Protein: Are We Going Too Far?
On my recent visit to the annual Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo (the “Super Bowl of nutrition,” as it’s referred to by nutritionists), health care pros from around the country came together to talk about the hottest topics in nutrition. This year the conference was buzzing about one particular nutrient: protein. Here’s what all the fuss was about.
According to recent data, most folks take in between 10 and 20 percent of total calories from protein, with most coming in at lunch and dinner. Other studies indicate that men exceed their protein intake by as much as 50 percent, while women are taking in 65 percent more than the recommended amount. The USDA recommendation for a healthy adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For a 160-pound person, that comes out to 60 grams, or 12 percent of a 2,000-calorie diet. For optimal use of protein, it’s best to eat small amounts throughout the day. Despite this, many Americans load up on protein across one or two meals. According to market data, consumers are looking for foods with more protein and checking labels more carefully for protein counts. As a result, numerous protein-enhanced food products are popping up on store shelves.
Meat, eggs and dairy aren’t the only players in this game. Plant-based options are getting more love. Studies have found that replacing some of the carbohydrates and animal-based proteins (like meat and eggs) in one’s diet with soy, nuts and legumes can assist in the prevention of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Protein does a body good. It’s beneficial for a wide variety of functions, including muscle growth, hormone production, immunity and increased satiety (in other words, it makes you feel fuller longer). But too much protein can do harm; most health agencies, including the National Institute of Health, set a limit of 35 percent of total calories from protein.
Many sources are also high in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, so choosing lean meats, low-fat dairy and plant-based proteins is a must. Excessively high protein intake has also been linked to kidney problems and increased risk of some types of cancers.
Choose a variety of lean and plant-based options, and spread out protein intake throughout the day. Check labels on protein-enhanced foods and decide whether you really need those extra grams.
Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition.