NYT protein piece generates more heat than light

imagesThere’s been a lot of buzz this week about a column in the New York Times on the potential consequences of eating “too much” protein.

Well columnist Roni Rabin worries that the popularity of protein powders, drinks, and bars are “making it possible to effortlessly consume protein in amounts that far exceed dietary recommendations.”

She goes on to write that “the vast majority of Americans already get more than the recommended daily amounts of protein.”

But are they really? The Institutes of Medicine–a relatively conservative bunch–recommends that we get between 10 and 35% of our calories from protein. For a 150 pound adult, that translates into a range of 55 to 180 grams of protein per day.

The lower figure (which is often invoked as the “recommended intake”) represents the minimum amount needed to prevent protein deficiency. The higher figure (35%) is not based on any known consequences from eating more protein than that. It’s intended to ensure that you’re getting enough of other nutrients.

I have not heard a single suggestion that this recommended range should be adjusted to lower the top end–although there are several prominent scientists arguing to raise the lower end.

But let’s get back to what people are really eating, what with all the protein powders, bars, drinks and the current “protein craze.”

According to the most recent NHANES data, the average American male takes in about 100 grams of protein per day. This is not more than the recommended daily amount. This is more than the recommended daily minimum but significantly less than the suggested maximum.

In fact, the average protein consumption for men and women of all age groups is about 16% of calories. Even those in the top 90% percentile of protein consumption only get 20% of their calories from protein. So what is all the angst about?

Is it possible that those in the 99th percentile or the 99.99th percentile are, in fact, taking in 300 grams of protein a day? Sure. But how many people are we talking about here?

Rabin’s column headline asks a question that the subsequent article never answers: Can You Get Too Much Protein?

Of course you can get too much protein, just like you can get too much water, or fiber, or vitamin A. How much is too much? According to the guidelines provided by the Institutes of Medicine, it would appear that few of us have reason to worry.

(And if you are, in fact, eating 300 grams of protein per day, stop. It’s not doing you any more good than 150 grams would. Eat something else instead,)

4 thoughts on “NYT protein piece generates more heat than light

  1. Thanks, Monica, for injecting some sanity into the ongoing protein debate. I have long suspected an anti-meat/pro-veg(etari)an bias in the New York Times’ nutrition reporting, and this article is the latest reminder of that.

    I am a nutritionist specializing in the Mediterranean diet and am constantly baffled by reports about people eating too much protein. According to my calculations (I use the ADA’s and CDC’s protein calculators here: http://www.calculator.net/protein-calculator.html), about 80% of my clients (esp. women) don’t get even close to their daily intake requirement — at best, they’re just about getting the minimum requirement (and often not even that).

    By the way, even researchers at the arch conservative Harvard Medical School appear increasingly more receptive to the idea that we may need more protein than 0.8g per kilo of body weight. In a year-old post on the Harvard Health Blog they cite a Protein Summit report which argues that 16% of calories form protein “…is anything but excessive. In fact, the reports suggest that Americans may eat too little protein, not too much. “http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096

    When calculating my clients’ optimal protein intake, I usually steer them towards the mid-point of the ADA’s and CDC’s ranges, i.e., around 20% of daily calorie intake. I encourage them to increase their protein intake through natural, whole protein-rich foods (eggs, fish, yogurt, kefir, meat) accompanied with plenty of healthy carbs (veg, fruit, legumes) and fats (olive oil, nuts, etc.), but, on occasion, also with the help of unflavored, unsweetened whey protein powder from grass-fed cows, or, for veg(etari)ans, through the addition of unsweetened hemp protein powder. Especially for people who don’t cook or those whose digestion is impaired (e.g. by medical conditions or treatments), protein supplements can be life savers. I steer them away from highly processed protein bars and drinks. To date, not one of my clients has reported any adverse side-effects from increased protein intake; if anything, they report weight loss, improved energy levels, reduced carb cravings, etc.

    One fact the NYT article omitted to mention is that plant protein (e.g. beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains) is not equivalent to animal protein. For one, most plant protein foods don’t contain the full spectrum of amino acids humans need to thrive. Plant proteins have more calories than animal proteins, so for people who are trying to lose weight, animal proteins tend to be more helpful.

    For example, you can get 28g *complete* protein (i.e., every amino acid your body needs) from 3 oz skinless chicken (141 calories). By comparison, if you eat the same amount of calories’ worth of adzuki beans (1/2 cup), you obtain only 9g protein — so you’d have to eat 1 1/2 cups (a.k.a. 440 calories) to get the same amount of protein as from the 141 calories’ of chicken — and still not get all the amino acids you need! Similarly, 1 oz flax seeds (140 calories) yields 6g protein; to obtain 28g protein, you’d need to eat 4.5 oz flax seeds — aka 630 calories’ worth!

    That’s not to say that you shouldn’t eat beans or flax seeds — they are excellent sources of healthy carbs (beans), fats (flax), fiber and phytochemicals. However, neither is a good source of protein, and eating “normal” amounts of beans and seeds doesn’t supply the quantity and quality of protein that many people think they do.

  2. Thanks, that was enlightening. I wonder if I’m getting enough protein myself after reading this. What if a person is very active and lifts weights everyday, would they be at the 180g level, or would they possibly need more? thanks

    1. Probably makes sense to calculate it based on your body weight. For athletes, experts suggest 2 g protein per kilogram. (To get your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2).

      For best results, divide it evenly over the course of 3-4 meals or snacks.

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