When it comes to the typical American diet strategies, carbohydrates and fats tend to get treated like the step-children while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, protein seems to get more than it’s fair share of the spotlight. Everything is “low-fat THIS” and “low-carb THAT” while we’re simultaneously bombarded with the idea that eating more protein is better. I absolutely do not want to downplay the importance of dietary protein, but I will say exactly what I said about carbohydrates and fat. Protein should be enjoyed equally with it’s other macronutrient friends. They should be looked at as a team, and there should be balance between the three.
Protein’s main job is to provide the building blocks of our bodies. Hair, nails, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes, hormones, and other bodily chemicals are all made of protein. It can be used for energy, but it’s not the preferred source. After a tough workout you want those building blocks available to repair and build lean muscle mass. If glycogen and fatty acid stores are low and protein is being used as energy, then it won’t be available to do what it was meant to do and the body will start to break down. As long as you’re getting enough carbohydrates and fats in your diet, which should be the body’s primary energy sources, this won’t happen. The protein can do the job it was meant to do, carbohydrates and fats will do theirs, and your body will remain energized and strong.
How much do we need? The short answer is the RDA is .08 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. The more complicated answer depends on a few factors. How much do you weigh? How old are you? Are you male or female? If you’re female, are you nursing? How much do you exercise? What are your fitness goals?
The USDA says you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36, or here’s a calculator that can help you figure out more precisely how much you might need based on more specific personal criteria.
For me, as a very active, 120 pound, 46-year-old female, the USDA says I require about 43 grams of protein a day, but what does that mean in practical terms? A 3oz portion of steak contains 23g of protein, so if I ate a 6 oz filet mignon that would satisfy their minimum of my daily requirement. I’ve seen other sources recommend up to 1 gram per pound of body weight, which would almost triple the USDA’s recommendation for me. I’m not sure what their definition of “very active” is, but the fact that I run 4 days a week and lift weights means that I probably need about twice what they recommend. The real honest answer here is the jury is still out. There is a lot of research yet to be done.
- Harvard Medical School’s health blog has an informative article about daily protein requirements that you can read HERE.
If you’re looking to up your protein intake, this doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of more meat or other animal products. When I was a vegetarian the first question people would ask is, “How do you get your protein?” The answer is there are lots of great plant sources for protein. For example, a 1 cup serving of quinoa has just as much protein as an 8oz glass of 2% milk.
- Check out this list from Bodybuilding.com and you can see that lots of great, natural, healthy foods contain plenty of protein. Quite a few are from plant sources.
Aren’t the proteins we get from plant sources “incomplete”? Well, yes. But first we have to look at what this really means. Proteins are made up of 22 different types of Amino Acids. The body can make 13 of these but the other 9, considered “essential”, the body has to get from food. Foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids are considered “complete”. Complete proteins come to us mainly from animal sources, but there are a few plant sources that are complete protein sources, too. Quinoa, Buckwheat, Hemp, Chia Seed, and Spirulina are plant sources of complete proteins. We can get all of the essential amino acids from sources deemed “incomplete” through food combining, like rice and beans for example. Complementary proteins don’t necessarily have to be eaten in the same meal, but since the body doesn’t store protein for future use, they should be at least eaten in the same day.
Is there danger in eating too much? It used to be believed that too much protein caused a number of issues including osteoporosis and kidney damage. Some modern scientific research has disproven a lot of these theories. You can find more well documented information about that HERE. A relatively recent “Protein Summit” found that there is no “Tolerable Upper Intake Level, which is defined as “the highest average daily nutrient intake level that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population”. I will qualify this information by saying that the Protein Summit was organized and sponsored by beef, egg, and other animal-based food industry groups, so the impartiality of their findings may be questionable.
Common thought now seems to be that the main danger of over consuming protein would be the increase in your caloric intake, leading to weight gain unless you are compensating by decreasing the amount of another macronutrient or exercising more.
I’d like to reiterate, even if I might sound like a broken record, to READ YOUR LABELS! A lot of prepackaged foods that tout how much protein they contain are doing so for marketing purposes. Nutritional supplements calling themselves “protein bars” can contain so much sugar, they are really just candy bars in a different kind of packaging. Look at the nutrition label for Cheerios Protein and you will see that one serving does, indeed, contain 7g of protein (compared to 3g in the original) but it also contains 17g of sugar (compared to 1g in the original). I love Cheerios, they were a childhood staple, but if the trade-off for more protein means that I’ve almost met my recommended daily intake of sugar in the first meal of the day, have I really helped myself?
My main philosophy of eating and cooking holds true here. If you are eating a well thought out and balanced diet, full of single ingredient, non-processed foods, you probably don’t have to worry about how much protein you are getting, or if it’s coming from “quality” sources, because ALL of your food will be coming from quality sources.