Protein, Hero of the Plate — Or Is It? — Cover Story

Jim had inched his way up the side of the mountain, pitch after pitch, belay after belay. He and two friends, all seasoned climbers, stopped for lunch on one of the death-drop sheets of rock perpendicular to the earth. Strung up at a dizzying height, safely hooked in, his friends unpacked their whey powders, their protein bars, and their gels, and dug in.

Jim, however, pulled out the slab of hanger steak he’d cooked the night before, waving it in the air, taunting his buddies. (They cursed him angrily.)

It’s an idyllic vignette, the man on the mountain, tearing into a steak. It’s primal and Paleo and very of the moment. And at a time when the protein powder and supplement industry is such a major force, with more than $7 billion in sales in 2014 and projected to reach $9 billion by 2020 — not to mention beef consumption on the rise in America for the first time in a decade — it’s a picture that asks a question: Does protein deserve its nutritional pedestal?

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