"Beef. It's what's for dinner."
"Eat Mor Chikin."
"Where's the Beef?"
Keto Diet, Atkins Diet, Low Carb Diet.
Americans are obsessed with protein. Whether for the taste, supposed health effects, or upholding an image as a rebellious meat lover in a growing plant-based world, protein is at the center of most Western meals.
Debunking the Myth that Protein Should be the Focus of a Meal
Taking a hard look at meal-planning in the United States reveals that Americans almost always start building a meal with a protein at the center- hamburger, Thanksgiving turkey, grilled chicken, fresh fish, ribs, eggs, tofu, or steak- and afterwards plan sides to accompany the protein. The sides are often starches and veggies.
Despite protein's traditional role as the star of the meal, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, fruits and/or vegetables should be the focus of the meal, making up half the plate. Protein should only be a quarter of the meal, or about 3 ounces of meat, chicken, fish or other protein source. The last quarter should be grains. (1)
How Much Protein Do We Need Per Day?
Each individual's dietary pattern and needs are different. Size, activity level, illness, wound healing, surgery, and age all determine the amount of protein a person needs to eat per day. To find out if you're eating the appropriate amount of protein, schedule a virtual appointment with our dietitian here.
Dietitians start with the following formula to estimate the amount of protein a healthy, sedentary young adult requires daily.
Multiply body weight in kg by 0.8g to1g protein.
Protein will be increased based on individual factors including activity level and health status.
In general, adults are advised to eat 25-30g of protein per meal. Again, this will vary based on size, health status, and activity levels. A smaller person that weighs only 45kg (100 lbs) who is moderately active would need about 45g-54g of protein per day, whereas a 100kg (220 lbs) person with a sedentary job and only light activity would likely need about 80g-100g of protein per day, assuming no major health concerns.
More protein is required during periods of rapid growth such as adolescence, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
Below are protein counts for some common animal and plant-based sources of the nutrient.
What happens if I eat too little protein?
Generally, Americans consume sufficient protein. Vegans, vegetarians, the elderly, and food insecure populations are at risk of consuming too little protein.
Burn patients, people undergoing surgery or recovering from illness, individuals healing a wound, and those with malabsorption issues caused by taking too many antacids and eating too many processed foods require higher amounts of protein and are at risk of deficiency. (The antacids decrease the ability of stomach acids and enzymes- including hydrochloric acid and pepsin- to do their job of digesting protein.)
Patients with high protein needs may require supplements.
Vegetarians and vegans can plan their meals and snacks to obtain sufficient protein throughout the day. Combinations of brown rice/corn with beans or lentils, nut butters, fish, tofu, cow's and soy milk, low fat yogurt and cheese, eggs, hemp seeds, chia seeds, edamame, and quinoa are good sources of non-meat proteins.
Too little protein can lead to weight gain, poor healing of a sickness or injury, brittle hair or nails, trouble building muscle mass, fatigue, joint pain, less control of blood sugar, and poor concentration(4).
What happens if I eat too much protein?
Eating too much protein than you individually need can result in weight gain. The excess nitrogen is urinated out, but the remaining carbon skeleton is turned to fat. It's important to maintain a regular exercise routine and recognize that excess calories- whether carbs, fats, or proteins- can lead to weight gain if the calories aren't used.(4)
What about the need for extra protein after a workout?
Recreational athletes or "exercisers" can be thought of as those of who workout at the gym for less than 3 hours a session; play in a recreational sports league; do activities like biking, hiking, climbing, swimming, or tennis a few times a week; and are not training and competing in a college, Olympic, or professional athletic program.
Recreational athletes can typically fuel with a small carb pre-workout if an energy boost is needed. This may be a piece of fruit, small bowl of oatmeal, or a piece of toast with jam.
During a workout or athletic activity, glycogen in the muscle is used for energy. Glycogen comes from the sugars we eat and should be replaced after the workout by eating another carb-rich snack like those just mentioned, or eating a balanced meal that includes all food groups.
After an intense resistance training workout, a small amount of protein is appropriate to add to the carbohydrate to help replenish the glycogen and repair the muscle. (2) Consider a peanut butter sandwich, yogurt parfait, or a low-sugar fruit and nut bar.
Alternatively, the athlete could wait until their next meal to eat their recovery protein and carbs.
If weight loss is your goal, it's important not to add back more calories than were burned with sugary chocolate milk, sports drinks, or high-calorie bars. There is no need to supplement with a protein shake or supplement to get extra protein after a workout. Eating protein does not build muscle; only using the muscle will build it. Stick with whole foods that would normally be eaten as snacks or meals.
You can have a Registered Dietitian complete a protein assessment for you by making an online appointment at: www.ZESTNutritionService.com
(1) U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. www.DietaryGuidelines.gov
(2) Poole, C., Wilborn, C., Taylor, L., & Kerksick, C. (2010). The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis. Journal of sports science & medicine, 9(3), 354–363. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24149627/
(3)USDA. (2017). USDA food composition databases. Retrieved Aug. 14, 2017 from https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/nutrients/index
(4) National Center for Biotechnology Information. (1989). Recommended dietary allowances: 10th ed. Protein and amino acids. Retrieved Aug. 18, 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234922/
(5) National Institutes of Health. (2016). Vitamin B12. Retrieved Aug. 18, 2017 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/