Off of the heels of popular diets such as Atkins 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 and its enzymatic reaction allows for many essential chemical processes to occur. Protein antibodies are also one defense that keeps us free from illness. 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? With so many voices chiming in on the great protein debate, let’s take a closer look at some myths and misconceptions!
I should be concerned about getting enough protein.
Protein, protein, protein! It’s one of the hottest marketing tools in the food world, leading us to question our own protein intake and 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 56 grams per day, and an adult woman, 46 g. Now compare that to what the average adult man and woman consumes: 102 g and 71 g, respectively. 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 – or, 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 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? At 4 calories per gram, those excess calories from excess protein ends up being converted to fat if unused. From this perspective, diets that promote excessive protein consumption without reducing overall caloric intake can be seen as a source of weight gain – and this kind of excess weight does not come in the form of muscle! Still, it’s worth noting that most of these diets do in fact include overall calorie reduction - arguably, the very reason many have lost weight while following them.
I need meat/animal products for my protein.
Protein is protein, right? 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 into this category - 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 deter people from eating a more plant-based eating style. But consider this: eating protein from plant sources promotes variety, which is a very important part of a well-balanced diet. Choosing a diet rich in plants has shown to have a myriad of benefits. We know today that the fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and polyphenols 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 simply won’t provide us with the same benefits.
A great way to start this shift is to join in on Meatless Mondays, or choose 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 – just how much more is the question. 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 athletes. For a 170 lb male going to the gym 5 times a week, this amounts to about 102 grams per day - 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!
There is no denying the importance of protein in our diets, but it’s just as important to remember all of the other key players in creating a healthy, fit lifestyle. When one element of a diet becomes a trend, keep an open mind and stay informed. Clever marketing can have a hypnotic effect on consumers, and we want our decisions to be founded upon good, sensible science – not myths and fads!