Eat too much protein too often, and you risk accelerated aging and “a whole range of problems” including metabolic health issues in middle age, Simpson says, noting that the high-protein diet as a “therapeutic device” should be targeted and short- term.
Almost all Australian adults (99 per cent) already meet or exceed the recommended dietary protein intake of about 46 grams for women and 64 grams for men.
“We have a perfectly good protein appetite control system if we put it in a whole food environment,” Simpson says. “You’ll start craving more umami and savory flavors when you’re short of protein.”
In the world of processed foods, however, this system can become easily duped. It can make us “particularly susceptible to savory-flavored junk which isn’t high in protein” like cheesy corn chips, or we can consume more protein than we need via protein-dense bars.
“People are definitely way too obsessed with protein,” McMillan says. “We can easily meet our needs from whole foods, even if you’re a vegan.”
Still, she says: “They may have a place in sports nutrition for athletes and very active individuals who need the convenience of food they can pop in their training bag, so I don’t completely write them off.”
How then do you choose from the plethora available?
Along with the high-protein label, many bars have jumped on the low-carb, keto wagon, but that doesn’t make them any better warns Alex Thomas, a clinically accredited sports nutritionist and founder of the Sports Nutrition Association.
“Ingredients like sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, polydextrose all act very similarly to carbohydrates when you ingest them – that’s how [food marketers] hide it and say ‘low-carb’ – but they can upset your stomach… and they don’t taste as good.”
The fewer ingredients, the better says McMillan, who adds that bars without additives, refined oils or sugars are “hard to find”.
After meat, the experts suggest whey protein – a market worth $13.5 billion globally – which is extracted from milk and is fast absorbing, can improve muscle synthesis and repair after exercise, McMillan explains. “But the studies are usually with whey in a protein shake… the same might not be true in bar format. And other ingredients like fat may slow down the digestion and absorption.”
She isn’t “a fan” of bars with soy protein isolate either. “It ditches the other parts of the soybean that may be beneficial to health and is the isolated extracted protein. That’s not the traditional way of eating soy.”
Thomas adds that proteins using isolates, instead of concentrates, typically taste “a bit watery” and: “Collagen is good for skin and nails, but it’s not going to help you with recovery or performance.”
As for Simpson, who says mixing types of protein, particularly plant-based protein is important for optimal health and who avoids snacking and the snack industry altogether, he says: “They are marginally better than eating a Mars bar. Except they’ll give you less pleasure probably.”
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