Protein is one of the three basic macronutrients of our diet. Carbohydrates and fat are the other two. Protein forms the basis of muscles, hair, skin and nails.
Protein is one of the three basic macronutrients of our diet. Carbohydrates and fat are the other two. Protein forms the basis of muscles, hair, skin and nails. It is needed to make a variety of other molecules, such as neurotransmitters, thyroid hormones and DNA. Protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen, required for us to grow and reproduce. Protein is composed of nine essential amino acids that we must get from food.
Getting more protein has become a bit of an obsession. You can find all kinds of protein-enhanced foods, including water, protein bars, cereals and even cookies. Once only weightlifters and athletes used protein powders; now it’s a common practice.
Do we need all the protein we are eating? There is a lot of false advice when it comes to protein. Here are some protein myths that many people believe:
It is impossible to eat too much protein. Many people believe that the more protein you eat, the better. But you can have too much of a good thing. Eating too much meat, for example, means that you might be eating too much fat and too many calories, while missing other nutritious foods. There is a limit to how much protein your body can use. Eating too much protein at a time can cause your body to store the excess as fat. Limiting your protein intake to about 30 grams every time you eat protein is a good idea. That’s about two eggs or a three-ounce portion of meat.
Protein only comes from animal sources. Pretty much everything you put in your mouth (except plain water and sodas) contains at least a little protein. But there is a huge difference in protein quality. Food from animal sources, including meat, dairy, eggs and fish, provide complete proteins, or proteins with all nine essential amino acids; plants provide incomplete proteins. The fiber in some plants may also prevent the digestion of some of the protein.
You can’t get enough protein on a plant-based diet. One plant will not contain all of the needed essential amino acids, but even a vegan diet can meet protein needs — if it’s varied enough. Essential amino acids can be delivered through separate plant sources and at different times and will be stored in the liver and muscle until needed. The old notion of combining foods at each meal to ensure a “complete” protein has been debunked. Legumes, including beans, lentils and peanuts, are excellent plant-based proteins.
Everyone needs about the same amount of protein every day. The base daily recommended amount of protein is 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women. The average person in the United States is eating closer to 90 to 100 grams of protein a day, so it is unlikely that you are protein deficient. Of course, we don’t all weigh the same or have the same needs. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a daily consumption of .8 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This range equals .36 to .77 grams of protein per pound. The low end is for the average person, with the recommended amount increasing along with activity levels and other special considerations. To figure your protein goal, take your body weight in pounds times .36 (or up to .77, if you are more active). So if you weigh 150 pounds and have an average activity level, your goal would be 150 x .36 = 54 grams of protein daily. You should not exceed .9 grams of protein per pound.
Increasing your protein will increase your muscle mass. This is true if, and only if, you are regularly working out. Your body does need protein’s amino acids to repair and boost muscle mass, but if you are not challenging your muscles, just eating protein isn’t enough to build or maintain strength or muscle mass. This is especially true as you age. Both aerobic and resistance exercises, combined with adequate protein, are needed to help your body hold on to muscle mass.
A high protein diet will help with weight loss. Protein rich foods can increase your feeling of fullness after a meal because it digests more slowly than carbohydrates, but it’s not a magic weight loss tool. Many animal sources of protein are also high in fat and calories, so replacing lower-calorie, lower-protein plant foods with animal proteins may mean you are getting too many calories and won’t lose weight. The healthiest way to lose weight is to eat a balanced diet — neither too high nor too low in any particular nutrient.
Too much protein will harm your kidneys. Consuming excess protein will harm your kidneys only if you have underlying kidney or liver disease. Healthy kidneys are generally very good at expelling the extra nitrogen that comes from eating a lot of protein. However, a few studies on long-term high-protein diets have linked them to the following health conditions:
High cholesterol and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease
Increased cancer risk
Kidney disease and kidney stones
Weight gain (yes, this seems odd for a proposed weight-loss strategy)
Constipation or diarrhea
Most of us tend to eat little or no protein at breakfast and then load up at dinner. It’s better to spread your protein sources across all of your meals. Make your dinner protein portions smaller, and work on getting more with breakfast. Here are some ways to increase protein at breakfast:
Add a side of beans to eggs or make a breakfast taco.
Pour egg whites into hot cooked oatmeal.
Add cottage cheese to scrambled eggs.
Stir a spoonful of cottage cheese or plain Greek yogurt into sweetened Greek yogurt.
Add nuts to yogurt or cereal.
Eat dinner leftovers for breakfast.
Make pancakes from banana, oats and eggs.
Stir peanut butter into oatmeal.
Roll fruit slices in chia or hemp seeds.