PSA: Protein deficiency is extremely rare in the U.S.
Many Americans focus on protein and making sure they’re getting enough. Even among people who don’t consider themselves focused on health and nutrition, they commonly think about protein and make sure it’s included in their meals.
With this protein obsession, you might think that Americans are struggling to get enough protein, but in fact, Americans on average get about double the protein they actually need.
The obsession may be somewhat warranted. Protein deficiency can be a serious health risk, and it’s a common cause of malnutrition in other parts of the world. Protein is a macronutrient, after all, meaning it is required in large amounts in the diet for proper growth, development, and overall health.
But the truth is, it is very rare for people to be protein deficient in the United States. In general, if you’re eating enough calories, you’re probably naturally eating enough protein.
What is “enough” protein? Well, it varies for everyone. The easiest way to put it is this: You need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight. (You can convert your weight from pounds to kilograms by dividing by 2.2.) This amounts to about 56 grams per day for the average man, and 46 grams per day for the average woman.
What Happens If You Go Overboard?
Your body can actually handle a lot of protein, and you probably won’t suffer any ills from excess protein alone. That’s the good news.
Here’s the problem: Overloading your diet with protein can mess up your macronutrient balance. Eating high amounts of protein is usually achieved by eating lots of meat and dairy products, and these are often high in saturated fat, and low in fiber (a type of carbohydrate).
Too much saturated fat can increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association. Saturated fat can also trigger inflammation in the body, which can increase the risk of many health conditions (including heart disease).
Plant-based proteins (e.g., beans, grains, soy, nuts, and seeds) are lower in saturated fat, high in fiber, and rich in micronutrients like vitamin K and potassium (which Americans tend to not get enough of).
Quality + Quantity
But is it possible to get enough protein on beans and seeds? It’s true: Plant-based proteins may not provide the same *quantity* of protein as meat, but it’s easier to hit your protein recs than you might think, and protein *quality* matters just as much as the numbers.
A 2016 study of over 130,000 American adults found that higher animal protein intake was linked to a higher risk of mortality, whereas plant-based protein was linked to a lower risk of mortality. Additionally, participants in the study were able to lower their risk of mortality by swapping out animal proteins for plant proteins.
In other words, focusing on meat to get lots of protein means you may be missing out on other high-quality nutrients (and getting too much of things like saturated fat). For most Americans with adequate access to food, getting “enough” protein is less of a concern than simply eating a well-balanced and high-quality diet.
Not sure how much protein you should be eating for your body weight and activity levels? A registered dietitian can help you figure that out. Here are things to expect at your first appointment with a dietitian.
How much protein do you need every day? Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, 2015. (Accessed on June 18, 2019 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096.)
Kim H, Caulfield LE, Rebholz CM. Healthy plant-based diets are associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality in US adults. J Nutr. 2018 Apr 1;148(4):624-31.
Protein: power up with plant-based protein. Washington, DC: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (Accessed on June 18, 2019 at https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/nutrition-information/protein.)
Saturated fat. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association. (Accessed on June 18, 2019 at https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats.)
Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, Willett WC, Longo V, Chan AT, Giovannucci EL. Animal and plant protein intake and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: results from two prospective US cohort studies. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Oct 1;176(10):1453-63.
When it comes to protein, how much is too much? Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, 2018. (Accessed on June 2018 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/when-it-comes-to-protein-how-much-is-too-much.)