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Are you eating too much protein?

Are you eating too much protein?

Protein is all the rage right now. From nutrition bars to breakfast cereal — and even ice cream — food manufacturers are touting protein content to encourage you to buy their goods. But do you really need more protein in your diet? Unless you are an elite athlete, chances are good you’re getting enough already.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, on average, men are already consuming 102 grams of protein per day and women are consuming 70 grams of protein per day — which in many cases is more than the required amount.  The latest dietary guidelines even point out that men between ages 19 and 59 are typically consuming far too much.

10% to 35% of your calories should come from protein. So if you're consuming 2,000 calories daily, that’s 200–700 calories from protein, or 50–175 grams. 

The recommended dietary protein allowance for an average sedentary is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For example, a person who weighs 165 pounds should consume 60 grams of protein per day to prevent deficiency.  To put that in perspective, a single chicken breast will get you 3/4 of the way there. 

As we age, protein requirements do go up, around 1.2 to grams per kilogram of body weight per day (and even higher than that, at 1.5 grams up to 2 grams per kilogram in the elderly).  But generally, most of us can get to our protein goals without needing to think much about this macronutrient or going out of our way to supplement.

Finally, you can't force protein into muscles.  There has to be a stimulus to cause that to happen.  Exercise, especially resistance and weight-bearing activities are required to build/maintain muscle and make all that protein intake pay off (otherwise it's just turned into fat).  And protein quality matters.  A Big Mac with fries nets you 30 grams of protein.  But the delivery vehicle also supplies 1000 calories, half of your daily sodium allowance and two thirds of your recommended saturated fat.  And protein supplemented ice cream is.... still ice cream.

What nutrients should I focus on then?

Most Americans need to eat more grains, vegetables and fruits. The nutrients found in these food groups, are the same nutrients associated with reducing the risk of chronic disease. And plants contain protein too!  For example, one third of calories in broccoli come from protein. Using the 10-35% rule for protein intake, broccoli actually falls towards the top of that range! 

The graph below is an excellent illustration that shows the nutrient disparities between average consumption and recommended intakes. The opportunity to improve your health by eating nutrient-dense foods is huge (without messing up your protein goals).

Step One Foods

Learn more about protein:

Reference: [1] U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010.

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