You have probably heard a lot about protein‐ protein is definitely “hot” right now in the media, on food shelves, and with health conscious people like us. But this “hot” trend towards protein comes with its own side of misperceptions and inaccurate information regarding how much we should be eating, what types to eat, and when to eat it. Read on as I throw some water on the myths that are stoking the protein fire. . .
Myth #1: I already get enough protein.
Fact: Many people may not be meeting protein needs for optimal health.
If you’re a gym rat slugging back 3 protein shakes a day, chances are you’re getting your share of protein. However, the average American may not be eating enough protein. The reason this myth exists is because technically, according the USDA’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, Americans are meeting protein needs based on the RDA. The RDA (or Recommended Dietary Allowance) is 0.8 gm/ body weight/day or 0.35 grams/lb/day for adults over 18 years of age. This intake has been defined by the Institute of Medicine following their review of the available literature as the level sufficient to meet the nutrient requirement of 97‐98% of all healthy individuals.
However, it is important to understand that this recommendation is a requirement to prevent deficiencies rather than promoting optimal health. This level is currently under debate regarding its adequacy for certain population groups such as athletes or the elderly.
The other way to make protein recommendations is based on the Dietary Reference Intake defined by the Institute of Medicine as the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR). The AMDR is based on 10‐35% of calories coming from protein and offers a wide range that is dependent upon needs. When you look at the data from the NHANEs survey in the context of the AMDR, you see a different picture‐Americans consume only about 16% of their calories from protein, but the AMDR for protein is 10‐35% of calories.
Again, protein needs are extremely individualized based on age and activity level, among other factors, but the main point is that there are still many of us who are not meeting our protein needs for optimal health.
Myth #2: Only protein from whole foods is good.
Fact: Packaged foods pack a powerful protein punch.
Many people get stuck on misperceptions about specific sources of protein‐ I’m here to tell you that just because it is in a package, does not mean it isn’t good for you. Think about all those great sources of protein that are convenient and affordable like canned tuna, yogurt, protein shakes and bars. These are all great sources of protein when you’re on the go and have no time for a full course meal. Keep a bar in your car or purse to keep hunger at bay. Bottom line is processed foods can contain important nutrients like protein that can help us meet our needs.
Myth #3: It does not matter what time of day I eat protein.
Fact: Spreading out your protein intake throughout the day is best for protein utilization.
Many Americans eat a large portion of their protein requirements at dinner. However, studies show that spreading protein intake throughout the day will allow for optimal muscle use of protein. About 30 grams of protein per meal is ideal for muscle growth. This is equal to 4 oz of grilled chicken or 3 eggs with a Greek yogurt. Eating a protein rich meal after a workout is a smart idea as well, as muscles are readily prepared to absorb nutrients. A peanut butter sandwich, chocolate milk, or a protein bar are great post‐workout snacks. For those not looking to bulk up with muscles, just aim to evenly distribute your protein throughout the day with meals and snacks.
Myth #4: High protein foods spoil quickly.
Fact: There are a variety of sources of protein that can outlast your purse or gym bag.
When you think about high protein foods, you may only be thinking about a small part. Yes, fresh meat, poultry and fish have a short fridge life (2‐5 days maximum) but you can always freeze for a later date. Frozen foods like veggie burgers are a great option to keep on hand for those weeks you can’t make it to the grocery store. But beyond these sources, there are tons of other protein foods that don’t need to be refrigerated at all like beef jerky, peanut or soy butter and canned tuna.
Myth #5: I have to pair protein with every meal.
Fact: Anything eaten in the same day counts!
Protein is made up of several amino acids, 20 of which are essential for everyday life. Complete protein sources have all the amino acids in the right amounts the body needs and are efficiently absorbed. Some types of food contain all the essential amino acids in just the right amount.
These protein sources ‐ or complete proteins ‐ are often obtained from animal products (meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs etc.) but can also be found in non‐animal products such as soy foods. Other protein foods are incomplete or lacking in some essential amino acids. Also, some amino acids may not as well digested in these proteins as others. Not to worry! You can easily create your own power couple of complementary proteins by pairing two incomplete proteins. A set of complementary proteins can provide adequate amounts of amino acids. An example of complementary protein pairings is beans and rice. These items together supply the right amount of essential amino acids.
However, contrary to what some may think, research suggests you do not need to pair incomplete proteins at every meal. Consuming a variety of protein foods in adequate amounts throughout the day will provide the essential amino acids your body needs.
Sarah Romotsky, RD, is the Director of Health & Wellness at the International Food Information Council. Sarah leads the development and implementation of strategic communication initiatives on science-based health and wellness topics. A native of Southern California, Sarah received a BA in Mass Communications from UC Berkeley and later completed the Dietetic Program at SF State University.
Protein Powder Photo Credit: Deymos.HR/Shutterstock.com