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Protein: What's all the Hype?

Whether it is shakes, bars, powders, or breakfast cereal, protein seems to be advertised as an extra special macronutrient. And it is important, although maybe not to the extent that they would like you to believe. Ever consider a high protein diet? I wouldn’t recommend it. Excessive levels of protein (think 200-400 grams per day) may exceed the liver’s capacity to handle. This could lead to serious complications including high ammonia levels, nausea, diarrhea, and even death.

How Much Protein Should You Have?

Like most nutrients, there is not a blanket recommendation that fits everyone. For example, pregnant or lactating women need more than the average woman. Strength and power athletes need more than endurance athletes, and both of these categories need more than the average gym-goer or couch potato. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Note that is kilograms, not pounds. So your 200 pound man only needs around 73 grams of protein per day. To get your number, take your weight in pounds divided by 2.2, which gives you weight in kilograms. Multiply this number by .8 and you’ll get the daily protein requirement. Protein requirements for pregnant or breastfeeding women are just slightly higher at 1.1 or 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram, respectively.

How Much Protein Should Athletes Take?

Even if you consistently hit the gym several times per week, there is no reason to start gulping down these rich shakes. If you are an endurance athlete, such as a marathon runner, you need a little bit more; 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg a day. Strength and power athletes need slightly more at 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg a day. If the same 200-pound man were a power athlete, he still would need only 155 grams a daily. As a group fitness instructor at a local gym, I see protein shakes, bars, and powders around every corner. What most people don’t realize is that it is extremely easy to get the recommended amount from a typical American diet, and most people do.

What is Protein and How Does it Work?

Unlike glycogen (storage form of sugar) and fat, our bodies don’t store protein. For this reason, it is important to consume protein throughout the day and not in one sitting. One of the best things about protein is it helps keep you full. I typically try to include some kind of protein with each meal and snack. This doesn’t mean you need to have a shake 6 times a day, however. It could be as simple as eggs for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and lean beef, pork, or fish for dinner. For snacks, I like almonds, yogurt, or string cheese to help keep me satisfied throughout the day. It’s a little more difficult for vegetarians to get adequate amounts, but not impossible. The key is to make sure the proteins are complete. The term “complete protein” simply refers to the fact that the food contains all essential amino acids. Animal products, like meat, eggs, and yogurt are all complete proteins. Rice and beans alone are incomplete, but if you eat them together, they make a complete protein. There are also some seeds and grains that are considered a complete protein alone.

How to Get Your Protein In Each Day

  1. Eat some protein every day. It doesn’t necessarily need to be every meal, and certainly doesn’t need to be meat. Stay within the recommended range of 10-35% of calories. Protein has 4 calories per gram, which equates to 50 to 175 grams per day if you eat exactly 2000 calories. Or take .8 grams per kilogram like explained above.
  2. Avoid high protein diets. Your body needs a variety of protein, carbohydrates, and fats in order to function properly, so don’t leave one macronutrient out just because you’ve heard it will make you fat. Moderation is key.
  3. If you are in a hurry and want an easy meal-on-the-go, a protein shake is totally fine. Just don’t drink 6 a day thinking it will help you build muscle faster or lose weight. High protein diets can cause serious side effects.

Original post date: January, 2017. Revised: February, 2019.

Erica Jackson, MS, RD, LMNT, CNSC
Erica Jackson, MS, RD, LMNT, CNSC

Erica Jackson, MS, RD, LMNT, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with CHI Health.

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