Mix it up with healthy whole-food sources.
Protein is a major multi-tasking macronutrient! It helps the body build and repair cells, and provides vital energy. (No wonder it’s so important for children, adolescents and expectant moms!) It is a component of EVERY CELL, and is even in most of our bodily fluids like blood and mucus! It is a factor in processes such as blood clotting, immunity, vision and hormones. With all these functions, it’s easy to see why protein is one of the most important nutrients to maintain good health.
Not all protein is created equally.
Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids. The order of the amino acids dictates the structure and function of the protein. There are 20 different types of amino acids, but only 11 can be made within the body. The other 9 must be consumed from food, making a healthy diet imperative.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests eating a variety of nutritious foods from both plants and animals. Protein is often thought of as meat, poultry and seafood, but it is also found in dairy, nuts, eggs, beans & peas, seeds, soy products and even grains and vegetables. Did you know a baked potato has 3 grams of protein? And a large ear of corn on the cob has 4!
Don’t be fooled by some “protein bars” and other “health” foods boasting high grams of protein. While some do provide nutrients other than protein, many are heavy on added sugar and other preservatives. For the best benefit, natural whole foods and less processed foods are the best.
How much is recommended?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults was established in the 1940’s to be considered a “minimum” with few changes since that time. In order to meet the RDA, an average active adult would only need to consume roughly 10% of his/her calories from protein. This may seem low to us today, where high protein diets have become highly advertised.
Since the RDA was set, a significant amount of research has been conducted. In the mid-2000’s the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) released nutritional recommendations that were designed specifically with active individuals in mind. Now known as the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR), they suggest 10-35% of calories consumed daily should be from protein.
Of course, there are certain factors that a person should consider when determining their nutritional needs, so the AMDR range allows for these considerations, like individual differences in activity as well as body weight. Interestingly, the lowest protein recommendation on the AMDR is still higher than the RDA.
According to “What We Eat in America”, the average protein intake for males ages 18 and younger or over age 71, is on the low end of the recommended range. For females at any age range, the average protein intake is on the low end or even below the recommended range.
Maxing out your intake may not be optimal
Some popular diet programs and nutritional products take high protein intake to the extreme, promising huge weight loss results and get consumers focused on the protein content only. This has brought increased interest and scrutiny to dietary protein recommendations. Overall, research is inconclusive on whether a high protein diet is effective for weight loss. Those bars and powders may also have little other nutrients to offer. However, on the positive side, numerous studies have shown increased protein may have significant health benefits, such as improved muscle health, especially in older populations.
So how can we get the most out of our protein? “Optimizing Protein Intake in Adults” a 2017 study published in Advances in Nutrition, An International Review Journal, evaluated almost 50 studies. They found that by including protein foods that are also rich in other nutrients, such as iron, and vitamin E, individuals can meet intake recommendations for those nutrients, plus avoid some saturated fats and sugars, and achieve a better overall nutrient total. Increased protein intake had minimal adverse consequences, especially when compared to eating dietary plans that increased fats and/or carbohydrates.
That said, too much protein in any form could be problematic for those with chronic kidney disease. Additionally, there is research to suggest that higher protein diets could be linked to higher cholesterol, increased cancer risk, weight gain, constipation or diarrhea; however, it has not been determined that the protein itself was the cause.
The Bottom Line
Generally, speaking, there is a lot of buzz surrounding protein and how much is needed for a healthy diet.
“There’s a misunderstanding not only among the public, but also somewhat in our profession about the RDA,” says Nancy Rodriguez, a registered dietitian and professor of nutritional science at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Rodriguez was among over 60 nutrition scientists, health experts and nutrition educators who joined an 8-member steering committee at Protein Summit 2.0 in 2013. The group met to review, debate and discuss current research as well as ways to effectively implement that knowledge in health care practice.
From this analysis, Rodriquez estimates that consumption of up to twice the RDA (15%-25% of daily calories) “is a safe and good range to aim for.” The specific amount will vary from person to person based on multiple health factors and body weight. Therefore, individuals should consult with their health care provider for assistance in establishing a personal recommendation based on their health status, activity level and goals.
If you do decide to increase your protein intake, be smart about it. Many of the potential issues with higher protein intake can be addressed by simply choosing a variety of protein sources. Don’t let red meat or highly processed sandwich meat be the bulk of your protein. Choose lean meats or seafood and drain the fat as much as possible. Include nuts, grains and vegetables in your meals. When cooking, stay away from the frying pan and bake, broil, grill, or steam your food. By avoiding frying, you can cut down on the extra fat.
Not only is your doctor of chiropractic an expert on the musculoskeletal system, but also an excellent resource on protein benefits and overall nutrition, as well as exercise and other wellness topics. Make an appointment with your local chiropractor to discuss your current health compared to where you want to be, and how to get there by improving things like posture, strength, flexibility and nutrition, as well as addressing any concerns with muscles, bones or joints that are holding you back. There are many small #StepsToStrength you can take to improve your health and get your closer to those goals.
“Do you eat enough protein?” Harvard Men’s Health Watch. posted September, 2015 https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/do-you-eat-enough-protein Accessed September 2019.
Protein https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/protein.html Accessed September 2019.
Wolfe RR, Cifelli AM, Kostas G, Kim IY. “Optimizing Protein Intake in Adults: Interpretation and Application of the Recommended Dietary Allowance Compared with the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range.” Advances in Nutrition, An International Review Journal. 2017 Mar; 8(2): 266–275. doi: 10.3945/an.116.013821
Manore MM1. “Exercise and the Institute of Medicine recommendations for nutrition”. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2005 Aug;4(4):193-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16004827
Pendick D. “How Much Protein Do You Need Every Day?” Harvard Health Blog. Posted June 18, 2015, Updated June 25, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096 Accessed September 2019.