How much protein do you really need?

Welcome back! Have you been making your own lunches? If so, have you noticed you feel more content than stuffed? Have you noticed your energy levels being more consistent in the hours following? What sort of lunches have you been making? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

A few lessons back, we covered some basic nutrition concepts that included the importance of getting enough fiber in your diet. Eating fiber helps you feel more full and can help prevent certain diseases like type 2 diabetes and cancer. Today, we are going to discuss the important role protein plays in your body, especially as it relates to someone on a fitness routine, and how much protein you need in your diet.  

Protein has become synonymous with a healthy diet. There’s a likelihood that, when you first took up this fitness program, you considered purchasing a protein supplement. In fact, maybe you did just that. When we think about bodybuilders and athletes, we think high protein diets, supplementing protein shakes, and maybe even a concern over whether or not a meal contains a complete protein, whatever that means.

But what is protein, why is it important, and why do we need so much of it?

Protein is one of three macronutrients in the human diet that are necessary for life, the other two being fats and carbohydrates. Fat and carbohydrates primarily supply energy for the body that is then used to power the countless metabolic processes necessary for survival. Protein, on the other hand, acts more like brick and mortar of the body, helping rebuild tissues, synthesize hormones, catalyze chemical reactions, etcetera, etcetera. The role protein plays is, as you can tell, enormously important, so making sure there’s adequate amount in your diet should be everyone’s focus, right?

Yes, it’s incredibly important to get enough protein in your diet. In fact, you could die if you don’t. Luckily, it is just about impossible to develop protein deficiency unless you have a medical condition. Furthermore, the amount of protein the average person needs to remain healthy, strong, and promote weight loss and muscle gain has been overblown by several hundred percent in popular media.

If I go to a popular website right now that has a calorie and macronutrient calculator built into a page, and I type in my body stats and performance goals, I’m told I need to eat 244 grams of protein. 244 grams of protein is over 30 percent of my calories! To get that amount of protein in my diet I would need to eat the equivalent of 8 full chicken breasts, or 19 eggs, or 81 strips of bacon, or in my case, 31 cups of cooked quinoa. Does that sound right to you?

Did you know the average American eats more than twice the recommended daily intake for protein? The average American man eats over 100 grams of protein a day, while the average American woman eats over 80 grams a day.

The FDA recommends a person on a 2000 calorie diet consume 50 grams of protein, or 10 percent of their calories. The USDA uses a slightly different approach, taking a person's body weight into account rather than a percentage of calories. Their guidelines suggest a person has a protein intake of between .66 and .8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. If you’re America, that’s around 1 gram of protein for every three pounds of healthy body weight.

Using myself as an example who weighs about 190 pounds and eats around 3000 calories a day, my protein recommendations would be somewhere between 57 to 69 grams of protein, or 7 to 9 percent of my total daily calories.

To get that amount of protein I could eat three and a half cups of beans, or seven bunches of spinach, or just over two and a half cups of oatmeal in a day. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a much more reasonable amount of food.

If nutrition authorities like the FDA and USDA are basing healthy protein intake on scientific data, why is the popular media and the fitness industry telling me to get over 30 percent of my calories from protein? Do they know something the FDA and USDA don’t?

To get the 244 grams of protein that was recommended to me by the previously mentioned website, I would really, really need to work at finding foods that balance my cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium intake. In fact, there’s a high likelihood I would not be able to, resulting in me having to consume a portion of my protein in the form of a supplement.

Think about who is telling you that you need to eat more protein. Do those same people sell protein powder? In the case of the website I got my required protein amount from, yes, their main business is selling protein powder. It’s also the case with many fitness celebrities on Instagram and Facebook. However great their fitness advice might be, at they end of the day many of them make their money through affiliate deals with supplement companies. They may even have their own line of supplements.

It’s not my intention to paint the fitness industry as an insidious, nefarious network of people who are only after your wallet. After all, they are helping people become more active and work toward health centered goals. And if eating double or triple the recommended amount of protein wasn’t linked to disastrous health risks, I wouldn’t have taken issue.

However, eating a high amount of protein has been linked to the major diseases plaguing our our society today, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Furthermore, high protein diets are synonymous with high dietary cholesterol, high sodium, and high saturated fat, all risk factors for serious diseases on their own.

So, the good new is if you’re spending 50 dollars every two weeks on a tub of protein powder, you can stop. I promise you’re not going to waste away. You can also stop worrying about eating foods high enough in protein, as it is just about impossible on a whole food diet. With all the noise out there telling you to eat more protein, it may take some time to be comfortable with eating a normal amount. That’s OK, just continue to slowly introduce more whole foods into your diet while removing the processed foods, including protein powders. I guarantee your energy will only improve.

As always, thank you for joining in on today’s lesson. If you got something out of it or have any questions, please let me know in the comments. If you’re enjoying this fitness program and know of a friend or family member who could also benefit, please feel free to share the sign up link with them. And, as always, the secret to getting ahead is getting started. So go get started!

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