Protein. The most talked about, and most misunderstood macronutrient. Everyone is so worried about not getting enough protein but do we even know how much we need?
While this nutrient is imperative to health and proper body function, big companies have exaggerated our need for it, leading us to become a society obsessed with protein.
With this fixation, you’d think the majority of the calories we eat on a regular basis would come from protein. It’s actually much lower than you’d think. We’ll get into that later.
First, let’s discover how much protein the human body needs and why.
How much do we need?
The World Health Organization recommends 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound, for adult men and women per day.
That means an adult weighing 125 pounds should consume about 45 grams of protein. Each gram of protein contains about 4 calories. So this person would eat 180 calories from protein. On a diet of 1,800-2,200 calories per day (depending on activity level), that would mean this person is getting 8-10% of their calories from protein, which is more than adequate.
Why do I say “more than adequate”?
“The national and international organizations that set nutrient guidelines build into their numbers a margin of safety that increases the recommendations substantially, often near double.”
Many people would be perfectly healthy with 5-6% of their calories from protein but the US RDA increases it to meet the needs of 97.5% of the population.
The main purpose of protein is growth, muscle repair, and cell replacement. During the period in our lives when we grow the most (infancy), we rely on our mother’s milk to provide the nutrients we need to facilitate our growth. However, mother’s milk only has about 6% calories from protein, making the case that adults, who aren’t growing nearly as much, do not need more than that.
Dr. Douglas Graham compares protein to bricks, and our bodies to a house being built. “You need truckloads of bricks during the construction stage. Once the house is built, however, if trucks continue to deliver bricks, you have a problem on your hands.”
How much do we actually get?
So how much protein does the average American eat? Roughly 16%. But if we are so focused on eating protein all the time, why isn’t that percentage higher?
Most of the common “protein foods” like meat, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds contain such a high amount of fat that the percentage of protein goes way down. While trying to eat gobs of protein, we unwittingly load up on fat.
That’s not to downplay the fact that most of us are overdosing on protein every day. Everyone is so worried about becoming protein deficient that we actually get too much. Ask yourself, have you ever met anyone who is protein deficient? Chances are, you haven’t.
But have you ever met anyone who gets too much protein? Someone who has constipation, toxemia, cancer, arthritis, premature aging, osteoporosis, kidney failure. The list of ailments associated with too much protein goes on and on.
If you want to see how much protein you are currently eating, track your meals at Cronometer.com (or on their free app). You’ll be able to clearly see how much of each macro- and micronutrient is in each thing you eat, which you can use to align your diet more healthfully.
If you ask a vegan about their protein intake, they’ll likely tell you it’s a non-issue. Whole, plant foods naturally contain the right amount of protein needed for the human body to thrive.
Graham, Douglas N. “Protein: 10% Maximum.” The 80/10/10 Diet: Balancing Your Health, Your Weight, and Your Life One Luscious Bite at a Time, FoodnSport, 2010, pp. 103–113.
World Health Organization, Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition, p. 257