Do Americans get more protein than they need?

This came from the blog:

Dr. Lindsey is Pro Protein!

April 9th, 2007

“Americans get more protein than they need,” is a statement that I often hear and read from clinicians, other nutritionists, and even from my well-read clients who regurgitate what they have heard and read.

But is this statement true? Do we get more protein than we need? The answer seems to depend on the source of nutritional information and what camp that nutritional expert belongs to:

Camp 1: Those who stress the prevention of deficiencies, or
Camp 2: Those concerned with optimizing health.

According to the American Dietetic Association, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein a day.  What this means is this amount should be adequate to prevent deficiencies in the majority of the population.  It is believed that for most healthy individuals, 0.8 grams of protein a day will lead to nitrogen balance.  Nitrogen is an important, and unique, constituent of protein, and it indicates amino acid status in the body. Nitrogen balance is when nitrogen consumption equals nitrogen excretion, or when your protein losses are equal to intake. However, in times of stress, injury, or for those with poor nutrition habits or who engage in physical activity, this amount can quickly lead to negative nitrogen balance, or the state where nitrogen loss is greater than intake.  Personally, I would think that this group fits the majority of the population, since most people I meet are stressed and they have either terrible eating habits and/or they are physically active!

The fact is a positive nitrogen balance, where nitrogen intake is greater than our losses, would be most beneficial to health. It is in this positive state that the body can achieve the preservation, and accretion, of lean muscle mass.  According to protein researcher, Peter Lemon at the University of Western Ontario, protein needs increase greatly for vegetarians, those who are active, and for those who consume inadequate calories or nutrient-deficient diets.  Needs also increase with chronic stress and injury, such as degenerative diseases and conditions which cause tissue destruction, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

With the convenience of junk foods and readily available packaged carbohydrate snacks, breads, and instant foods, starches have become the main staple of the American diet, leaving the protein options looking scarce in comparison. For those of us who prioritize our daily protein, we have to become cave-mannish in our efforts to hunt down our protein sources in the grocery markets as we make our way through the gauntlet-like isles of bags, boxes, and cans of refined carbohydrates and processed food stuffs. Many fall victim to this bombardment, never making it to the perimeter of the store, where the bounty of nitrogen can be found.

According to most dietitians and clinicians, the recommended macronutrient dietary ratio suggested is 56% of total calories coming from carbohydrate, 14% coming from protein and 30% coming from fat.  The problem with this macronutrient ratio is that it is more appropriate for an active individual and less fitting for a sedentary individual.  For those who are inactive, this high percentage of carbohydrate is being stored as fat on the body rather than being burned.  In my experience, most of my clients I see for weight loss get the majority of their calories from carbohydrate and fat, with protein barely approaching the measly recommendation of 14%. And even worse, the fruit and vegetable servings usually don’t make an appreciable contribution to the overall carbohydrate percentage. In other words, Americans are overfed and undernourished on starches and fats, the two macronutrients, that when eaten together in large amounts will contribute to insulin resistance, and increased risk for syndrome X, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Subsequently, protein is not only needed to prevent deficiencies, it is needed to balance macronutrient ratios in order to optimize body composition.  Protein stabilizes blood sugar by slowing down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrate and its release of blood sugar into the blood. It also increases satiety (the sense of fullness) which prevents the overconsumption of calories. And, according to research, protein (having the same energy per gram as carbohydrate) is thermogenic, or heat producing, which means the body expends more energy to digest, adsorb, utilize, and shuttle around, and excrete the calories from protein. In particular, protein isolates from both casein (the abundant protein in milk) and whey (the protein found in the watery fraction of milk) have been found to be thermogenic in the scientific research, resulting in greater body fat losses and lean muscle mass increases (especially when combined with resistance training workouts). Researchers Demling and De Santi found that casein was actually more thermogenic (burned more body fat) than whey when supplemented by overweight police officers who underwent a strength training program.

When it comes to optimal health, a balance between the 3 macronutrients is best. There is no one-size fits all dietary macronutrient ratio that works for everyone. Contrary to the belief that we get more protein than we need, we actually are consuming less, and, on the contrary, are actually over-consuming starches and sugars. Here are some guidelines to see if you are getting enough protein:

Take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 (to get kg).
Multiply this number by:

1.0 for healthy individuals = the bare minimum of protein in grams you should get daily.
1.2 for stress = the minimum amount of protein in grams you should get daily.
1.5 -2.0 for destructive conditions and tissue injury = the minimum amount of protein in grams you should get daily.
1.2-1.4 for vegetarians = the minimum amount of protein in grams you should get daily.
1.4 for endurance training (2 hours or less) = the amount of protein in grams you should get that day.
1.6-1.8 for endurance training (over 2 hours) = the amount of protein in grams you should get that day.
1.8 for those new to weight training = the minimum amount of protein in grams you should get daily.
1.6-1.8 for veterans of weight training (moderate intensity workouts) = the minimum amount of protein in grams you should get daily.
1.8-2.0+ for veterans of weight training for maximal muscle accretion (high intensity workouts) = the amount of protein in grams you should get daily.

As a general rule, there are about 7g of protein per 1 ounce of meats and fish. For example, a 6oz chicken breast would contain about 42g of protein (7g x 6oz).   Keep in mind that the fat content fluctuates considerably between sources.

For some individuals with higher protein needs, it becomes either impractical or impossible to eat that much protein in a day, necessitating the need for protein supplementation.  Protein powders have been used for years in shakes and smoothies to quickly meet requirements. Although these are great, many don’t take the time, or have the appetite, to consume 1-2 smoothies a day. In these cases, Genesis Today’s Protein100 can come in handy. Protein100 is a liquid, hydrolyzed casein and collagen blend that can be combined quickly with 2-4 oz of water for a quick and power-packed 15 grams of protein per ounce. It is a fast, easy, and convenient way to make up those protein needs!

The secret to optimal health and body composition is simple. . . significantly decrease refined carbohydrate and sugar intake, make sure the starches that you do consume are high in fiber, ensure adequate water intake, include lots of fresh organic veggies, and increase your protein intake!  Don’t take my work for it, see for yourself.

Written by Tammy Thomas, MS, RD, CSCS, Registered Dietitian and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist collaborating with Dr. Lindsey Duncan, N.D., N.C.


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