Q: I’m hearing so much these days about the need to eat more protein and distribute it evenly throughout the day. How much protein do I really need to eat, and when?
A: You may be increasingly spotting the words “high in protein” or boasts of protein counts on the fronts of packaged foods. Or you may see articles or advertisements encouraging you to eat more of the “high-quality protein foods” — fish, meats, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy foods and soy products, which contain most or all of the 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of protein.
With the current push on protein, you’d think we were sorely lacking in this important nutrient. Hardly! Government survey data show that most Americans meet or exceed the amount of protein that’s recommended.
On average, men and women over 20 years of age eat 98 grams and 68 grams per day, respectively, which contribute roughly 15 percent of calories. But the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein set by the National Academy of Medicine is about 56 grams and 46 grams per day for adult men and women, respectively.
Some nutrition experts say that newer methods of determining protein requirements suggest the RDA for protein is set too low. “The current protein intake data . . . illustrates that Americans are consuming more than the amount of protein to prevent deficiencies. However, it doesn’t mean that they’re eating ‘optimal’ amounts,” Heather Leidy, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition Science at Purdue University, wrote in an email. “There’s increasing evidence that consuming higher amounts of dietary protein can improve health outcomes related to weight management, cardiovascular disease risk and the risk of Type 2 diabetes.” That evidence, she said, would suggest an intake of just shy of double the current RDA, about 80 grams for a 130-pound woman and 98 for a 160-pound man, but “to my knowledge, these quantities have not been broadly recommended to date.”
Another important point: The total amount of protein you eat must be calculated within the context of your complete diet. Protein is one of the three main nutrients in foods, along with carbohydrate and fat. In a constant cycle, your body breaks protein down into amino acids and uses them to assemble the variety of proteins needed to build and repair muscle and maintain bodily functions. In addition, proteins are satiating and help stave off hunger between meals. But carbohydrates also play an important nutritional role.
“I regularly counsel recreational athletes who tell me they’re tired and can’t make it through a workout only to discover that they’re limiting healthy sources of carbohydrate, like fruits, bread and grains, and tanking up on protein,” says Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition, and author. “Protein builds and repairs muscle, but carbohydrate fuels muscles.”
Those government survey statistics mentioned above also indicate that Americans tend to consume too much of their protein in foods that get a large percentage of their calories from fat, such as the fattier cuts of red meats, cheeses and full-fat milk. Some of this is undesirable saturated fat. That’s why the accent in today’s health guidance on choosing high-quality protein foods is to go lean, low-fat or fat-free. A wide array of grains and vegetables also contain protein, though in smaller amounts.
And watch those serving sizes. “We need to be careful not to fall into the ‘more is better’ approach to protein, thinking that if some is good, eating a lot will be even better,” Emily Arentson-Lantz, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, wrote in an email.
Finally, spread protein consumption out during the day. Research shows Americans tend to eat more than half of their protein intake at dinner, with very little at breakfast. But Arentson-Lantz says work in her lab shows that “our bodies can only effectively use a moderate amount of protein, 20 to 30 grams per meal, to promote muscle health, in part because the body has a limited ability to store protein for later use.”
Leidy adds, “My research and that of other researchers indicates that consumption of more protein at breakfast provides greater satiety as well as control of glucose levels, appetite, hunger, and food cravings.”
Clark concurs: “People typically eat enough protein, but they don’t eat the right amount at the right times.”
Although a moderate amount of protein per meal is likely to be sufficient for the majority of adults, some subgroups of individuals may have slightly higher protein needs.
One is older adults. Arentson-Lantz notes that starting around age 40, we ever so slowly start to lose some of our muscle. This slow loss of lean body mass typically occurs along with the loss of physical function and capacity that is due to other factors as well, including less physical activity, inferior nutrient consumption and health issues. In addition, data show that the protein consumption of adults older than 70 tends to decrease.
People trying to lose weight may also benefit. Higher consumption of protein can help a person feel more sated. Protein also has the potential to burn a few more calories than carbohydrate and fat. For these reasons, some research shows that consuming protein in amounts distributed throughout the day may help people lose weight and keep it off. But this extra protein must be within caloric needs.
And then there are athletes. “Bodybuilders, elite and endurance athletes … may need more protein than the above noted RDA, but they need additional calories as well,” Clark says.
Bottom line: It’s highly unlikely you need to eat more protein. Instead, you may want to spread the amount of protein you eat throughout the day by lightening your protein load at dinner and including some high-quality protein at breakfast. Find the balance that’s right for you and allows you to achieve your health and nutrition goals.
Picture ‘Moderate’ Protein
What does a “moderate” amount of high-quality protein foods, 20 to 35 grams per meal, look like as part of a sample breakfast, lunch and dinner?
1/3 cup cottage cheese, 9 grams
1 hard-boiled egg, 7 grams
1 cup fat-free milk, 8 grams
Total: 24 grams of protein
Lunch, Afternoon Snack
3-ounce (grilled) chicken breast, 26 grams
1 ounce cashews, 5 grams
Total: 31 grams of protein
3-ounce (grilled) fish, 20 grams
1/2 cup black beans, cooked, 9 grams
1 ounce reduced fat cheddar (melted in beans), 6 grams
Total: 35 grams of protein
(Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture/The Washington Post)
Hope Warshaw, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books published by the American Diabetes Association.