Our bodies crave protein, so why do we try to satisfy this innate need with processed foods? We have known for some time that highly processed foods are a major contributor to obesity, but a new study suggests we overeat because our body’s demand for protein is unmet. Can starting your day with a healthy dose of protein combat this growing issue?
A year-long Australian study published in the latest issue of the journal Obesity showed eye-opening conclusions about our dietary habits: populations with a preference for highly processed foods like pizza, chips, and snack bars, lead to staggeringly high percentages of obesity.
According to a press release, the lead author of the study, Amanda Grech, Ph.D. stated that: “As people consume more junk foods or highly processed and refined foods, they dilute their dietary protein and increase their risk of being overweight and obese, which we know increases the risk of chronic disease.”
“It is increasingly clear that our bodies eat to satisfy a protein target,” said Professor David Raubenheimer, the Leonard Ullman Chair in Nutritional Ecology at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, “but the problem is that the food in Western diets has increasingly less protein. So, you have to consume more of it to reach your protein target, which effectively elevates your daily energy intake.”
Of course, unless you have been living under a rock, you already know this. But what is new news to us is that our bodies are searching for protein and instead reach for the easy to grab, tasty, highly processed foods.
Searching for Protein in Processed Foods
Studies over the years have found that more than half of our daily calories are coming from highly processed foods. An almost two-decades-long study published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that ultra-processed food consumption grew from an alarming 53.5% of daily calories in 2001-2002 to an even more worrisome 57% by the study’s completion in 2018. If the trajectory continued at this rate, it would trend towards 60% by 2035.
The work of these studies set the stage for the latest research on the “protein leverage hypothesis” which details that people eat more fats and carbs to satisfy their protein demand, causing unbalanced diets.
And we need protein for a reason. It fortifies our body in multiple ways. Among just a few tasks, It helps build cartilage, tissues, repairs your body, carries oxygen through your body, and helps to digests your food.
Compounding research is building a case for the “protein leverage hypothesis,” which was first proposed in 2015 by University of Sydney researchers. To summarize, the hypothesis suggests that our body has a strong appetite for protein, and favors it over fat and carbohydrates. To quickly satiate that protein hunger drive, people unknowingly overeat fats and carbs.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the recommended dietary allowance to prevent deficiency for an average sedentary adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.
For example, a person who weighs 165 pounds, or 75 kilograms, should consume 60 grams of protein per day.
Think of it like this—instead of seeking a lean piece of grilled chicken, the majority of westerners will instead seek something convenient, like a bag of chips, which you can break open the seal and pop in your mouth in an instant.
However, to satisfy that protein hunger, your body might signal to your brain that, even though you just ate a bag of chips, your hunger still remains, and off you go opening another processed snack until you feel full.
Substituting Highly Processed Foods for Protein Causes Obesity
According to the Institute of Food Technologists, 47% of American adults eat snacks at least three times a day. This has sent the snacks market skyrocketing, with snack food sales reaching over $25 billion in 2019.
Consumer research firm YouGov found America’s most popular snack foods to be Cheetos, Tostitos, Snickers, Fritos, Pringles, Lay’s, Oreos, Jif peanut butter, Planters nuts, Doritos, Ritz, Reese’s, Hershey’s, and M&M’s. According to Statista, we love our convenient, shelf-stable snacks. Most Americans reported having at least one bag of Cheetos per month in 2020, 3 out of 4 Americans eat at least a bag of Fritos per month, and Lay’s is the top dog with the best-selling chips in the U.S.
But at what cost are we consuming these low-protein, ultra-processed snacks? According to this new research, our body will continue to crave calories until that protein hunger is met, leading to a vicious cycle of increased snacking for many.
Let’s do a little protein density comparison, shall we?
- A 3-ounce chicken breast contains 27 grams of protein and 128 calories. To get the same amount of protein, you would have to eat almost TWO full-size 8.5oz bags of Cheetos, totaling over 2,000 calories.
- A 3-ounce salmon filet contains about 17 grams of protein and 108 calories. To comsume the same amount of protein, you would need to eat over 50 Oreo cookies – that’s about 3,000 calories!
- A 3-ounce cut of lean steak contains about 21 grams of protein and 100 calories. You could have that, or you could opt for a dozen Reese’s cups, about 1,300 calories.
Keep in mind that we’re only talking about protein here. When we choose convenience over protein-dense foods, our body doesn’t get essential nutrients like fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. What we get instead when we eat these foods are excess sugars, omega 6s, and other ingredients causing immune system suppression. There’s a reason why we call highly-processed foods “empty calories”.
Nutritional information stated above sourced from nutritionvalue.org.
But then why don’t we just eat the lean protein-dense options if we know the snack food is bad for us? CONVENIENCE! We live in an era where everything must be easy, quick, and at-your-fingertips. Food is no exception. If you can eat a bag of Fritos while simultaneously working or running errands, we will opt for that every time, as opposed to spending 20 minutes preparing a fresh meal like a grilled chicken breast with veggies.
According to the USDA, ready-to-eat foods like those listed above save time and money but at the cost of our health.
But the research emerging now is giving us some important warnings about these bad habits, AND most importantly, helpful tips like having a protein-dense breakfast, that can help solve a negative eating cycle of highly processed, high-fat, high-carb, low-nutrient snacking.
What you eat first every day matters most
The University of Sydney analyzed nutritional and physical activity surveys from 9,341 adults, known as the National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey which was conducted from May 2011 to June 2012.
Researchers plotted calorie intake versus time of consumption and found that the pattern matched that predicted by the Protein Leverage Hypothesis:
People who ate lower amounts of protein in their first meal of the day went on to increase their overall food intake in subsequent meals, versus those who received the recommended amount of protein ate significantly less throughout the day than their counterparts.
According to Dr. Reubenheimer, we will innately eat more to get the protein our body craves, no matter what form it comes in.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to protein intake, however. Requirements can vary between 10 to 35 percent of our total amount of calories for the day.
It is also important to note that not all protein has to come from meat—sources like grains, legumes, eggs, and vegetables can also be well-rounded sources that are not highly processed.
The Bottom Line
Our body will seek protein until it's satisfied, no matter the form. Because convenience is king, Americans have been using snack food to fulfill this biological need. But, consider the consequences and staggering obesity rates before you sub a grilled chicken salad for a bag of Cheetos. Try opting for a protein-dense breakfast to combat cravings for empty calories later in the day, and fulfill that protein need in the most nutritious way possible.