Nutritionists are frequently asked about adequate protein intake. Protein is the building block for most of our cells It helps us build muscle and maintain healthy bones. It also boosts energy and helps us feel full.
The reality is that most Americans consume twice as much protein as they need. Still, there’s a lot of hype about the benefits of protein and many people have come to believe that they’re not consuming adequate quantities.
Many of my clients start the day with a protein powder shake and think that they’re off to a healthy start. Smoothies, shakes, supplements: There’s no shortage of products that come with promises to boost your protein intake.
Be careful is you are a protein powder devotee. A new study shows that many of the top-selling powders and drinks may contain concerning levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead, and toxins like bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in some plastic containers and food can liners. These substances have been linked to cancer, brain damage, and reproductive issues.
But do you really need that extra protein from the powders? Douglas Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch says “I think a lot of people feel pressured by all the marketing out there, making them feel like their diet is protein-deficient. Most of us are already getting an adequate amount in our diet.”
Nutritionists Weigh in on Protein Needs
Nutritionists can help you figure out your true protein needs. They may be much lower than you have been led to believe. So before you start eating extra steak or mixing protein powder into your smoothies, it’s important to assess your true protein requirements.
According to the Dietary Reference Intakes from the USDA, most people need about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
• For a more individualized estimate of how much protein you need, you can enter your height, weight, and age into the USDA’s calculator.
• So someone who weighs 150 pounds would need about 60 grams of protein each day.
• A 6-ounce skinless, cooked chicken breast contains 54 grams of protein.
• Greek yogurt often contains 15g of protein.
• A mini 3 oz. can of canned tuna in water also has 15g of protein.
• A 5 ounce portion of salmon provides 28g of protein.
Nutritionists Advise These Groups to Monitor Protein Intake
Nutritionists advise certain people to pay more attention to their protein intake.
• If you’re a strict vegan you may need to monitor your protein requirements more closely.
• If you’re trying to build muscle mass or you’re a serious athlete, your daily protein needs can be up to double the average. But, Paddon-Jones cautions that this doesn’t really apply to someone who hits the gym a few times each week. “We’re talking about a small group of people who are working their bodies hard, every day.”
• Dieters also sometimes increase their protein intake in order to achieve a feeling of fullness without adding the empty calories of, say, refined carbohydrates. If you’re trying to lose weight, research suggests that aiming for 0.7 grams of daily protein for every pound you weigh might help.
• After age 60, getting at least 0.6 grams per pound daily can help prevent age-related muscle loss, or sarcopenia, which increases the risk of disability.
• If you have certain medical concerns—you’re recovering from broken bones or a severe burn, for example—your doctor may advise you to up your protein intake. The nutrient could help with regrowth and cell generation, and might speed the healing process.
Nutritionists Advice About Timing of Protein Intake
Nutritionists are often asked about the timing of protein intake throughout the day.
Research has shown that the body has a limited capacity to process large amounts of protein all at once. One study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that someone who ingests 90 grams of protein in a meal gets roughly the same benefits as someone who ingests 30 grams.
It’s better to space out your protein intake over the course of the day in order for your body to use it all effectively. Start with, for example, yogurt or eggs in the morning, eat tuna for lunch, then move onto a lean meat at dinner. You can supplement throughout the day with smart protein snacks like hummus and veggies or peanut butter on crackers or sliced apples.
Protein Overload is Unlikely
For most healthy adults, there isn’t a significant danger to getting more than the recommended amount of protein naturally in your diet.
Jamie Baum, Ph.D., an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Arkansas states that “Unless you’re [genetically predisposed to] kidney issues such as advanced type 2 diabetes and kidney disease, there are few established health risks of ingesting too much protein.”
Some research has shown potentially adverse effects of excess protein intake, such as straining the kidneys and the liver. But that’s generally only among people who are upping their intake with supplements. And if your protein is coming predominantly from animal sources, you could face corollary risks associated with high-meat diets, such as higher rates of coronary heart disease.
Moderation is always the key to a healthy diet.
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