One frequent concern I hear is “Am I eating enough protein?” Ironically, overconsumption of protein is far more common than deficiency. When I interview patients I notice that people overestimate their protein needs while, at the same time, underestimate how much protein is in their diet. Let’s look at both issues.
1) How much protein do I need?
The American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health recommend 50-60 grams of protein for most adults, which is about 10-12% of total calories. The WHO (World Health Organization) puts protein requirements as 5% of daily calories, for a 2000 calorie diet this is about 25 grams of protein. The US government advises .36g per pound, a smidge over 1/3 your weight, so for a 180 pound adult that is 65 grams of protein.
All protein estimates, including our government’s recommendation, are calculated with lean body mass in mind. It is our muscles and our organs which need protein, any excess fat we carry does not increase our protein needs. (However excess weight that is from muscle, such as a heavily muscled athlete, does increase protein needs but that is a topic for another day.) For instance, if when you were at a healthy weight (appropriate to your height and build, neither under or overweight) of 180 pounds during your college years but gained 20 or even 50 pounds of fat since then, your protein needs remain the same.
If these protein recommendations sound low consider that in infancy we consume only breast milk, which is a mere 10% protein. Our protein needs are never higher than during this time of frenzied muscle growth, and organ development. We can get away with lower protein than one might think because, unlike fat and carbohydrates, protein is only burned for energy as a last resort. Protein is constantly recycled, worn out proteins are reassembled by the liver to be used over and over again.
2) Why we underestimate how much protein we eat
Protein is not only available in what we traditionally consider protein foods (animal flesh, diary, legumes, nuts/seeds), both starches and vegetables also have protein. There is even a little bit of protein in some fruits, particularly those with edible seeds such as strawberries and blackberries.
Protein grams per 100 calories: Spinach 13g, Broccoli 6.8g, steak (depending of the cut) 5-10g,, 2oz Roasted Skinless Chicken Breast 20g
Take a look at two days worth of Food Sobriety style meals (1/4 protein, ¼ starch, ½ veggies) with the protein grams (g) listed. To keep things simple I left out menu-style descriptions/condiments/herbs etc… Despite the small, by American standards, portions of protein both days easily exceed recommendations, and this is without counting snacks.
Breakfast: 2 egg omelete (14g) with 1 cup peppers (3g) and 1 cup asparagus (4g) 1 cup rice (5g)
Lunch: 3 oz turkey burger with bun (28 g) lettuce, tomato, onion (1g) and a cup of vinegar style coleslaw (1g)
Dinner: 3oz of baked chicken (28g) with 1 c. of steamed broccoli (4g) and 1c. of corn (4.5g)
Total Protein: 92.5 grams
Breakfast: 1 c. oatmeal (6g) with ½ c. strawberries (.5g), 1.5 c. of steamed peas and carrots (10g) with a ½ cup yogurt dressing/sauce (4g)
Lunch: 1 c. cooked spinach (6g), medium bowl of lentil soup (12g), 1c. rice (5g)
Dinner: 1 c. of mushrooms (3.5), 1 c. of cauliflower (3g), 1 c. beans (16g), baked potato (9g)
Total Protein: 76 grams