powders, both online and offline, and they always emphasise the timeless wisdom of reading the ingredients list carefully before buying a product. “Most protein powder brands that are advertised on social media may contain additional sugar, calories, or potentially toxic substances,” points out Khalil, adding that certain protein bars too could have ultra-processed components, artificial sweeteners, and added sugars.

Jabrayan believes that people should try to meet their recommended protein intake through regular, daily meals before considering the use of supplements like protein shakes. “And if you do have a protein shake, make sure that it has as many natural ingredients as possible, that it's NSF certified, or is certified by a credible company, and use it only when necessary,” she advises.

A lot of it comes down to convenience as everyone is busy, explains Baxter. “If there is no time to make lunch, having a protein shake is absolutely a great thing to eat rather than skipping a meal, starving, and then overeating later.” She, too, emphasises the importance of reading labels before buying any product that claims to be high in protein. “For a snack to be high in protein, you need it to be upwards of 12 grams — 15 to 20 grams would be a high-protein snack. If you are getting 400 calories from a snack with 10 grams of protein, then you are not getting much protein.”

*Name withheld on request

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