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October 04, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: How much protein do we really need?

Don’t be fooled by sugary snacks loaded with protein

Protein has overtaken the supermarket in the past few years. It’s in your candy bar, it’s in your cereal (isn’t that what the milk’s for?), it’s in your bread – it’s everywhere.

Curious to know how much protein we really need — and whether those brands might just be selling protein for marketing’s sake — we reached out to Jefferson University Hospital’s Registered Dietician Emily Rubin for an explanation.

My understanding is that our recommended protein intake is mostly dependent on our body weight. But what is the average, standard measure for how much protein we need to function in a day?

Protein is an essential nutrient that is one of the main building blocks of the body — it builds and repairs muscle fibers, helps the body recover from injury as well as maintains organs, hair, tissues, skin and enzymes. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein (0.8 g/kg of body weight per day) averages about 46 grams of protein for sedentary women and 56 grams of protein for sedentary men. ‘Sedentary’ meaning someone who does not exercise regularly. This is the minimum amount to prevent deficiency, but protein amount also depends on many factors, such as age, pregnancy/lactation, activity level, percent of muscle mass, current health status and disease state.

A typical serving size of protein is:

• A small three-ounce piece of meat, like chicken (the size of a deck of cards), has 21 grams of protein.

 One six-ounce container of Greek yogurt has 15 grams of protein.

 Two large eggs have 14 grams of protein.

 One veggie burger has 11 grams of protein.

 Two tablespoons of peanut butter has seven grams of protein.

And the amount we need changes based on our activity during the day?

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The amount depends on the kind of activity. Protein needs of active people are influenced by the length, frequency and intensity of their workouts. If you are someone who sits down for eight hours a day and exercises – cardio spin class and/or weight training – three to five times a week for 45 minutes per session, you may only need an extra 20 grams of protein a day which is equivalent to having a six-ounce piece of chicken or fish (the size of a checkbook) instead of a three-ounce.

Both runners and weight trainers require the same amount of protein; about 50 percent more protein than a sedentary person. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, endurance athletes (marathon runners) and strength athletes (weight lifters) should be in the range of 1.2 to 2 g per kg of body weight. This averages about 92 grams of protein for women and 112 grams for men. Research has shown that timing of protein intake plays a role. Eating protein sources throughout the day is important as well as eating high-quality protein, such as chicken, fish, eggs, dairy or soy, within two hours after exercise. It enhances muscle repair and growth.

What do you make of how many products in the supermarket are selling foods with added protein now? Protein shakes seem pretty normalized (for everyone, not just weight-trainers). My cereal has pumpkin spice protein in it. And, of course, I can pop into a Wawa or Sheetz and add protein to my latte, or my whatever, if that’s what I want.

The high-protein diets are definitely the trend these days. It is unbelievable that protein is now added to foods that naturally contain no protein such as ice cream, candy, juices, etc. In my practice, I recommend a protein source at every meal, a high-quality, whole-protein food. Protein foods — eggs, chicken, fish, low-fat cheese, Greek yogurt — are more filling and satisfying and may prevent eating excess calories. The protein shakes and protein-enhanced foods are good to keep a diet more balanced especially if you’re eating just carbohydrates at a meal. But beware of the calories and fat in some of the protein shakes, bars and protein-enhanced foods because they may put weight on. If you choose a protein shake, the best protein sources, according to The International Society of Sports Nutrition, are milk-derived whey protein isolate and casein and egg white and soy protein isolate. Another option is to make your own shake with veggies, fruit, skim milk, Greek yogurt and peanut butter or almond butter.

What’s the danger of having too much protein on a regular basis?

For most people, as long as you are not cutting out other food groups such as fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, a high-protein diet is acceptable. People with kidney disease, liver disease and gout should not have a high-protein diet. If you are choosing large amounts of high-fat protein sources such as fatty cuts of red meat and whole milk dairy products, this may lead to high cholesterol.

Are some proteins healthier than others? If I’m getting my protein through an almond, as opposed to a steak, is there much of a difference? Beyond fat content, etc.

You would have to eat 92 almonds to equal a four-ounce steak in protein, which is about 640 calories and 56 grams fat — which may exceed the daily calorie and fat recommendations. That being said, peanut butter/almond butter and nuts are higher in healthy fats. They should be incorporated in a healthy diet. Lean protein foods are the best source, such as chicken breast, turkey, fish, eggs or egg whites, or veggie/soy burgers, tofu, Greek low-fat yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, low- or part-fat skim cheese. They contain all the essential amino acids that your body needs. There are benefits to eating plant-based proteins such as bean burgers, quinoa, legumes and nuts — they are high in fiber, healthy fats and folic acid. I recommend combining both plant and animal-based proteins, as this will give you the best variety of protein in your diet.

Medically, what have we learned in the past 10 years or so about protein intake that we didn’t know before?

Three things:

1. The high-protein diet trend for weight loss and management is back but appears to be healthier than in the past (i.e. Atkins diet) by adding some healthy fats, fruits and vegetables. High-lean protein diets such as Paleo, South Beach, Whole 30 are diets that claim weight loss, overall health, treatment of food allergies and treatment of certain diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol and hypoglycemia. Weight loss occurs because protein has its ability to reduce appetite; being more satisfied causes a reduction in calorie intake. Some research studies show, in both obese men and women, that eating protein at 25 to 30 percent of calories increased feelings of fullness, reduced the desire for late-night snacking by half and reduction of 441 fewer calories per day. People also use these diets for gluten intolerance and other food intolerances. The issue is that most of these diets may be temporary for weight loss, but need to be part of a lifestyle change. Most of my patients who come to me for a weight-loss consultation lose weight when I put them on a meal plan consuming 25 to 30 percent of their calories from lean protein sources.

2. The vegan diet trend is much more popular. Vegan diets use protein sources such as tofu, tempeh, nuts, beans and may be beneficial for heart disease, overall heath and even for some athletes. These are also better sources of protein if you require a low-protein diet for liver or kidney disease. These protein sources are high in fiber and antioxidants. Carl Lewis, a vegan athlete said, ‘I’ve found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet. Moreover, by continuing to eat a vegan diet, my weight is under control, I like the way I look. (I know that sounds vain, but all of us want to like the way we look.) I enjoy eating more, and I feel great.’

3. Organic sources of protein are on the rise due to people wanting to avoid meats with hormones, chemicals and hidden antibiotics. Under USDA regulations, organic cattle eat grass or organically grown grains that are not sprayed with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals. The benefit is higher Omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene and vitamin E, but the main issue is the higher cost.

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