Protein…Are We Eating Too Much?

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

Special contribution written by Megan Hamrick, intern with Solmaz Institute Dietetic Internship of Lenoir-Rhyne University:

You’ve read it on the internet, you’ve seen it in the news, and you’ve most likely made a list of high protein snacks and meal ideas. Protein has taken over the nutrition spotlight recently and is seen by many as the key component in weight loss and weight maintenance. Protein is one of the three macronutrients. Macronutrients are dietary components that the body uses in high amounts in order to function. The three types of macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Protein helps to repair any damage to cells and assists in making new cells. We also need certain types of proteins in our diet, called essential amino acids, that our bodies are unable to produce on their own.

So how much protein do we really need?

The westernized American diet gets more than enough protein on a day to day basis. The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) is slightly different for everyone – 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Calorie wise, 10-30% of our calories should come from protein. This doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things. For example, someone who is 150 pounds would need about 54 grams of protein a day. This is calculated by converting pounds to kg. 150 pounds = 68 kilograms. Multiply the weight in kilogram by 0.8 and your protein needs are calculated for the day. On average, women need about 45 grams of protein a day while men need about 55 grams of protein a day.

Why are we loading up on the protein shakes, bars, and snacks?

There are certain situations where more protein is needed – high endurance athletes, end stage kidney disease, older adults. The needs of adults over the age of 50 increase to about 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight. This is because of sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass as the human body ages. The average person should be looking at a more balanced diet. Protein is an important part of a balanced diet, but along with the inclusion of whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits and vegetables. One reason why we eat so much protein in the American diet is because our portion sizes, for every food group, have gone to the way-side. Myplate is a great visual and shows us that protein should be taking up about ¼ of our plate at each meal.

Measuring your food and watching serving sizes is a great way to keep track of how many ounces of protein you are consuming.

You’ll want to be eating 5-6 ounces a day and choose from a variety of sources. A few examples of good sources of protein include lean cuts of meat such as chicken, turkey, and fish, low fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. One ounce of protein rich foods contain about 7 gram of protein. A few examples of one ounce equivalents are 1 egg, ¼ cup of beans, 1 tablespoon of nut butter, or one slice of sandwich meat. Another common serving size for meat is 3 ounces which is about the size of the palm of your hand. Check the nutrition facts label for how many grams of protein are found in the product per serving size.

Yes, protein is an important macronutrient in our diet but we can’t forget to include the other two. Fat and carbohydrates are important for us as well. Carbohydrates are our bodies main source of energy fuel. Try to aim for 6 to 7 ounces a day. Make at least half of your grains (3 to 4 ounces) whole grain and the fiber found in whole grains will help tide you over from meal to meal. One slice of bread, ½ cup cooked oatmeal, 3 cups plain popcorn, or ½ cup of rice or pasta is equal to a one ounce serving. Fat helps us absorb the fat soluble vitamins and also provides us with essential fatty acids. Choose healthy fats, such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, to provide your body with nutrients and heart health benefits. Healthy fats can be found in nuts, olive or canola oil, avocado, and fish. Try to limit saturated fats as much as possible and avoid trans fats all together. Saturated fat is found in fatty meats such as beef and pork, dairy products, and coconut and palm oil. Trans fat can be found in many processed foods such as candy bars, snack foods, and fried foods.

A nutrient dense, balanced diet will allow you receive a variety of nutrients and keep your body running like it should.  By focusing on a high protein diet, we have allowed our intake of other food groups to decrease. Practice moderation, portion control, and a variety of smart food choices and your body will be receiving the nutrients it needs to keep you at your healthiest!

Updated on Oct 19, 2017
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