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What's the Beef with Protein?

It seems there’s been quite the buzz around one macronutrient lately: protein. From high protein diets and protein-enriched snacks and cereals, to protein recovery drinks, this macronutrient is everywhere.

While protein does play many critical roles in the human body, particularly in building and maintaining muscles, bones, and organs, one question keeps popping up in the world of wellness and nutrition:  do we need to chow down on more protein?

The simple answer: You are most likely already consuming more protein than your body can use and more isn’t always better. Stick around so we can explain. 

Talk Protein to Me

First, let’s break down the science.

Dietary proteins are made of building blocks called amino acids. There are 22 amino acids, 13 of which the body can produce on its own. Even though the human body is pretty savvy, there are nine amino acids it never quite figured out how to make. We call these essential amino acids because it’s essential that we get them from the food we eat.

Proteins that contain all nine of these amino acids are called complete proteins. Complete proteins are found in animal products such as meat, fish, milk, and eggs. Once consumed, complete proteins can get right to work. 

Plant proteins on the other hand, don’t contain all nine essential amino acids and, so we call them incomplete. Does this mean plant proteins are inferior?

Absolutely not!

All we’re saying is that a variety of plant proteins from different sources should be eaten throughout the day. It was previously thought that in order to make a complete protein from incomplete sources, like plants, the sources needed to be combined in a single meal. Science has shown us otherwise, and we now know that the sources simply need to be eaten throughout the day.  

Numbers to Live By

Now that you have the science down, let’s talk about how much you need. 

According to both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American College of Sports Medicine, most men and women need 0.8-1.0 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight.  If you don’t have your calculator handy, simply multiply your weight in pounds by 0.4 or use an online calculator.

For reference, a 120 pound, 150 pound, and 200 pound person needs about 45, 55, or 75 grams of protein per day, respectively.  Think that’s a lot?  Take stock of the numbers below and we bet you’ll uncover that you’re eating more than you need. 

Moreover, your body can only utilize about 20 grams of protein at a time. Unfortunately, any extra protein consumed and not used by the body isn’t going to help you pack packing on extra muscle mass. Most likely, it will be stored as fat or excreted in your urine. So make sure to spread your protein intake throughout the day.

Okay, one more question - you’re hitting the gym regularly, benching and squatting your way to a stronger physique, do you need a little extra protein? Your body may have slightly higher requirements, roughly 1.2-1.4 grams per kilogram body weight, depending on training intensity. But before you start slamming egg whites, realize this is only about 43 grams extra per day for a 200 pound person. In food terms: 4 ounces of grilled chicken and a hardboiled egg.

Add it Up: All these numbers sound great, but what the heck does all this protein look like?  Here’s a quick reference:  

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The Bottom Line

Protein is an essential part of every diet, but most of us are already eating enough to meet our body’s needs.  Focusing on a balanced diet that includes protein, carbohydrates, and fats is key to good health.  Not to mention, bulking up on one particular nutrient may put you at risk for under-eating others, or missing out on key vitamins and minerals that your body needs.  So the next time you’re offered a $16 shake with 62 grams of protein after your workout, pocket your cash and grab a turkey sandwich.


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Written by Liz Canepari, MS, RD