Protein, the very stuff of civilisation itself?
Protein holds a special place in nutrition, a powerful word linked to so many connotations.
When protein is mentioned, people immediately have an opinion, probably more so than any other nutritional term. Gluten free, omega 3, vitamin D, these terms seem to come and go with media presence, but protein, it’s an incredibly powerful term and one that isn’t going away anytime soon – in fact it’s on the rise in marketing.
So why is protein deemed so important?
There’s a lot of reasons why people place so much emphasis on getting ‘enough’ protein. Certainly there’s a few key reasons. Protein is essential for survival, if we don’t consume protein we will eventually die. We also must consume oxygen, but very few people are concerned about their oxygen intake – the drive behind this is marketing really, but the quest for more protein has stemmed from a few sources. One is the great depression in the United States, during this time it was more difficult to acquire foods thought of as essential for protein intake, namely animal based foods. This problem doesn’t exist now.
Protein and the authorities
The medical profession, health organisations, and universities have presented advice for a long time that protein is critically important for human health and specifically that we must get enough of it and often. Unfortunately their advice really can lead to ill health due to over consumption of protein.
These statements have now all been deemed as incorrect: (McDougall J. Dr) https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2005nl/050100pupushing.htm
“Although plant proteins form a large part of the human diet, most are deficient in 1 or more essential amino acids and are therefore regarded as incomplete proteins. (American Heart Association)” http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/circulationaha/104/15/1869.full.pdf?ijkey=bb50bbddf6e7f5d32226a52632df941c5de41993 – this was presented in 2007, and whilst has changed slightly, the emphasis is still on ‘getting enough protein’..
“Other protein sources lack one or more amino acids that the body can’t make from scratch or create by modifying another amino acid. Called incomplete proteins, these usually come from fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts. (Harvard School of Public Health)” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/
How much protein do you need?
In short, this is really a non topic for the vast majority of people, in fact almost everyone living in the western world. There are exceptions, but they are rare and the people affected usually know about their condition. (some autoimmune diseases and congenital heart conditions linked to conditions such as PLE)
Yes, absolutely – some athletes and bodybuilders do demand more protein than the general population, but we’re talking about those who are training for hours and hours daily, not your average gym goer or amateur runner. The actual amount of protein required is far less than many people think, and certainly less than companies selling protein rich products would have you believe.
The general agreement now (-2016) is that 10% of calories should come from protein to meet an adults requirements. WHO – http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/nutrientrequirements/WHO_TRS_935/en/
So, for an adult consuming 2500 calories a day, 250 calories should come from protein to meet requirements. Protein provides 4 calories per gram, so 250 calories divided by 4 gives the number of grams of protein recommended per day, 62.5 grams. The NHS quotes lower at 50 grams. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/reference-intakes-RI-guideline-daily-amounts-GDA.aspx
There are other calculators, such as those that appear high in Google search results. These often quote daily requirements as hundreds of grams per day – note that these sites often sell ‘protein products’, so you can draw your own conclusions as to why they recommend consuming more (of their product!).
Most people consume a LOT more than this each day, which can often be problematic when the protein comes from animal sources (meat/fish/dairy/eggs). It’s problematic because these foods are good sources of protein but they also provide a lot of fat and cholesterol, in particular, saturated fat.
Do you get enough protein?
It’s as if people are concerned with making sure they’re getting enough protein, almost out of a fear that they’ll stop growing, or become deficient and die.
In reality, in the western world, the problem is excess, not deficiency. There is a disease caused by deficiency of protein and starvation, called Kwashiorkor. It’s extremely serious but very, very rare. In reality, starving people die of fat deficiency, not protein – from a lack of food. Not really a concern as such in the western world.
As you can see, the prevalence in the country you’re likely in right now is extremely rare. Contrast the cases of protein deficiency to the cases of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, kidney stones, arthritis, and obesity – all linked to high consumption of animal protein (protein from meat/fish/dairy/eggs), because the amount of animal protein is correlated to the amount of fat in most animal foods.
Protein deficiency is around 1 in 50,000 in the western world.
Diseases from overconsumption, are around 1 in 2.
Whatever dietary pattern you follow, you will get enough protein if you get enough calories; it is that simple.
Even the foods lowest in protein, such as potatoes at around 8% of calories from protein will provide enough following the NHS guidelines. Since you likely eat other foods than just potatoes, it’s really not a concern.
Nonetheless, if you really do believe the hype and want more protein then look to beans as a very clean source of protein, most come in at around 20% of calories from protein, with almost no fat and zero cholesterol. The same is true of common legumes, such as peas!
In short, yes – you get enough protein. You are marketed to believe you need more, and this message is relentless. In fact, you probably get too much protein. If you are going to be concerned about protein, be more concerned with the dangers of consuming too much protein, not too little.