Protein is one of the hottest nutrition trends with popular low-carb, high-protein diets like Paleo, brands calling attention to the protein grams in everything from cereals and breads to shakes and energy bars, and restaurants re-vamping their menus to include more of it to meet consumer demand.
In fact, a recent report by Packaged Facts, a market research firm in Rockville, Maryland, found that 62 percent of people are making protein a priority in their diets.
True, protein is a key nutrient in a healthy diet, but experts say most people are getting enough, maybe even too much. Read on to find out how much protein you really need and the best way to get it.
Protein is a powerhouse.
Protein is made up of amino acids, or the building blocks of protein. When they’re digested and broken down, they give your body energy and build and repair tissue.
Protein is found in virtually every part of your body, too, keeping hair and nails strong and making enzymes for hormones.
“Adequate protein intake not only helps to promote good health but it also promotes good looks,” said Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Pittsburgh and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
Protein can also help athletes gain muscle and perform better and help dieters shed pounds.
“Having a higher protein portion is going to help fill you up and that’s beneficial if you’re trying to lose weight,” Mangieri said.
With the standard American diet’s focus on red meat, cheese and animal products, experts say while most people are getting enough, some may not only be eating too much protein, but too much saturated fat as well. Not only is protein found in a variety of foods other than animal sources, portion sizes are out of control and protein is added to many processed, packaged foods.
“People see [added protein] on the label and they think the product is even better,” said Jim White, a registered dietitian nutritionist, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia.
How much protein you need, however, depends on your body, your lifestyle and your goals. The dietary reference intake for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend protein make up 10 to 35 percent of the daily calorie intake.
Vegetarians and vegans who are more likely to fall short on protein intake should make it a point to combine foods like beans and rice or almond butter on toast to make a complete protein, White said. Or they might want to have a shake or smoothie with chia seeds, for example.
Pregnant and breastfeeding moms need an additional 25 grams of protein a day, as well as people who have cancer or need to gain weight.
Although athletes may want to increase their protein intake anywhere between 1.2 to 1.7 grams, it depends on the individual.
“You really want to stay focused on why you’re increasing your protein, what your goal is and what your food likes are,” Mangieri said.
Too much protein can be dangerous.
Although getting enough protein is important, more may not always be better.
“Regardless of the nutritional value, too many calories in and not enough out can lead to weight gain,” White said.
Overdosing on protein can also tax the kidneys, cause dehydration and interfere with calcium absorption, which can lead to osteoporosis.
Plus, low carb diets can be problematic especially for athletes.
“We also need quality carbohydrates such as whole grains to give us energy, B vitamins, fiber and essential fats,” White said.
What are the best sources of protein?
Although you should eat protein at every meal, striking a balance is important.
“If you consume too much protein at one meal, then it displaces other nutrients,” Mangieri said.
Eggs, chicken, beef, turkey and dairy are all complete protein sources. Although protein supplements can give you an extra boost, they’re not regulated by the FDA, so it’s unclear if the bioactive ingredients are safe. Although soy has cardiovascular benefits, it’s not the best for muscle building; whey and casein are better choices, White said. If you generally do eat soy, eat unprocessed soy such as edamame or soy beans.