A Registered Dietitian’s Guide About Protein: Providing Recommendations & Debunking Misconceptions

In this post I will be talking about how much protein we need, possible effects from higher protein diets, and begin to discuss sources of protein.

How much protein should we be consuming?

This is a really important question because the fitness industry realllllly pushes people to believe that the more protein the better. But is that correct?

Recommendations:
Most official nutrition organizations recommend a protein intake of 0.8 grams of  protein per kilogram of body weight (1kg=2.2lbs). This amount has been shown to prevent any protein deficiencies.  As a dietetic student, I was taught to use a range from  0.8-1.0 grams/protein/kg for protein recommendations for the average, fairly sedentary person.

For an average, active individual, using a scale from 1.0-1.2 grams of protein/kg is recommended. (Most of us fall here in this category)

While athletes’ protein needs are greater than that of non-athletes, they’re not as high as commonly perceived. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics  and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes.

In the end, the right amount of protein for any one individual depends on many factors, including their activity level, age, muscle mass, and current state of health. 

I do want to mention that if you do the math above to see how much protein you should be consuming daily, you might be surprised to find out that it’s not as much as you would have thought or have been told to consume (typically by a health coach or online google search) .  This is not uncommon, but you really don’t need more than recommended above. There are suspected negative effects to consuming a higher protein diet, but like I mentioned at the beginning, this is a really controversial topic with mixed scientific evidence.

Below I provide the suggested cons, as well as provide the other side’s explanation.

Cons:
• Bone loss due to a theory called the “acid-ash hypothesis.” When higher protein diets are consumed, there are higher levels of urinary acid and calcium excreted(which are suspected indicators of bone loss).  ON THE FLIP SIDE…Many nutrients are known to work synergistically in the intestinal absorption process. Because of this, it has been proposed that higher amounts of dietary protein will not be detrimental to bone health when adequate calcium is consumed.

•Too high of a protein diet will cause dehydration and kidney damage. ON THE FLIP SIDE…This is likely only a problem for those with pre-existing kidney disease. It’s important to remember that those with type 2 diabetes are at risk for kidney disease so they need to be careful to not consume too high of protein.

• Diets high in meat, especially red and processed meat, have been associated with heart disease and cancer. ON THE FLIP SIDE… This is true.

A common misconception:

A common theory is the idea of a maximum protein intake limit per meal, usually in the range of about 30-50 grams. Those who promote this guideline state that the body can only absorb a set amount of protein in a single sitting, and that any more will simply go to waste. The thing is….the process of protein digestion is far more complex than most people could imagine. Larger meals will simply take a longer period of time to be fully digested and absorbed, and any practical sized meal you could eat is not going to go to waste.

How is the best way to reach protein recommendations?

As most of you know, my stance is that whole food is always best! I feel the same with meeting protein recommendations.

The best whole food sources of protein come from animal products such as meats, fish, eggs and dairy products, as they have all the essential amino acids that your body needs. Some plants are fairly high in protein as well, such as quinoa, legumes (beans, lentils, etc.) and nuts.

So…are protein supplements really needed?

If you’re eating animal products like meat, fish, eggs, or dairy every day, you’re likely doing pretty well protein-wise already. If you don’t eat animal products, but you’re a healthy person eating quality plant proteins for every meal, then you should also have protein levels within the optimal range. You do not need to count or track protein levels.

Even when it comes to athletes, most can get the recommended amount through food alone, without the use of supplements. Protein powders and supplements can be helpful for convenience, but are NOT NECESSARY; even for elite athletic performance.

Conclusion

In the end, protein is really important! It’s role is essential to our life & without it life would  not be possible. However, there is no need to meticulously track protein intake.  If you’re mindful about having a balanced diet with ensuring protein sources for every meal then you’re very likely on track with recommendations.

My professional opinion regarding high protein intake is this…even if there aren’t many proven known cons, we do know the suggested amount to take to maintain and gain muscle & there’s no need to take more than that.  Especially where there are so many other great nutrients to be consuming aka fiber, healthy fats, carbs, etc! 🙂

I personally try to keep my protein sources coming from whole foods with an added emphasis on plant protein sources. On occasion I do enjoy adding protein powder in recipes, but I am pretty cautious .

 

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