How much protein should I eat per day? The answer to this rather frequently asked question is, surprisingly; Not much.
Less than 3% of Americans manage to not get the estimated average requirement of protein (about 42 grams per day) and that’s likely from being on severely calorie restrictive diets, basically people who just aren’t eating enough food.
Interestingly, 97% of Americans do not get even the minimum intake of Fiber, which should really be a far greater point of concern considering the amount of dietary fiber is inversely proportional to the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, obesity, various cancers, among other undesirable lifestyle conditions such as high cholesterol and blood pressure. We’ll hopefully cover Fiber in a future article but the fact that protein gets so much attention is weird for a number of reasons.
When was the last time you personally heard someone was ‘protein deficient’? Or someone who suffered from a condition brought on by not consuming enough protein? The point we’re trying to drive home here is that so long as you are consuming the World Health Organization’s 2100 daily calorie baseline for adults, you will almost always get sufficient protein.
Bottom-line: There are a number of nutrients often lacking in a typical western diet. Protein is however, not one of them.
Why do we care about protein so much then? What is protein really?
We equate protein to the building blocks of life and while that is in part true, focusing on protein is a bit like focusing on the bricks that make our house as opposed to the beams that lay its foundation or the power grid that provides it with electricity. Bodybuilders and young adults who wish to emulate them have become the subconscious image of health and fitness and their obsession with protein has trickled down to the mainstream.
Protein is also the poster child for putting a healthy spin on typically unhealthy foods, based on the fact that they contain protein (apart from a lot of stuff that’s really bad for you). People love to read good things about their often bad food choices and this makes protein a very popular macro-nutrient.
The primary function of protein is the repair and produce the structural materials of our body, mainly our muscles but also skin, hair etc. Proteins are chains of amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids and so any food combination offering all 9 is considered a complete protein.
It is possible to get sufficient protein from nearly any kind of diet including vegetarian, dispelling the popular myth the one needs to consume meat, which, while providing plenty of protein also introduce fat and raise insulin levels, both of which will lead to weight gain (which is fine if that’s what you want). Plant foods contain all essential amino acids (when used in combination foods, for example rice and beans) and since food is a package deal, these sources will almost always be the healthier options.
While some of these factors change a bit based on individual needs, the one thing that is certain is that Protein is not a particularly great energy source and is used by the body for that purpose only as a last resort; something you must avoid as far as possible so that it is free to fulfil its primary purpose; repair and growth. The energy needs of the body are met far more capably by fat and particularly carbohydrates.
Bottom-line: Protein does its job well and is easy enough to get plenty of. It is not however a panacea for health and fitness in general, despite how much the current fads promote it to be.
Will protein help me lose weight?
The answer ranges from ‘Maybe’ to ‘Not really’. Allow us to explain: –
Diets that prescribe high protein intake generally tend to rely on the “filling” or “hunger-supressing” qualities of protein-rich foods. The weight loss falsely attributed to these diets often in reality comes from calorie restriction; a necessity considering how calorie-dense a lot of these foods tend to be.
Basically, they ask you to eat less and so while you may lose weight due to a caloric deficit, you are likely to gain it back when you do eventually start to eat more (and you will).
We cannot stress enough that food is a package deal and what you eat WITH your protein will likely matter more than the protein itself.
Lastly, healthy weight-loss is achieved over a period of time by reducing fat, salt/sodium intake and 60-90 minutes of daily low-intensity exercise.
Bottom-line: If your goal is weight loss or maintenance, your diet should not emphasize protein.
Will eating more protein let me gain more muscle and strength?
More muscle? Perhaps. This would depend on a number of factors including your current intake, the kind of workout regimen you follow (yup, still need to work out). Since intake would vary from person to person, it’s worthwhile to let your workout dictate the additional requirement rather than providing it up-front. Adding extra protein pre-emptively takes away room from carbohydrates for example, which are what’s required for you to actually sustain and finish your workouts. Add a little more and see what happens. Experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.
Strength? That’s a little more complicated since strength gains can be made via a number of different channels aside from just muscle mass; cardiovascular, skeletal as well as nervous system adaptations. This is especially true for pound to pound strength/power to weight ratio.
Contrary to what many believe, even if your goal is to build muscle, gain size and strength, protein is probably not as important as your overall caloric intake although obviously you would want to consume a bit more than the average person (We’ll hopefully cover that topic in detail at a different time since it definitely deserves its own article). Eating more protein without exercising won’t add muscle mass, much as we’d like it did.
Bottom-line: Any real fitness, strength or aesthetic goals require work and overall nutrition rather than focussing on one macro-nutrient (protein).
Are there specific circumstances where I might need to consume more protein?
Yes, if you are pregnant or recovering from certain injuries. How much more would again depend on current intake levels and it would probably be wise to follow your doctor’s recommendations in either case.
Does protein have any negative health effects?
A lot of times this answer depends on where you’re getting your protein from because you are not likely to eat protein in an isolated form and even if you do, the source can influence how its handled by your body. Depending on source, excess protein can tax kidneys, spike insulin levels and generally cause a host of other problems depending on what else is bundled along with your ‘protein-package’.
Any negative effects of excess protein are minimized when you obtain it from sources such as beans, nuts and seeds but we would not recommend going out of your way to consume more than you need.
How do I make sure I’m getting enough Protein in my diet?
Just eat enough. Once you start looking up how abundant protein is, you will begin to realize how much of a non-issue it is. We would recommend a mostly plant based diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans until you are satiated, which apart from setting a foundation of overall health, will guarantee that you are never in a protein deficit.
When people say ‘x grams of protein’, what do they actually mean?
It means the amount of actual protein as opposed to the weight of a certain food containing protein.
How much should the average person consume?
Everything in this article applies to everyone; from the average person to the ultra-endurance athlete, as it should.
How much should an endurance athlete consume?
Your ability to process oxygen (VO2 max), blood volume and available glycogen stores in your muscles and liver will be far greater factors to your performance than protein intake. Consuming enough calories for your efforts from whole foods will, as always, give you all the protein you could need.
Conclusions, references and further reading
Protein is NOT a big deal. Losing weight, gaining muscle and fitness require work and maintaining it requires overall health, the foundation of which is a healthy diet. We respect your intelligence too much to tell you otherwise. The best science currently available points to a whole foods plant based diet as ideal for weight loss, strength and endurance. So long as you eat enough whole food, protein won’t be an issue.
A lot of so-called ‘authority’ nutrition sites reference rubbish (and often non-existent) studies and literature. It is important to check where the ‘facts’ may be coming from. The key studies and recommendations used for the research of this article came from: –
- The World Health Organization
- The US National Library of Medicine
- Recommendations by Dr. Walter Willet, Chair of Harvard’s Nutrition department