Protein, Protein, Everywhere, But How Much Should We Eat?

It seems like everyone is worried about protein these days. But do we need to focus on getting more, or are we already getting enough without even trying?

February 16, 2016
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It seems like everyone is worried about protein these days. Products in every aisle of the supermarket are being fortified with added protein: cereals, pastas, bars, ice cream, and even milk have gotten an extra boost as of late. It’s no wonder we feel like it’s such an important nutrient!

Protein also has been the darling of the diet industry for decades. From Atkins to Zone and everything in between, diets and weight loss programs time and again encourage high protein intakes for weight management and overall health.

As a dietitian, I do get it. Protein is pretty important! We need it for muscle maintenance, tissue repair, immunity…just about everything. Not getting enough can lead to a whole host of problems, as you might imagine.

But do we need to focus on getting more, or are we already getting enough without even trying?

THE PROS FOR MORE PROTEIN

One of the reasons protein has such a positive reputation is that it is associated with weight loss and satiety (feeling full for a long time after a meal so you don’t get “munchy” an hour or two later). This is especially true when talking about vegetarian sources of protein and pairing proteins with fiber-rich carbohydrates. All of this has implications for improved blood sugar control (which is important whether or not you have diabetes), obesity rates, and enhanced metabolism. So, yeah, that’s pretty cool!

Athletes, in particular, may need more than the official recommendation of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, which was put in place as a standard to prevent deficiency. We should keep in mind that getting the minimum amount to avoid such a deficiency is not the same as getting enough to actively promote health, though, and many now argue that we should actually be striving to exceed this bare-minimum recommendation. Perhaps a more ideal benchmark is the U.S. AMDR (adequate macronutrient distribution range), which recommends 10-35 percent of our calories come from protein; striving for the upper end (25-35 percent) will result in a protein intake above the 0.8 grams per kilogram that has recently been criticized for being too low.

THE CONS OF MORE PROTEIN

Not all protein is created equally, however, and just a few months ago headlines were abuzz with the announcement that red and processed meats may increase the risk of cancer and heart disease when consumed frequently.

Too much protein, regardless of source, can adversely affect the body in a number of other ways, too. High protein diets increase the risk of dehydration, and any excess protein consumed will be stored as either glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates) or fat, a fact that runs counter to protein’s reputation as a weight loss aid.

What’s more, animal-based proteins in general–but again red meat in particular–have a greater environmental impact, raising some red flags for a high protein diet beyond our own personal health.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S A GRAY AREA, TOO

In addition to the pros and cons, there are several areas related to a high protein diet that remain unknown. For example, while some experts tout high protein diets as being protective of bone health, others claim that it creates an excessively acidic environment in the body that can actually harm bones. The kidneys are another controversial area of concern, as high protein diets can tax these twin organs; however, most research assures us that this only applies to individuals who already have poorly functioning kidneys.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

FIT! But (there’s always a but) before you go and order the 12-ounce steak at your favorite restaurant, there are a few very important points to keep in mind. First and foremost, quality matters. What I find so interesting is that the caveats of a high protein diet often get lost in translation. We hear high protein and think high meat, when really, many experts agree that it’s far more beneficial to increase consumption of plant-based (vegetarian) protein.

It’s equally important to complement a high protein diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and water, as these nutrients can help offset the handful of concerns raised by the increased protein intake.

Do make sure you’re eating enough protein, which is around 25-30 percent of your calories and probably around 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight (or around .55 grams per pound of body weight). Most people already consume this much, so leave those protein-fortified butters, powders, bars, and other such concoctions on the shelf. Focus instead on the quality of the protein you’re already eating. Explore vegetarian sources, including beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and (preferably unprocessed) soy. And don’t forget about those nutritious fruits and veggies!

“High” protein, as it turns out, doesn’t mean only protein or even mostly protein.

It really just means “enough.”

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