What You Need To Know:
- Your protein intake should depend heavily on your daily activity level, if you are a sedentary person you would need less protein than a very active person.
- Try to space out your protein intake so you are consuming around 20-30 grams per meal and per snack.
- Naturally protein-rich foods include: eggs, nuts, lean meats, yogurt, milk, cheese, tuna, salmon, anchovies, beans, nut butters, and quinoa.
By Brittany Risher
In case you haven’t walked down a supermarket aisle recently, protein is everywhere. No longer limited to powders marketed to gym rats and bars marketed to busy moms, protein is found in chips, cereal and even bottled teas.
And it seems we want all of it: When purchasing a food they consider “healthy,” the No. 1 thing consumers look for is protein, according to Mintel’s recent “Better for You Eating Trends” report. No wonder Markets to Markets predicts that the global protein market will grow to $39 billion by 2020.
Despite this demand and growth, nobody can agree if this is good for our health. Some argue that we’re increasing our risk of diseases by eating too much while others counter that we need more protein, especially for those who work out. So what’s the truth? Read on to find out.
Protein Pros and Cons
The popularity of the Atkins diet, Paleo diet, and other high-protein diets would make you think there’s no downside to protein. Yet, there have been studies claiming a prolonged high protein diet can lead to osteoporosis, damaged kidneys, cancer and heart disease. Thankfully, the latest research shows that a high protein intake doesn’t decrease bone mass and you should only be concerned about your kidneys if you have been diagnosed with kidney disease: “If you’re consuming a varied diet, you’re probably not anywhere close to overconsuming protein,” says Pam Nisevich Bede, RD, dietitian for Abbott’s EAS Sports Nutrition.
The connection between protein and cancer and heart disease is less clear, however: A well-publicized 2014 study reported that people eating high-protein diets were four times more likely to die of cancer. Others criticized the study and pointed out that for people 65 and older, a high-protein diet was associated with a decreased risk of dying from cancer.
When it comes to heart disease, your source of protein seems to matter most. Red meat and processed meats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. “It doesn’t mean cut it out entirely, but eat lean cuts and eat them less frequently, and avoid processed meats,” says Lisa Cimperman, RDN, clinical dietitian for University Hospital’s Cleveland Medical Center.
How Much Is The Right Amount?
According to the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein, you need about 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. Using the current average weight of adult Americans, that means most men need 71 grams of protein, while most women need 60 grams. However, in reality, the average male eats 102 grams, while the average woman eats 71 grams, according to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data.
Are we overdosing? No. The RDA was set to ensure a person gets the minimum amount of amino acids a body needs to function properly. “That’s the amount you need if you’re sedentary and sitting in bed all day,” Bede says.
That means that depending on what you do—from vacuuming to training for a marathon—you need to include additional protein in relation to your daily level of activity. You also need to factor in things like sex, age, pregnancy, any health conditions, and your health goals, such as weight loss or gaining muscle.
Space. It. Out.
No matter how much protein you need or eat daily, it’s important to space out consumption throughout the day. Most of us eat 60 percent of our protein at dinner and 15 grams or less at breakfast, according to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study authors say this imbalanced intake may negatively impact muscle health and metabolic health. “You want to have a stream of amino acids in your body to feed your organs, tissues, and muscles, and have a steady stream of energy,” Bede says.
To accomplish this, aim for around 30 grams of protein at every meal. “At 30 grams, you jump-start muscle protein synthesis,” Bede explains. “That turns on the switch to rejuvenate, repair, and protect your muscles.”
Spacing out protein also helps with satiety. “Protein helps your meal digest more slowly, so you feel fuller longer,” Cimperman says. “This also helps you better control your blood sugar levels, so you have sustained energy.”
Our Recommended Daily Advice? Eat Real Food
To get enough protein, aim to get most of your protein from a variety of whole foods. If you use packaged foods for convenience, Bede recommends no more than two fortified products in a day, which could be a shake in the morning and a bar as an afternoon snack. Be sure to read the ingredients list and see what else the food has in it. “Is it going to add to the health of your overall diet, or is it just adding more calories, sugars, and fats than you need?” Cimperman asks.
If you decide to use a protein powder, first and foremost make sure it’s certified by the NSF—that way you know that what’s on the label is in fact what’s in there. Whether you choose whey, casein, egg, or a plant-based powder is up to you.
Bottom line: If you’re more active, you should consume more than the RDA recommends. If you are sedentary, you should follow RDA guidelines. As with any health matters, if you’re unsure, meet with a registered dietitian or doctor.