“I Cut Out Everything And Only Ate Protein — This Is What Happened”
We’re easy to spot. We’re the ones with plastic beakers in our bags, empty save for a pile of powder at the bottom. Our freezers are jammed full of pre-portioned chicken breasts. And come mid-afternoon, we’re tucking in to our second hard-boiled egg of the day. It’s a diet once associated with bodybuilders and elite athletes. We’re neither. But we have earned ourselves a less comfortable moniker: “protorexics”. The term refers to those who rely on lots of protein while avoiding carbs to control weight and fuel workouts.
My obsession with the much-loved macro
Two years ago, after joining the gym in the hope of losing my stomach paunch, I began chugging on protein shakes at the behest of my PT. At first, I found that a pre-workout shake upped my stamina and killed my hunger. So I started subbing one in for breakfast.
Soon, as I became more interested in how protein could fuel my training – and the inevitable flip side: how carbs could be hindering my results – every meal became based around it. Eggs for breakfast, lunches involving packets of cooked chicken slices and the strict rule that at least half of my dinner plate was protein. An inevitable part of the process was that carbs were all but banished from my diet, bar the odd oat biscuit or Sunday roast.
I shrank from a size 14 to a 10 within six months and went from pull-up virgin to smashing six sets. No complaints. Except the good times don’t always last. Which is why, a couple of months ago, I ended up at the door of personal trainer and sports nutritionist David Arnot. I’d hit a fitness plateau and had gone, I suppose, looking for answers – armed with what I’d thought was my exemplary eating plan.
My eating plan
6:45am Protein bar
9:30am Handful pistachio nuts
10:30am Boiled egg with smoked salmon and spinach
11:30am Half a protein bar
12:30pm Tinned tuna, salad
2pm Half a protein bar
3:30pm Protein shake
4:30pm Greek yoghurt with protein powder
6:15pm Half a protein bar
7:30pm Grilled salmon with stir-fried veg
10:15pm Greek yoghurt with half a protein bar
My nutritionist’s verdict?
He’d never seen anyone with my sort of exercise regime eat as few carbs as I did. That was to blame for my lack of fitness gains. And he also pointed to a few other issues – my struggle to focus at work and generally being so knackered by the end of the day that I rarely have the energy or inclination to catch up with friends. When I revealed that each evening my husband cooks two different meals – a regular version for him, a carb-free version for me – Arnot began to shake his head.
He broke down the stats for me: by the time I flop into bed, I’ve consumed more than 150g of the magical macro, which means I’m getting through about 2.5g per kilogram of my body weight.
According to Dr Duane Mellor of the British Dietetic Association, that’s far too much: “We advise adults to eat around 0.75g per kilogram of body weight daily to get the necessary benefits of protein, which includes building lean muscle mass, aiding digestion, regulating nutrient absorption and removal of waste.”
Arguably, I could get away with totting up a little more than this as I clock up between five and seven workouts a week, but I’m still way over the mark. Sports and exercise nutritionist James Collins recommends aiming for something between 1.2g and 1.6g per kilogram of body weight, but warns an intake of more than 2g can do more harm than good. (Think: hormonal imbalances, high cholesterol, exacerbation of existing kidney problems, chronic dehydration, weight gain…)
Arnot’s proposed eating plan
8:30am Porridge with low-fat milk
10:30am Apple, handful cashews
12:30pm Chicken with ratatouille and 125g brown rice
2pm Biltong or 1 protein bar
7:30pm Red meat/fish with green veg and sweet potato
10:15pm Handful granola, yoghurt, honey and berries
The last word…
“Nobody’s denying how important protein is,” Arnot says. “But the message has become misunderstood and carbs have become demonised in the process. So I see lots of carb-phobic women eating so much more protein than is necessary. What they often don’t realise is that kilojoules from protein aren’t used as efficiently for energy as kilojoules from carbs because they can’t be oxidised quickly enough to meet the demands of high-intensity exercise. The fixation on pre- and post-training protein means many aren’t getting the most out of their workouts.” Arnot agreed to devise a personalised 10-day eating plan for me to follow without leading me into a kilojoule surplus. Meaning? More carbs, less protein equals more energy, no weight gain. I’ll eat to that.