There’s no question that protein is important. It plays a role in just about everything that goes on in our body, keeping our bones and muscles strong; our nails, skin, and hair looking good; our internal organs running properly; and more. But the proliferation of high-protein products and the nonstop barrage of ads has got millions of us convinced that we’re not getting enough protein. In reality, however, we’re getting way too much. And our fixation on this one nutrient could be making us sick—or worse. The solution? Fiber. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that we get an average of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. (Since most Americans don’t know their weight in kilograms, an easier way to calculate how many grams of protein you need is to simply multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.36.) On average, that works out to about 46 grams per day for women, 56 for men (pregnant women, athletes, and those who work out a lot may need more protein, but check with your medical provider before you start messing with your diet).
Too Much of a Good Thing
Despite the USDA’s recommendation, the average man over 20 years old consumes nearly 99 grams of protein per day—75 percent more than necessary. The average woman eats 68 grams per day—48 percent more than necessary. The result? Despite some advertisers’ insistence that the more protein the better, too much of it can cause some pretty serious problems. Here are just a few examples.
- Cancer. Grilling and frying some animal proteins can produce chemicals that may cause breast and colon cancers. In addition, diets that are high in red meat (a major source of protein for a lot of us) have also been linked with increased colorectal cancer risk.
- Cardiovascular issues. High-protein diets also tend to be high in cholesterol and saturated fat, both of which are associated with increased risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke.
- Kidney problems. Diets that are high in animal protein have been linked with increased risk of developing kidney stones. And in those who already have kidney function issues (that’s about 25 percent of adults), high animal protein diets reduce kidney function even further.
- Weight loss sabotage. When you eat more protein than your body can absorb, the excess gets converted to fat and sugar, neither of which will help you lose weight.
The Solution? More Fiber
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate, but instead of getting broken down and absorbed by your digestive system like rice and bread and other carbs, fiber’s purpose is to slow down digestion and make your stool softer so it’s easier to pass. There are actually two different types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water (think oatmeal—you’ll also find it in beans, blueberries, and grains). Insoluble fiber doesn’t absorb water (think celery). You’ll find it in the peels of fruits and veggies, seeds, whole wheat, and brown rice. No one knows exactly how much of each type is ideal, but suffice it to say you need both. The USDA recommend that adults get a combined total of 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories you eat. On average, that’s 20–35 grams per day, but you can do your own math. So why should you make fiber a priority in your diet? Insufficient fiber intake is linked to a variety of health conditions. Getting enough, however, offers a number of protective benefits. For example:
- Cancer reduction. A high-fiber diet is associated with lower risk of developing colorectal and other cancers.
- Diabetes. Unlike carbs that the body absorbs, soluble fiber doesn’t cause the type of blood sugar spikes that are the markers of diabetes. And if you already have diabetes, soluble fiber in particular may help control the disease and keep it from getting worse.
- Digestive health. Both soluble and insoluble fibers reduce the chance that you’ll get constipated or develop hemorrhoids.
- Heart protection. Soluble fiber grabs hold of cholesterol and drags it out of your body. Lower cholesterol generally goes hand in hand with lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, arterial disease, and stroke. Oatmeal is among the best foods for this.
- Weight control. High fiber foods help with weight loss because they’re generally pretty low in calories, but they also leave you feeling full. Without that full feeling to slow them down, a lot of people overeat.
(A note of caution: As wonderful as fiber is, don’t go overboard. Too much of it can cause stomach cramps, bloating, and diarrhea.)