Protein, it’s the nutrient that continues to remain popular and favored by many. Fats and carbs have taken turns being vilified (even though they shouldn’t be!) but protein seems to stand the test of time, perceived as a superfood of sorts. Between the promise of weight loss, muscle gain and repair and overall general wellness there seems to be no downside to this macronutrient. The food industry has taken this popularity and marketed protein to the masses (think protein shakes, protein bars, protein emphasized as a health benefit on packaging). It is a food group most of us feel safe and not guilty about consuming. Let's take a closer look at why we need protein and is there such a thing as consuming too much (hint, yes!!).
Proteins are large complex molecules that play important roles in the body. Proteins do much of the work in our cells and are required for the structure , function and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. In other words they do help with muscle building, they do help your body heal and/or repair and there is also a bit of truth to the weight loss theory. Your body actually has to work harder to break down protein which leads to burning more calories. This is called the thermic effect of protein. So yes, protein is indeed important and deserves its celebrity status to an extent. However, these amazing protein functions have been overemphasized over the years often leading us to believe that more is better.
Where do we find protein? Protein can be found in a variety of foods to an extent. However, any animal source is going to give us a good amount and is easy for our bodies to absorb (chicken, fish, beef, pork, eggs, dairy). We can also get a significant amount of protein from non animal sources (tofu, tempeh, beans, nuts, grains, lentils, edamame, seeds, vegetables, meat substitutes, protein powders, shakes and bars to name a few). It is easy to find and consume varied healthy proteins daily. For breakfast you could add eggs, have some greek yogurt or enjoy a protein shake (we have a great meal replacement shake recipe, ask your RD if you would like it!). At lunch, simple ways to ensure you are getting some protein is having grilled chicken, edamame or some beans with your salad or enjoy a wrap or sandwich with some turkey or chicken. You could even do a PBJ sandwich once in a while. As for dinner try and include protein as a quarter of your plate. This could include chicken, fish, beans, lean beef once in a while, lentils or some tofu. These are just some easy ideas to add protein to your diet daily in a healthy and balanced way.
How much protein do we need each day? The million dollar question and that is where much confusion appears to lie. The average adult requires approximately .8- 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or ideal body weight daily. This means that the average man needs about 60 - 70 grams of protein each day and the average woman needs about 45 - 55 grams of protein per day. In other words men need about 6-7 oz of protein per day as well as making sure to include some high protein dairy products and women require about 5-6 oz of protein per day with the additional high protein dairy as well. Considering 3 oz is equivalent to the size of one's palm, this is often a lot less than most people think they should be consuming. It should be noted that certain populations do require increased protein. If you work out, play a sport, strength train intensely, are a teenager, are pregnant or are recovering from a serious wound or surgery, your protein requirements will go up and you should speak with your Dietitian about this. However, most of us only require the average estimated amounts. It’s also super important to emphasize that protein should be provided throughout the day and not just consumed at one meal. Studies have shown that consuming a balance of protein at each meal or throughout the day promotes fullness and preserves muscle mass much more than consuming all of your protein at just one meal.
Protein is essential to life but we just don’t need to overdo it! If we consume too much protein (more than our body requires) and are eating enough calories overall, our bodies will just store the extra protein as fat, plain and simple. Also a diet that is consistently high in protein can cause dehydration, overload your liver, cause constipation if you are eating excess protein and not enough fiber, damage your kidneys as well as put you at risk for heart disease. It is known that overemphasizing one food group such as protein means other important food groups are often neglected (often that includes fruits, vegetables and fiber).
I have had more than one client appear shocked when we talk about their protein needs for the day. While most know that fatty meats and such should be limited, they tend to believe that “healthier” proteins (chicken, fish, protein powders, bars, etc.) can almost be consumed in unlimited amounts which couldn't be further from the truth. Despite what you hear from your friends, family or coworker, balance will always be what I preach and that includes your daily protein intake!!
Until next time,
Mary Corso, RDN, CDN