Off of the heels of popular diets such as Atkins, Paleo and South Beach, Americans are as enamored with the little groups of nitrogen containing building blocks as they have ever been. And why not? Protein is used for creation and structure of every cell in our bodies, protein’s enzymatic reaction allows for many essential chemical processes to occur, and protein antibodies, are one defense (usually), which keep us free from illness, among other things. Even the word itself derives from the Greek word protos, meaning first, or of primary importance. In a recent International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey, 48% of respondents stated that they are currently trying to eat more protein. Reasons given vary from perceived increased satiety, to beliefs that it will aid in weight loss. There is no doubt that eating enough protein is paramount to good health. But what is enough protein? What do you hear people saying about protein? Let’s discuss some popular misconceptions regarding protein intake.
I should be concerned about getting enough protein.
With all of the talk in popular culture about high protein diets, it’s easy to question our own protein intake. It’s also easy to believe that the more protein, the better. So where do we stand as a nation when it comes to protein intake? According to the USDA, the average adult male needs 56g per day, and an adult woman, 46g. A 2005-06 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) concluded that the average adult male consumes about 102g per day, and the adult woman 71g. That places us at near double the recommended amount. The numbers are significantly more staggering when looking at children, who (using a 6-year-old boy as an example) can be getting as much as 3.5 times the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). So, are we getting enough protein? Maybe the question should be: Are we getting too much?
More protein equals more benefits.
Can there be too much of a good thing? In regards to protein, maybe. While potential hazardous effects of over-consuming protein (such as: kidney strain, and cancer) are up for debate, protein’s benefits do, unfortunately, have a dropping off point. Once we have satisfied our body’s fundamental need for protein, current research shows more protein has no additional role in the body. What happens with that excess protein? It’s burned for calories (at 4 calories per gram). From this perspective, diets that promote excessive protein consumption - without reducing overall caloric intake - can be seen as a source of weight gain, as opposed to the intended purpose. It should be noted that most of these diets do in fact include calorie reduction (arguably, the very reason many have lost weight while following them).
I need meat/animal products for my protein.
Protein is protein!...Well, not really. One way to categorize protein is complete vs. incomplete. Animal sources of protein tend to be complete, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids necessary for biological function. Incomplete proteins, on the other hand, do not contain all of the essential amino acids. Plant-based protein sources (beans, legumes, nuts), generally fall under this heading, with the exception of soy protein. Therefore, when getting our protein exclusively from plants, we need to consume complementary proteins. These are protein sources that make up for each other’s lacking amino acids. Beans and rice are a classic example. These proteins were previously thought to need to be consumed at the same meal, but according to new research, these foods complement one another, even when eaten at different times in the same day.
Getting protein from plants is unhealthy/unsafe/too difficult.
This need to complement proteins tends to turn many people off to a more plant-based eating style. It can be an uncomfortable proposition; having to consider the foods we eat in a day in order to be sure our nutrient bases are covered. Consider this, however: Eating protein from plant sources promotes variety. Choosing a diet with different plant sources has shown to have a myriad of benefits. We know today that the fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and polyphenols (and more) we get by-and-large from plants, have a great role in our overall health and longevity. Eating a piece of grilled chicken every day for lunch and dinner, just won’t provide us with the same benefits. A great way to start this shift is to join in on the movement of Meatless Mondays, or choosing your own day of the week to go “meatless”.
I work out, so I need lots of protein.
The general scientific consensus on protein intake when trying to gain muscle mass, is that we do need more. How much more, and for whom is being debated. A good rule of thumb is to increase protein consumption to about 0.6 grams per pound of body weight for your average gym-goer, and up to 0.8 to 1 gram for high-level, trained athletes. For a 170 lb male going to the gym 5 times a week, that amounts to about 102 grams per day, or the amount the average male is already getting. Something important to consider: Focusing on eating lots of high protein foods tends to push healthy sources of complex carbohydrates off of our plates. Remember, our bodies and brains need carbohydrates for fuel – We can’t perform at our best without consuming a sufficient amount.
When we get right down to it, the likelihood that we are not getting enough protein from our diets is slight. Red Rabbit encourages everyone to focus on eating as many whole foods and plants as possible, and not to worry too much about the rest! In this day and age, it's easy to get caught up in all the food news that's out there, and fret about getting enough of this nutrient or that from the food we eat - just remember to sit back and enjoy it every once and awhile. Bon appetit!
John Bashant, Red Rabbit Nutrition Compliance Coordinator