INTERVIEW: The world has fallen in love with protein – but why is it so popular?

Thomas McVeigh with the innovative 'protein pump' down at Excel Gym

Diet fads come and go like cravings, but it seems there is a new  king of the kitchen that is refusing to step off the throne.

That champion is protein.

It is everywhere these days, whether it is infused into your favourite chocolate bar or boosting the nutritional value of your breakfast cereal.

It has been hard to escape the phenomenon that has stirred up so much interest within the food industry.

Long hailed as the definitive sports supplement, protein has broken past the confines of the gym environment to make it onto the high street shelves.

Protein is not just fashionable for weight lifters or sports enthusiasts, it has become a staple addition to the ‘ordinary’ person’s diet.

But why has it become so universally popular?

We spoke to Thomas McVeigh, owner of Excel Gym in Derriaghy Industrial Park just outside Belfast, to gauge his thoughts on the topic.

Thomas has watched the health and fitness industry swell into the consumer monolith that it is today.

And he admits the meteoric rise of protein has come as little surprise to the experts in the business.

Q: Hi, Thomas. First of all, tell us a bit about your background.

TMcV: I first embarked my fitness journey six years ago when I qualified as a fitness instructor while I was also working as a joiner. Four years ago I finally took the leap, and as soon as I qualified as a Personal Trainer and I opened up a small studio. From there it was clear to see the potential of how successful things could be if I put the work in. I quickly moved to larger premises which was a few thousand feet.

I am now in my third unit which is almost 7000sq ft. Excel has been booming and we have been smashing out some of the best results in the country.

I started off with my brother with a £50 weights bench, and I had spent weeks designing a structured business plan for the banks (which not one of them listened to) I basically got a ‘computer said no’ response.

Thomas with wife Lauren
Thomas with wife Lauren

This just pushed me to work even harder to prove them wrong and now thankfully I have!

I pride myself on setting standards in the fitness industry and not being frightened to try new approaches. Recently I competed in my first show (NIFMA) where I placed 1st/1st and 2nd.

From there we have had many trainers/clients/members competing from the gym.

We also recently installed a ‘protein pump’ at the gym ( protein on draft ) and I am proud to say it is the first in the world, to my knowledge. I have searched all over the internet and we seem to be the first! We even have it connected to a cooler for great taste, just like the bars. We also have a supplement store onsite.

Q: Protein has been around forever, but seems to be all the rage these days. Why do you think it has become so popular, both inside and outside of the gym?

TMcV: I think protein has become increasingly popular due to the fact the fitness industry has boomed over the last several years. Advertising companies have taken their opportunity to climb on board and promote their products.

When we now think of protein we automatically associate it with big muscles and the gym, rather than the vital nutritional macronutrient that it has always been. I also feel that flavour has increased in protein shakes/bars etc over the years, which has had a major role to play for sales and consumption in protein products, therefore growing the trend.

I remember pinching my nose trying to drink my older brother’s shake many years ago (it was filled with a lot of powdery lumps/and bumps and a vile taste). It was purchased from a major high street retailer as there were not many stores in town that sold it, and online marketing was just beginning.

Q: What is so good about protein? What makes it good for our bodies?

TMcV: Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms, especially as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, etc., and as enzymes and antibodies. Our bodies require a balanced diet to function healthily and efficiently. Removing any Macro/Micronutrients from one’s diet can have serious implications.

The main positive about protein is that it increases muscle size and aids in recovery. When we train we actually tear our muscle fibres. These fibres then need to recover and by fuelling up on protein post workout. This speeds up the recovery process and helps the muscle fibres to mend and grow, resulting in larger muscles.

Protein is constructed of amino acids which are the building blocks of our muscles. There are 22 amino acids in total, of which eight are termed essential because we cannot make them in our bodies and so have to get them from the food we eat. The main benefits of protein supplements are that they are quickly absorbed.

When we train our cells open up and are ready to accept a large rush of nutrients (approximately from 45-60mins post workout). During that short window is the perfect time to consume your protein supplement (especially whey protein). Whey protein is the most absorbable protein and can quickly be digested and utilised by the body and go straight to work on the muscles. That’s why it is such a major selling product in the fitness market today.

Other protein products like casein protein, which are a slow release protein, are better to consume before bed, this will release slowly throughout the night while you are sleeping.

Thomas McVeigh is no stranger to success
Thomas is no stranger to success

Q: Can everyone benefit from eating a high protein diet? Children and adults?

TMcV: One thing we always need to understand is that everyone’s body does not function exactly the same. There are many occasions when extra protein is needed, including childhood/adolescence (growth), pregnancy, lactation, intense strength and endurance training and certain illnesses. The elderly may also require additional amounts of protein.

These diets typically allow you to eat unlimited amounts of all meat, poultry, fish, eggs and most cheeses, while carbohydrates are limited. This diet brings us back to our hunter/gatherer days when farming/grains did not exist.

However, I feel it’s necessary to get a balance of all your macro/micro nutrients. When people lower carbs and increase protein, they usually become bunged up and constipated. If you’re not accessing your overall diet and solely focusing on protein consumption, then too much protein may be bad for you or be detrimental to your overall goals.

The crude measurement is 0.7g of protein for every kilogram of body weight. The average person easily reaches this protein requirement without even being on a high protein diet. However, your personal needs will depend on your age, sex and activity levels

Here are some stats take from that may arise if someone consumes too much protein:

  1. Weight gain. Excess calories from excess protein may be stored as body fat.
  2. Intestinal irritation. Too much protein has been linked to constipation, diarrhoea and/or excessive gas.
  3. Experts advise drinking a half gallon of water per 100 grams of protein.
  4. Seizures have been linked to excess protein intake – but only if insufficient amounts of water are consumed.
  5. Increase in liver enzymes.
  6. Nutritional deficiencies. Just focusing on protein intake causes some high-protein dieters to overlook other nutrients. Ensure that your diet is balanced and nutritious.
  7. Risk of heart disease. This is a bit misleading. A healthy high-protein diet is not associated with heart disease. But if you are getting all of your protein from unhealthy sources that are loaded with unhealthy fats, obviously the risk for heart disease will increase.
  8. Kidney problems. Some believe that high protein and low carbohydrate diets – when done long term – can possibly cause kidney issues, but more research needs to be done.

Q: It has always been a popular supplement for weight lifters, people who workout and exercise? Now it is mainstream. Did you see this phenomenon coming?

TMcV: I’ve always been into my fitness/weights from a very young age. Therefore I have slowly seen the market increasing each year with new products and been aware of the growing trend.

Also with working in the PT industry and now a gym owner which sells these products, I can say I sort of saw it coming. However, if you asked me five years ago if I thought it would be this big today, the answer would be no.

Protein bars, protein cereals, protein shakes/drinks, protein porridge, protein buns/cheesecakes/crisps/yoghurts etc. The place has gone protein crazy! I believe this is due to the endless advertising with companies using celebrities, online transformations, and Photoshop techniques to smartly increase their revenue.

Excel Gym
Excel Gym has grown from strength to strength

Q: Now companies are marketing other products with protein. Breakfast cereal, chocolate bars, crisps, even protein water – is it cheap marketing or do you think it is good for the public?

TMcV: I honestly think this is a good reminder for the public. It’s making the public pay attention to what they are eating,  and in many cases they are a healthier alternative. This is making diets more sustainable and helping dieters stick to their nutritional plan.

Another fundamental of this is that protein has been scientifically proven to make you feel ‘fuller for longer’, therefore this can help prevent unwanted binge eating or snacking in-between meals.

However, a lot of people are getting mixed up and thinking these certain foods are generally healthy as it has the word ‘protein’ labelled on them. Many of these products can be mixed with grams of sugar to increase taste and can have a crazy amount of calories which dieters may not be aware of.

If you ate protein crisps instead of regular crisps, yes, it may be a better alternative than eating a normal packet of crisps, but it does not necessarily mean that it has been an overall healthy food choice.

Sticking to general whole foods is the best possible option and if you’re serious about wanting to see results. Contact a local nutritionist and pay for a nutritional plan. This may set you back anywhere is the region of £25-£100 but it will be worth it.

I feel a lot of the products on today’s market work as they are a great alternative for a treat, eg instead of having a chocolate bar full of sugar, have a high protein one which is low in sugar and still feel satisfied and on target for your goals.

Q: Do you think it will be just another craze, replaced by another ‘superfood’ in a few months’ time?

TMcV: I feel it will always be around in the fitness industry, but I do think it is a major phenomenon at the minute and it is currently at its peak.

The new ‘high protein’ phase seems to have replaced the ‘low fat’ or ‘fat free’ phase. However, protein shakes have been around from when I started my fitness journey and I’m pretty sure they are here to stay as long as there is a demand in the fitness market. Protein supplements can serve a purpose of high/low absorption rate and are effective in aiding/maintaining nutritional goals, therefore we will always have a use for them.

Q: With so many ‘protein rich’ products swamping the market, what foods would you recommend people eat to get their daily intake?

TMcV: I would always recommend clients and gym goers to base the foundation of their nutritional plan on whole foods.

These food sources have always been around for man to eat, and it is what our bodies are used to eating and digesting. Eating whole foods also gives us a lot of choice and variety on our diets; the only thing is that it doesn’t have that sweet taste that many of us crave.

In this case, I would gladly recommend protein bars/shakes etc rather than junk food.
An easy tip to remember how lean a protein is, is that it goes in order of how many legs it has – for example fish and eggs have no legs (these are the leanest), then we have two legs (chicken, turkey etc) and then four legs (cow,pig,lamb etc).

If dieters based their nutrition around whole food, it’s quite hard to go wrong.

However, for dieters who wish to add extra calories or increase their protein intake, I would also recommend these products on the market today (as eating a lot of calories through whole foods can be quite hard and filling). As a result of this people might struggle to hit their targets and fall off course, whereas a protein bar or yoghurt might be easier to eat than a steak and help hit protein/calorie targets, therefore making targets easier to achieve for the consumer.

Q: And how much protein should we be eating each day?

TMcV: The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, however this is just a guideline. To accurately calculate you would need to assess the client’s lifestyle. For example, their age/gender, how many times a week they train (and type of training they do) ,their job, hobbies etc and most importantly the client’s individual goals.

To truly be specific and accurate we need to account for this. In doing so, it will help both client and trainer achieve maximum results.

Q: Can protein help you lose weight?

TMcV: Yes, all macro/micro nutrients play a vital role in weight loss (even a high fat diet can help us lose weight with the correct structure). However, the be all and end all of losing weight is calorie intake. We need to understand that losing weight (cutting in) is simple maths – burn off more calories than you consume and you will be successful, do the complete opposite for putting weight on. Millions of pounds are invested in this sort of research every year, yet it all leads back to basic maths.

The benefits of a high protein diet are that it will help maintain muscle mass while you are dieting.

If we just ate our calorie allowance in junk food, we can still lose weight but add body fat. In this case, the dieter may still not be happy when they reach their target goal, as their body composition is not what they thought it would be. However, if we consume our calorie allowance through whole foods we may lose weight, body fat and still add some slight muscle mass/tone.

Q: I suppose we all should be wary of the hidden sugars in some of these high-protein foods?

TMcV: Most definitely. Unfortunately, most of the time the healthier brands (with the least sugar) are the more expensive ones. It’s something I can never quite grasp, how can adding sugar to a product lower the price? Yet by keeping a product more natural, the price increases? To me, it doesn’t make much sense.
For example, you could have two protein bars side by side on a shop shelf. Both may contain 20g of protein, but one could contain one gram of sugar and the other 10 grams of sugar.

My advice in this situation would be to read the overall calorie intake and grams of sugar. Also be wary of the recommended serving and what the product actually contains. A lot of the charts can be misleading this way.

Q: What would your best piece of advice be for anyone looking to lose weight or be more healthy?

TMcV: My main piece of advice would be to keep things simple. On too many occasions dieters over complicate things. Stick to whole foods and don’t go past your overall calorie intake – it’s that simple.

You ate a chocolate bar? SO WHAT! It’s not time to throw in the towel – work it into your overall allowance and try not to do it again. You can also download apps to help record your food diary so that you don’t have to sit down and work it out. I would strongly recommend you do this. It will teach you what is actually in foods and open your eyes a lot!

My last piece of advice would be preparation, and to be honest with yourself. Cut out the shitty excuses and achieve your targets. We all have things that suddenly crop up in our lives – it’s called LIFE!

However, if we are prepared for it, we will be less likely to go off track. For example, make your meals up in plastic containers the night before, and if you’re following a nutritional plan, cook your food which matches your overall plan. I’m pretty sure most of us would rather have junk food over healthy food, but it all depends on how serious you are about your results and having a bit of willpower.

A lot of the time dieters will blatantly ignore the junk food they ate as if it didn’t happen. However, when you learn to get past this stage and account for everything you eat, you will be more in control of your diet.

If you struggle to go off chocolate, accounting for 200cals for a chocolate bar each day isn’t necessarily the end of the world, it’s called being smart.

Stop looking for magical answers, there are none. Sure, there are some helpful tips and advice like the ones above, but overall it requires putting the plan into action/hard work and consistency.

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