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Is Protein Really Better Than Carbohydrates?

Data shows most people have a skewed perception of how they should be filling their plates for optimal health.

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Believe it or not, people still question whether low-carbohydrate, high-protein, or low-fat eating is best. Popular diets tend to make either carbs or fats the enemy, but protein foods are usually absolved of any fault for contributing to our nation’s obesity crisis, even though protein contributes the same amount of calories as carbs. Fat’s steep caloric value has made it the nutrient that most people fear. (I recently reviewed the evolution of where fat fits in the diet, including a rundown on which ones are helpful and which are harmful, here). But fat is not the only misunderstood macronutrient.

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a balanced diet should consist of 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates, including fruits, vegetables, and grains (half of which are whole grains), 10 to 35 percent protein, and 20 to 35 percent fat. The key word here is balance, emphasizing that each nutrient is important, in the right proportions.

Despite these national recommendations, a 2014 survey completed by HealthFocus International, sought to uncover consumers’ real opinions about both carbohydrates and protein, and a comparison of these two nutrients showed that consumers believe they should be eating more protein than carbohydrates. Most respondents were convinced that the optimal diet should consist of 48 percent protein, 34 percent carbohydrates, and 17 percent fat, unlike the national guidelines mentioned above.

Barbara Katz, President of Health Focus pointed out, “The most interesting takeaway I found in this study is that protein got to be the good guy in every sense of the word while the word ‘carbohydrate’ seems to have become a proxy for something undesirable.” Katz went on to say, “We think of fish or chicken as protein yet I’m not sure we think of fruits and vegetables as carbohydrates first—carbs became associated with all the negatives related to only certain carbohydrate sources.” Protein has a strong association with building muscles, promoting healthy hair, skin and nails, and building bones…all positive images. Visualizations of carbs, on the other hand, would most likely conjure up plates filled with pasta, donuts and bagels, without giving homage to more valuable starches like whole grains, quinoa, barley, or buckwheat.

Interestingly, most consumers surveyed believe grains do not contain protein. In fact, this survey revealed the confusion over ambiguous foods that may fall into more than one macronutrient category. Consumers did recognize grains such as quinoa and barley as carbohydrates, but the connection to protein was relatively weak among participants. Whole grains, in fact, are a good source of fiber, and also provide protein, making them satiating, nutrient-dense foods.


RelatedWhy Do So Many People Ignore Good Nutrition Advice?


When it came to the beliefs of baby boomers (ages 50 to 59) and millennials (ages 18 to 29) regarding the protein versus carbohydrate there seemed to be a discrepancy when evaluating these nutrients. Here’s what Health Focus found:

  • 32% of millennials are willing to seek out sources of protein because they claim they get less than the recommended quantity of protein in their diets, versus less than 25 percent of boomers who will go out of their way to get protein in their diet because they believe they consume optimal protein through a healthy diet.
  • Despite millennials’ strong desire for protein, they are not avoiding carbohydrates.
  • 60 percent of boomers agree that a low-carbohydrate diet is better for them, compared to only one-third of millennials. Weight status and control were the driving forces behind this belief.

There is an obvious gap between what is recommended and what Americans are eating. Just because protein seems to be the easier macronutrient to swallow, it doesn’t mean that more is better. Protein taken in greater quantities than needed over extended periods of time might result in bone thinning, impair kidney function, or simply cause fat to be stored. In other words, a steak bigger than the size of your plate doesn’t guarantee bigger biceps. Protein can assist in controlling weight since some sources are low in calories while boosting satiety.

Given the recent proposed suggestions by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the endorsement of more environmentally sustainable plant-based eating suggests a shift to move meat from main dish to side, if on the plate at all. Although the guidelines tell us that inadequate protein intake in the U.S. is rare, consumers will be looking for protein on their plates in a variety of forms, such as plants, insects, and algae. It is evident that the health halo surrounding protein is still very prominent, with the trend being to keep both planet and people in mind.

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