How much protein do we really need?
- Protein is a necessary part of our daily diets
- The important thing to understand here is how our bodies process protein
- Eating mostly fruits and vegetables is the healthiest thing you can do
There are many buzz words in the nutrition world today such as high-protein, low-carb, paleo, vegan, and many other labels we use to describe our eating tendencies. Most of these “diets” focus on the macronutrients we consume, such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
These nutrients are found in the foods we eat in various quantities, and they are often the focus of nutrition and diet advice in our world today.
Protein is a necessary part of our daily diets.
Protein sources that contain essential amino acids help us build the structures in our bodies such as muscle tissue, hair, nails, and collagen. Out of the 20 amino acids, 9 of them are considered essential and must come from the diet, since our bodies cannot synthesize them on their own.
So what does this mean?
We need to be consuming foods that contain protein because of these essential amino acids that we need. But, the types of protein matter, and the amount matters as well.
There is much talk about high protein, low carbohydrate diets nowadays. Recommendations to eat high amounts of protein to build muscle or lose weight are followed by many. Bodybuilders are known for eating fish or chicken with broccoli in order to build the physique they desire.
Animal proteins such as eggs, fish, chicken, and beef contain all nine essential amino acids, so they are considered complete proteins. Plant proteins such as beans and lentils contain only some of the essential amino acids, but when paired together (ie. beans and rice), contain all of the essential amino acids too.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 0.8 g/kg body weight to maintain the structures that protein builds. Which means a 120-lb female needs only about 43 g of protein, which is equivalent to a 6 oz chicken breast.
But what some bodybuilders and personal trainers recommend is eating a 6 oz serving of animal protein at each meal. That is a lot more protein than the recommended amount.
So, how much protein do we really need?
The Institute of Medicine’s recommendation of 0.8 g protein per kg body weight is for those of us who are not active and lead sedentary lives. Which means that if you exercise and workout regularly, you should be consuming roughly 1-1.5 g protein per kg body weight. Which still only puts our 120-lb female at roughly 55-80 g of protein per day.
The important thing to understand here is how our bodies process protein. Animal protein puts strain on our bodies, especially on organs such as the kidneys and liver.
Taking in excess protein puts stress on the kidneys because the protein in these foods is harder to digest, takes multiple steps for our bodies, and stresses out our gastrointestinal tract.
Plant protein is much more easily available to our body and does not put as much of a toll on our organs. This doesn’t mean you have to completely avoid animal protein, even though some people do while ensuring that they are still getting their amino acids from plant foods.
But it does mean that we actually don’t need to be consuming high amounts of animal protein at each meal. This can take a toll on our bodies and our digestion.
The bottom line is that while we do need protein, we probably don’t need to be eating protein like a bodybuilder in order to be healthy. And as with most nutrition advice, eating a variety of foods while ensuring that you are getting all the nutrients you need will lead you to better health and vitality.
Eating mostly fruits and vegetables is the healthiest thing you can do (and did you know vegetables contain protein too?) and whether your protein comes from a chicken breast or some beans and rice, you will be healthier in the long run if you focus your meals around vegetables and fruits.
My recommendations based on my experience and working with clients is that having protein at each meal will help you feel fuller between meals, but the type of protein can alternate between plant-based proteins and animal protein.
For example, having eggs in the morning, then a salad with some beans or chickpeas on top, complete with some salmon at dinner, will ensure that you are getting all your essential amino acids and following a satisfying and well-balanced diet. We do need protein, but we do not need to be eating a chicken breast every 3 hours to be healthy.
Focus on filling up your plate with loads of vegetables, fruits, moderate amounts of protein, and healthy fats, and everything else will take care of itself. The less we complicate nutrition, the healthier we will be inside and out.