Sophie Egan is the author of the book “Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies — How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” (William Morrow/HarperCollins), out in paperback July 25, 2017. Based in San Francisco, Sophie has written about food and health for publications like Time, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, WIRED, Forbes, and Sunset magazine.. SOPHIE EGAN in the article answers the questionin
Q. It seems that many people who are not elite athletes are now hyper-focused on protein consumption. How much protein does the average adult need to consume daily?
A. The recommended intake for a healthy adult is 46 grams of protein a day for women and 56 grams for men. And while protein malnutrition is a problem for millions of people around the globe, for the average adult in developed countries, we are eating far more protein than we actually need.
Most adults eat about 100 grams of protein per day, or roughly twice the recommended amount. Even on a vegan diet people can easily get 60 to 80 grams of protein throughout the day from foods like beans, legumes, nuts, broccoli and whole grains.
The Hartman Group, a consumer research firm that has been conducting a study of American food culture over the past 25 years and counting, has found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are now actively trying to increase their protein intake. Many are avoiding sugar and simple carbohydrates and turning to protein-rich foods, snacks and supplements. The firm calls protein “the new low-fat” or “the new low-carb,” even “the new everything when it comes to diet and energy.”
“Soccer moms feel they can’t be anywhere without protein,” says Melissa Abbott, the firm’s vice president for culinary insights. “Really it’s that we’ve been eating so many highly processed carbs for so long. Now it’s like you try nuts, or you try an egg again, or fat even” to feel full and help you “get through the day.”
In her research, Ms. Abbott said she always seems to be finding beef jerky in gym bags and purses, and protein bars in laptop bags or glove compartments. Many consumers, she notes, say they are afraid that without enough protein they will “crash,” similar to the fear of crashing, or “bonking,” among those who are elite athletes.
But most of us are getting more than enough protein. And few seem to be aware that there may be long-term risks of consuming too much protein, including a potential increased risk of kidney damage.
Protein has achieved a venerated status in the dietary world for everything from building muscles, preventing weight gain. But can you get too much of a good thing?Protein powders that come in chocolate, strawberry, and cookies and cream flavors are doled out by the scoopful and mixed into smoothies, making it possible to effortlessly consume protein in amounts that far exceed dietary recommendations. A canned protein drink can contain almost as much protein as an eight-ounce steak, and snack bars or a small bag of protein chips can pack more of the macronutrient than a three-egg omelet.
But while some nutritionists have encouraged the protein craze, a number of experts are urging caution. They point out that protein powders and supplements, which come from animal products like whey and casein (byproducts of cheese manufacturing) or from plants like soy, rice, pea or hemp, are a relatively new invention. The vast majority of Americans already get more than the recommended daily amounts of protein from food, they say, and there are no rigorous long-term studies to tell us how much protein is too much.
“It’s an experiment,” said Dr. John E. Swartzberg, chairman of the editorial board of the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter. “No one can tell you the long-term effects, and that’s what worries me as a physician. No one can tell you what the results are going to be in people’s bodies 10 or 15 years later.”
People need sufficient protein in the diet because it supplies indispensable amino acids that our bodies cannot synthesize on their own. Together they provide th essential building blocks used to make and maintain muscle, bone, skin and other tissues and an array of vital hormones and enzymes.
But the average adult can achieve the recommended intake — 46 grams of protein a day for women, and 56 grams for men — by eating moderate amounts of protein-rich foods like meat, fish, dairy products, beans or nuts every day. There are about 44 grams of protein in a cup of chopped chicken, 20 grams in a cup of tofu or serving of Greek yogurt, and 18 grams in a cup of lentils or three eggs.
American men already consume much greater amounts, averaging nearly 100 grams of protein a day, according to a 2015 analysis of the 2007-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January, cautioned that some people, especially teenage boys and adult men, should “reduce overall intake of protein foods” and eat more vegetables.
Among the groups that fall short on protein intake are teenage girls, who may not eat properly, and elderly people, who are at risk of losing muscle mass and whose appetites often slacken with age. Indeed, many of the earliest nutritional supplement products, like Boost and Ensure, were devised with the elderly and malnourished in mind. (Professional athletes who work out many hours a day also need to increase protein intake considerably, as do women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.)
Yet the protein supplement market is booming among the young and healthy, with retail sales of sports nutrition protein powders and other products in the United States alone projected to reach $9 billion by 2020, up from about $6.6 billion last year, according to the research firm Euromonitor International.
“People think carbs are the enemy, protein is your friend,” said Eleanor Dwyer, a research analyst with the firm, and “that any health concerns are overblown.”
Experts note, however, that there is only so much protein the body can use. “The body only digests and absorbs a certain amount of protein at every meal,” about 20 to 40 grams, said Jim White, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist who spoke on behalf of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “People think that if they fill up with protein, it will be a magic bullet, whether for weight loss or to get in better shape and build muscle — but that’s not proving to be true.”
“You can eat 300 grams of protein a day, but that doesn’t mean you’ll put on more muscle than someone who takes in 120 grams a day,” Mr. White said. Meanwhile, “you’re robbing yourself of other macronutrients that the body needs, like whole grains, fats, and fruits and vegetables.”
Short-term studies suggest that high protein, low carbohydrate diets may promote weight loss and help to preserve lean muscle, and that eating protein helps satisfy hunger. But a recent small trial found that older women who lost weight on a high protein diet did not experience one of the important benefits that usually follow weight loss, an improvement in insulin sensitivity, which reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Large population studies also suggest an association between habitual high protein intake and a heightened risk of diabetes.