By Kat Huntley
If you are someone who glances at food labels, you might notice that many of them have a featured nutrient in common that food companies are eager to highlight to the public. The common denominator? Protein!
I call it the protein push, because it seems that protein has been made everyone’s favorite macronutrient to love. Proteins are never the “bad” nutrients. Unlike carbs or fat they have always been included in every trendy new diet- and it’s easy to see why! The amino acids that make up proteins are the building blocks of life. Protein is essential in the body to help repair cells and make new ones. Because of this, protein is vital for growth and development. Protein has even been proven to help curb the appetite by helping people feel fuller, longer ¹. But, just like with everything else in life, it is better to stay in the moderate zone than to leap ahead to extremes. So that raises the question- “How much protein do I actually need?”
The Realities of Recommendations
The recommendation from 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is for protein to account for 10-30% of your total caloric intake². Every gram of protein breaks down to give us 4 calories of energy. If you are eating around 2,000 calories a day, your recommended range is anywhere from 50g-150g of protein. If you want to shoot for the middle at 20% of total calories, that would come to a neat 100 grams.
That might sound like a large amount of protein, but this is actually a very manageable amount that most people consume in their everyday meal pattern without even thinking about it. Here are a few ways to look at it:
• One serving of fish, lean meat, or poultry is considered to be 3 oz. (about the size of a checkbook⁴). Just one ounce of these foods typically contains 7 grams of protein. That adds up to 21 grams of protein in just one serving!
• One large egg contains 7 grams
• ½ cup of cooked beans or lentils also contain 7 grams of protein
That means that if you have 2 eggs with breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and one serving of fish, a lean meat, or poultry for dinner with a side of beans, you’ve already consumed well more than 50 grams of protein! And that is not even taking into consideration all the other sources of protein that people enjoy eating every day.
Sources of Protein
Protein is found in many food sources, not just meat, fish, poultry or beans. Dairy products like low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese are good sources of protein. Tempeh, tofu, quinoa, green peas, chickpeas, and vegetables like spinach and broccoli also have notable amounts of protein. Whole grains that are not refined or “white” products also are great sources of protein to enjoy. The reality is that if a variety of whole foods are enjoyed, there shouldn’t be any worry about not getting enough protein.
It is important when thinking about nutrition to understand that everyone’s needs are going to be different. This is because your nutrient needs are based on many factors that are unique to you, such as your gender, age, body size, physical activity level and health status.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommends that females from ages 14-18 that are consuming a little less than 2,000 calories a day get 46 grams of protein each day, while males of the same age group are recommended to eat a little more than 2,000 calories a day and get 52 grams of protein². As ages change so to can the recommended amount of protein. Females ages 51 and older are still recommended 46 grams of protein each day, while males in that same age group are recommended 56 grams².
Besides considering age and calorie consumption, the amount of physical activity and the actual size of person can change recommendations too.
Athletes, for example, have a greater over-all calorie need than others. Many athletes may be concerned with trying to consume more protein than they did before they began their exercise routine, because they might know that protein helps to repair and strengthen muscle tissue⁵. But protein needs for athletes are not as great as they are commonly perceived⁵. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes⁵. This means if you weigh 170 lbs (77 kg), then the recommended range of protein for you as an athlete at that size is 92g-154g of protein. As was pointed out earlier in this article, the highest end of the range for non-athletes who are consuming a typical 2,000 calorie diet is 150 g of protein. The difference in between the recommended amount of protein for an athlete and a non-athlete does not actually add up to be that large.
Expensive Powders, Bars and Supplements
This leads to the topic of the popular protein blends that are available on the market for today’s consumers. Many types of proteins supplements and powders exist, and each one has their own claim to benefits for the body. Protein powders and supplements can be great because of their convenience. It can be quicker for someone to throw a few simple ingredients in the blender with a scoop of protein powder than it is to plan, prep, or cook a full meal. But besides offering convenience, these products are not a necessity, even for elite athletes.
So as for the common “Now with ‘x’ amount of protein” advertising that can be seen on many food products, just know that it isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t something that was typically an issue before either.
1. Leidy, H. J., Hoertel, H. A., Douglas, S. M., Higgins, K. A. and Shafer, R. S. (2015), A high-protein breakfast prevents body fat gain, through reductions in daily intake and hunger, in “Breakfast skipping” adolescents. Obesity, 23: 1761–1764. doi:10.1002/oby.21185
2. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Published December 2015. Accessed September 1, 2016.
3. Wax E. Protein in the diet. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002467.htm. Published April 25, 2015. Accessed September 1, 2016.
4. What is a serving? American Heart Association Web site. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Caregiver/Replenish/WhatisaServing/What-is-a-Serving_UCM_301838_Article.jsp#.V8ie8_krLIU. Published December 18, 2014. Revised February 18, 2015. Accessed September 1, 2016.
5. Caspero, A. Protein and the athlete- how much do you need? Eat Right. http://www.eatright.org/resource/fitness/sports-and-performance/fueling-your-workout/protein-and-the-athlete. Published July 19, 2016. Accessed September 1, 2016.