By Brittany Risher
In case you haven’t walked down a supermarket aisle recently, protein is everywhere — and we’re not just talking about the meat counter. There are powders marketed to gym goers and bars marketed to busy moms, protein-packed chips and cereals, grains and grain-free granolas. And it seems we want all of it.
When purchasing foods we consider to be “healthy,” the number one 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 $71 billion by 2025.
But is all this protein good for our health? The popularity of the Atkins diet, Paleo diet, and other high-protein diets would make you think there’s no downside, but some argue too much protein can lead to osteoporosis, damaged kidneys, cancer, and heart disease.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. The amount of protein you need is fluid.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is about 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. Using the current average weight of adult Americans, that means most men need 71 grams, while most women need 60 grams.
But, 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,” says Pam Nisevich Bede, RD, dietitian for Abbott’s EAS Sports Nutrition.
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.
2. You’re probably not eating too much protein.
“If you’re consuming a varied diet, you’re probably not anywhere close to over-consuming protein,” says Bede.
3. But, you’re probably eating too much at dinner.
No matter how much protein you need, it’s important to space out consumption throughout the day. And, according to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, most of us eat 60 percent of our protein at dinner and 15 grams or less at breakfast. 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.
Spacing it out 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.”
4. Not all proteins are created equal.
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.
5. Real, whole foods are the best source.
To get the right amount protein, aim to get most of your protein from a variety of whole foods. Bede recommends no more than two fortified products in a day. That could be a shake in the morning and a bar as an afternoon snack. And, as always, be sure to read the ingredients list and see what else the food has in it.