That question is the first one most vegetarians, vegans and herbivores usually hear when they tell someone that they don’t eat meat. I laugh out loud at that because everyone thinks protein is this big panacea and that without enough protein, we will all wither up and die. Seriously. Have you heard of anyone recently, like in the last 100 years, being diagnosed with Hypoproteinemia or Kwashioker disease? Probably not since they are “uncommon in developed countries”. In fact, on average, Americans eat about twice as much protein per day as we need. Twice as much. Even people eating vegetarian or vegan can easily hit 100-150% of their daily needs without any meat, cheese, eggs or fish.
Let's start with the basics then. How much protein do you really need every day? I hate the common formulas that you hear all the time – “0.75g of protein per kilo of body weight per day”[i]. Great, I’ll just convert my weight from pounds to kilo’s, then multiply that by some fraction of a gram that I can’t remember, or there’s another one: “Anywhere from 10% to 35% of your calories should come from protein - So if your needs are 2,000 calories, that's 200–700 calories from protein, or 50–175 grams”[ii]. Frustrated or confused yet? Yeah, me too. It doesn't have to be so hard though. One of my health coaching mentors, Eric Edmeades, talked about water needs this way: Drink 8 glasses a day; if you’re a big person, drink big glasses, if you’re a small person drink small glasses. Simple. Everything should be that way. So the same goes with protein: The recommended average for an average sized man, is 56 grams per day. For an average woman it’s 46 grams per day[iii]. The ONLY times you need significantly more than that is if you are 1) weight lifting competitively, or could be. 2) Are recovering from something that caused significant weight loss such that you are underweight and need to bulk back up (which also means significant time in physical therapy or exercising – just adding huge amounts of protein to your diet if you’re underweight is also not advised. 3) You are getting older and notice weight loss. Sarcopenia happens when people age and do less physical activity – to combat it you may need to try harder to keep up physical activity, and increase protein intake to go along with the physical activity (the increased physical activity and maintaining or building muscle mass is also important for bone health (see our blog about healthy bones). The key here is to keep it simple. Unless you are exercising competitively and calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate and exactly how many calories each set is going to burn, then you don’t need to be calculating your protein to that extent either. 10-35% of everyone’s calories needs to come from protein and the average man or woman needs 56 or 46 grams per day. Very active and exercise a lot? Eat more, including protein. Along with keeping it simple, balance is very important. Just eating 2,000 calories a day of protein isn’t going to make you healthy or bulk you up. Building muscle requires exercising what you have not just eating.
So, what does the right amount of protein look like? As I’ve alluded to in the first couple of paragraphs, your diet needs to be balanced. In this case balanced means Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats, Vitamins, Minerals, Fiber and Water in the right proportions. We said earlier that protein should be 10-35%. What about the rest? 20-35% should be fats (mostly healthy, unsaturated, but we do need some saturated fat in our diet as well). In general, Carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of our diet. What about the others – like fiber, vitamins, minerals and water? Women should eat 21-25 grams of fiber per day, and men should aim for 30-38 grams per day, and according to the USDA, 90% of women and 97% of men do not get enough fiber. Vitamins and minerals will be there in sufficient quantities if you eat a well-balanced diet consisting of as many whole, natural foods as possible. If you’re concerned about one vitamin or mineral in particular, see your doctor to get tested for it (yes, they can test for almost every vitamin and mineral to see if your levels are good) or talk to a health or functional nutrition coach. Anyway, if your diet isn’t balanced you’re going to have a harder time with everything your body normally handles for you. The MyPlate.org website breaks the whole thing down for you showing in a simple ‘pie-chart’ format how much of each food group you should be eating and even puts the grams of protein into manageable ‘ounces of meat’ so you don’t have to refer back to those pesky formulas we referred to in the beginning of the article
(and remember, meat isn’t made up of protein alone, so an ounce of meat isn’t 28 grams of just protein). In general 46-56 grams of protein would be about one egg, ¼ cup of cooked beans and 4 ounces of cooked beef or chicken. Those quantities would total six one ounce portion equivalents per the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines and be right in the middle of the recommendations - men should have 6-7 per day, women should have 5-6 . Simple!
Why shouldn’t I just eat protein bars, beef jerky and other high protein foods, or jack my protein percentages way up? Because – like everything else, there are tradeoffs. People with high protein diets have a higher risk of kidney stones. Additionally, if you get most of your protein from red meat you will likely be consuming higher amounts of saturated fat and end up with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease[iv]. According to other sources, including EatingWell[v], too much protein can lead to excessive urination, risk of depression, constipation, weight gain, fatigue, and bad breath (from ketosis). Additionally, excess protein puts you at increased risk of complications if you have kidney or liver conditions, low carbohydrate intake, gout, deficiencies in certain nutrients needed for metabolizing proteins including glucose, arginine, glutamine, and vitamins B-6, B-12, and folate. Yet another problem is that our bodies have been evolving for a very long time to keep us alive under wide ranging conditions. That means that excess protein will get converted and stored, either to glucose for your immediate energy needs, or to fat for later needs.
What Are the Best Sources of Protein?[vi] High-quality sources of protein include: Fish, Poultry, Lean beef or pork, Tofu (soy), Tempeh, Eggs and Dairy products. But don’t stop there, you can get all the protein you need from plant-based sources, including Nuts, Seeds, Legumes (Beans, peas, or lentils), Grains (like wheat, rice, or corn) and many vegetables contain surprisingly high amounts of protein – broccoli, for example, has more protein per calorie than beef! To help illustrate that point, there are numerous pro athletes who are vegan and still at the tops of their fields including Lewis Hamilton, Mike Tyson, Venus Williams, Novak Djokovic, and Cam Newton.
Hopefully this has given you reason to stop and think about protein for a minute and see that it is not the be all end all of a healthy diet – in fact it’s overrated and you would be better served figuring out how to get the recommended amount of fiber or straight up water into your diet – those two things alone are the biggest reasons for constipation, and between 16% and 33% of people report experiencing that. Keep coming back for more info and ideas.
To your health!
1. Photo 28142890 | Strong © Brianholm | Dreamstime.com
2. Image by Pixabay
3. Image by Freepik.com @arttuaproz
4. Illustration 31853515 © Eric Basir | Dreamstime.com
5. Photo 114271814 © Elena Schweitzer | Dreamstime.com
6. ID28142890 © Brianholm | Dreamstim
References [i] Heart Matters. Protein: What you need to know
https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/protein# [ii] Mayo Clinic. Are you getting too much protein?
https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/are-you-getting-too-much-protein# [iii] USDA Dietary guidelines for 2020-2025 https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf
[iv] Harvard Health. When it comes to protein, how much is too much?
[v] Eating Well. 6 Signs you could be eating too much protein.
[vi] WebMD Best sources of protein