Protein is the nutrient of the moment: food labels proudly tout protein grams, magazines devote pages to ‘high protein’ picks, and people everywhere are eager to get on the protein-diet bandwagon. According to recent Nielsen survey on health matters, 60 percent of shoppers say they’re trying to increase the protein in their diet.
But how much protein do you really need? And how much is too much?
Let’s start with the basics. Everyone needs to eat protein on a daily basis. It’s an essential nutrient that’s made of amino acids – the building blocks that help grow and maintain the body’s tissues — including muscles, tendons, blood vessels, skin, hair, and nails. Protein also plays a significant role in synthesizing and maintaining enzymes and hormones. What’s more, there’s a growing body of research indicating that protein helps you feel fuller for longer, and may be an important tool for weight loss.
If you’re concerned that you’re not getting enough protein, chances are you shouldn’t be. The typical American diet tends to well exceed the recommendations for protein, and deficiencies of this nutrient are rare in the U.S. The National Academy of Sciences says healthy people need to get 10 to 35 percent of their daily calories from protein. Specifically, the Academy has set a Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) of 45 grams protein per day for a healthy woman and 52 grams per day for a healthy man. Our actual average daily intake of protein, according to surveys, is about 75 grams a day for women and about 100 grams for men.
But since protein is so important to our health, isn’t more protein better? This is an area of some controversy. A panel of nutrition experts recently recommended about twice as much protein as the DRI — 90 grams for women and 105 grams for men.
It’s worth noting however that this is still close to the range of what many Americans are already getting. And there are risks of over-consuming protein. Too much can be problematic for people with certain conditions, such as kidney disease. Plus protein, like all nutrients, means calories — much can lead to weight gain.
So, before you start loading up on protein, consider the following:
- “More protein” should not mean “eat more meat.” Beef, poultry, and pork (as well as milk, cheese, and eggs) definitely provide high-quality protein, but so do many plant foods — including whole grains, beans and other legumes, nuts, and vegetables. Increasingly, researchers are finding evidence that plant-based diets may lower risks of certain diseases and cancers.
- Spread your protein intake throughout the day. The body uses protein’s amino acids best when you eat protein in three main doses per day (i.e. in your main meals). This type of distribution is thought to be best for building muscle and aiding fat loss.
- Don’t let protein crowd out the other important macronutrients – healthy carbohydrates and fat. Balance is key to a healthy diet.
For more on protein and where to find it, visit choosemyplate.gov
And, if you are considering a high-protein diet (or any kind of diet), check in with your healthcare provider before making any changes.