Protein: How much is enough, what is too much?
BY HOPE WILLIAMS
Ministry Medical Group
If you eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, a fast-food burger for lunch and an eight-ounce steak for dinner, you probably get more than your share of protein. You are also likely to be overweight and have significant health problems.
Some Americans do indeed follow that kind of diet. And that image of the red blooded American meat eater may be what nutritionists are referring to when they say that Americans eat more than enough protein.
Times have changed, however, and many Americans eat no red meat or very little; are vegetarian or vegan. In addition, there are Americans who are pregnant or nursing a baby; work at a physically demanding job; or exercise regularly at a fairly high level.
With those facts in mind, there is no easy answer to the question of how much protein is enough.
The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. To use this formula, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. That means a woman weighing 140 pounds needs 53 grams of protein, about what you would get in the eight-ounce steak.
It’s important to remember that the RDA is not necessarily what you should be eating but rather the minimal amount you need for good health if you are sedentary and not pregnant or nursing a child. How about a 140-pound woman who is training for a marathon or lifting weights at the gym?
Protein is an important nutrient, essential for building muscle, skin, hair and connective tissue. If you work out regularly, you are breaking down muscle and need protein to help you replace it. Red meat is a rich source of protein, but the package also contains considerable saturated fat. No one is suggesting that you eat an eight-ounce steak or two quarter-pound burgers very often for the sake of good health.
Other sources of protein include chicken or turkey breast–19 grams per three-ounce serving; salmon, tuna or halibut–21 grams per three-ounce serving; Greek yogurt–17 grams per eight-ounce serving; cheese–8 grams per ounce; 2 percent milk–8 grams per cup; eggs–6 grams per large egg; black, red or white beans–16 grams per cup; nuts–7 grams per quarter cup.
If any of those foods are part of your diet, you probably have no trouble at all getting 50 to 70 grams a day. The average American gets 16 percent of daily calories from protein.
Whole grains, fruits and vegetables contain protein in smaller quantities so a vegetarian who eats dairy products should be able to get enough protein. A vegan–limited to beans, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables–must plan carefully.
Plant-based proteins are, for the most part, not high-quality proteins. They lack some essential amino acids and must be combined with other plant proteins. Rice and beans, for example, need each other to do their job effectively.
More than 40 nutritional scientists gathered for a Protein Summit in Washington, D.C. in June of 2015. Reports from this group, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, argue that 16 percent of calories from protein (the national average) is far from excessive, as some have suggested.
Some nutritionists at the summit concluded that most Americans would benefit from at least doubling the RDA–getting 15 to 30 percent of daily calories from protein–or even more depending on age, sex and activity level.
Many active Americans, particularly those over age 50, may need significantly more in order to maintain muscle strength and a metabolism that is effective at maintaining muscle and burning fat.
A woman should increase her intake of protein by at least 10 percent during pregnancy. If she nurses the child, she requires even more.
Endurance athletes and body builders need at least twice as much protein as a non-athlete of the same age and gender.
If you decide you need to start eating more protein, the answer is not to go order two juicy quarter-pound burgers. If you eat red meat, look for lean cuts with less marbling. Some individuals prefer grass fed meat; it delivers not only less saturated fat but also more omega-3 fatty acids and nutrients.
Chicken and fish are good low-fat sources of protein, and fish is a particularly healthy choice. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week for heart health. Whatever food you choose, read the label to see what’s in the total package. You can’t just add protein unless you cut back on something else.
Hope Williams, RD, CD, CDE, CLS, is a health coach with Ministry Medical Group, part of Ascension.