Do Americans Eat Too Much Protein?
Some claim that we are eating twice as much protein as we should, but the facts seem to say otherwise. Nutrition Diva gets to the bottom of the controversy.
If you've been a reader or listener of the Nutrition Diva show for a while, you've probably heard me talk about the benefits of eating more protein. Eating more protein (and fewer carbohydrates) can help you manage your appetite and aid with weight loss.
Despite all this, you may have heard other experts say that Americans are eating far too much protein. (I know I have.) Let's take a closer look at this seemingly contradictory advice. >
How Much Protein Do We Need?
First, let's review what the Institute of Medicine recommends in terms of protein intake.
Under normal circumstances, you require about 0.8g of protein per kilogram of healthy body weight to maintain basic bodily functions. That translates into a daily recommended intake (or DRI) of 56 grams of protein for men and 46 grams for women.
See also: Nutrition Diva's Protein Cheat Sheet
Just for reference, a 3-ounce portion of chicken breast provides about 25 grams of protein - or about half the daily requirement. Two eggs provide around 12 grams of protein - about a quarter of the recommended intake.
How Much Protein Do We Eat?
Recent surveys have found that American men eat an average of 100 grams of protein a day, which is almost twice the recommended daily intake for males. Women eat a bit less - about 70 grams of protein a day, or one and a half time the recommended intake for females. This seems to be the basis for claims that we are eating twice as much protein as we "should."
But that is not quite true. In addition to the DRI for protein, the Institute of Medicine also provides a recommended range for protein intake, suggesting protein should make up 10% to 35% of your total calories. If you take in 2,000 calories per day, 10% to 35% of calories translates to a range of 50 to 175 grams of protein. In other words, the DRI represents the bare minimum.
On average, Americans get about 15% of their calories from protein. And even those folks at the top of the curve - the 90th percentile for protein intake - are only getting about 20% of their calories from protein. That's still well below the recommended maximum of 35%.
This claim that Americans are eating too much protein appears to be completely unsupported by the facts. While average protein intake in America is more than adequate, it is in no way excessive. And, in fact, as I discussed in a recent episode, there is evidence to suggest that many senior citizens would benefit from eating a bit more protein.
So if Americans aren't getting too much protein, why are so many people saying we are? I think there are 3 factors at work......
What's Behind the Anti-Protein Movement?
Protein is not the same as meat. A lot of times, when people say we eat too much protein, what they really mean is that we eat too much meat. Many people feel that the amount of meat we consume is not sustainable from an ecological or environmental point of view. Others point out that the land, water, and other resources that we currently use to raise meat could feed a lot more people if we used them to produce other types of food. These are all valid arguments. But protein is not the same as meat. You can eat 100 grams of protein a day without consuming any meat - and no one seems to worry that this would be unhealthful.
How you prepare it matters. It may also be true that we tend to eat protein in ways that are not terribly good for us - in the form of cured and processed meats that contain nitrates or smoked and char-broiled meats that contain carcinogens. Avoiding these foods might well make you diet healthier. But that has nothing to do with their protein content.
Portion control matters. Finally, you could argue that we are simply eating too much of everything, including protein. Cutting back on portion sizes could help reduce overweight and obesity. But that's not about cutting protein per se. That's about cutting calories. In fact, if you want to cut calories from your diet, I'd suggest trimming calories from refined carbohydrates first before youstart reducing your protein intake.
Protein Is Not the Problem
If you want to try to convince people that they'd be better off if they ate less meat, or ate a bit less of everything, you have my blessing. But let's leave protein out of it. There are many excesses in the American diet but protein is not one of them.
Thoughts, comments, questions, or arguments about this or any other nutrition topic? Post them below in the Comments section or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. I look forward to hearing from you!
Fulgoni VL 3rd. Current protein intake in America: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003-2004. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1554S-1557S.
Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate. Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (2002/2005). www.nap.edu