The Truth About Our Body's Protein Needs

Boy oh boy, is there a ton of controversy about protein needs! A quick internet search will show that bodybuilders and dietitians alike have long held to the belief that meeting our protein needs is paramount to overall health and building muscles. Healthy Girlfriend is all about exploring alternative thinking on health and then experimenting with the most reasonable findings, so we wanted to present the leading-edge thinking on the subject and report our own findings.

Historically, even vegan bodybuilders and strength training coaches have promoted the regular, timed eating of protein, especially but not exclusively lean, animal protein. They claim that this is the only way to facilitate muscle growth and prevent muscle breakdown. For example, recommendations for protein needs range according to body weight and activity level, but the rule of thumb is to multiply your weight in pounds by the following amount of protein grams:

  • Sedentary adult 0.4
  • Active adult 0.4-0.6
  • Growing athlete 0.6-0.9
  • Adult building muscle mass 0.6-0.9

(taken from Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook)

According to this chart, a 160 pound, sedentary adult's protein needs might look like this in the real world:

  • Breakfast: 2 large eggs = 16 grams protein
  • Lunch: 3/4 cup low fat cottage cheese = 23 grams protein
  • Snack: 1/4 cup nuts = 6 grams protein
  • Dinner: skinless chicken breast, 3 ounces = 20 grams

That's a total of 65 grams of protein. Of course, that's not including any vegetables, beans, fruits, or whole grains you would probably eat at most of those meals. Those excluded foods also rack up an impressive amount of protein. Who knew?

To contrast the sedentary adult with the bodybuilder, recommended protein needs are going to be double at the high end. So, 6 ounces of chicken, 1 1/2 cups of cottage cheese and maybe 4-5 hard boiled eggs. Many bodybuilders believe that amount isn't enough to maintain muscle mass and strive to eat more. This may not be the best course of action; there's plenty of scientific evidence that found the human body, despite extreme activity levels, can only assimilate so much protein. And then there are the recent studies showing excess protein has all kinds of negative health connotations.

High Protein Diets: Harmful to Your Health

In 2014, a study published in the respected journal Cell Metabolism found that the truth about human protein needs goes quite against the traditional wisdom on the subject. Researches studied 6,381 adults over the age of 50 over the course of 18 years. This is what Dr. Longo and his team from the University of Southern California found:

  • High protein intake (20% of calories) increased the risk of dying from all causes by 74%.
  • High protein diets increased cancer and diabetes deaths more than four times compared to low protein diets.
  • Moderate protein intake still increased cancer deaths by more than three times compared to low protein diets.
  • Eating protein from plant sources did not increase the risk of death.
  • People over 65 years of age were not affected negatively by moderate and high protein diets.
  • Eating high levels of protein at any age increased the risk of diabetes.

It would appear, at least for middle-aged folks, that a high protein diet carries the same risk as smoking! As for the older folks in the study, the results could be because elderly people may not absorb as much protein from their food and therefore need a higher protein intake. Other studies have shown that high protein diets can be harmful to our bones, especially for people who don't get enough calcium (remember that the best and most bioavailable form of calcium comes from plants, not supplements or dairy sources.

We've also know for years that excess animal protein is hard on the kidneys and liver. So again, eat your green leafies, veggies, and beans and you'll be ahead of the crowd for both protein and calcium.

Here's one final piece of information that we'd love for you to ponder. The U.S. government's dietary guidelines advise us that we should aim for 10% to 35% of our daily calories should be protein (plant and animal.) Dr. Longo's study discussed above, used a diet of 20% protein as "high protein." Hmmmmm.

So What's the Scoop on My Actual Protein Needs?

Given Dr. Longo's study (and several others with mice and human subjects) we want to aim for less than 20% of our calories from protein. A more accurate goal for actual protein needs may be 10-15%. This is within the range the government's nutrition guidelines suggest. For example, if you eat about 1800 calories per day, 10% would be 180 calories from protein, or 45 grams. That coincides with the recommendations from the "Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) which is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. That is easily done on a vegan, vegetarian, or a plant-based diet that includes a small amount of animal protein.

And what about the protein needs of endurance athletes and bodybuilders? We are no experts on that subject, as our focus is always on average folks looking for health, healing, and feeling their best. We will say this, even people who are on protein restricted diets can and do build muscle and body strength. If you are interested in increasing your strength and aren't on a medical diet, you may want to consume a little more than the recommended amounts, so about .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight.  But forget about the 20 ounce fatty steaks and the whey protein shakes. They aren't doing you any favors.

Enough is Enough!

Ok, friends of HG, the reality is we have to cut back on our protein. The evidence is in and it's not looking good for the paleo crowd. Before the paleo craze, this Healthy Girlfriend (Nancy) used to eat a diet high in protein for strength training, because coaches and personal trainers said that this reflected my protein needs. I faithfully ate my protein-rich snacks and meals at the correct times to maximize my workouts, build muscle, and burn fat. 

What I found was that a) I couldn't possibly eat all the recommended protein at one sitting and ironically, b) the intense workouts made me hungry for carbies. All. The. Time. Now, others who follow the traditional approach may not agree, but that's what I experienced. (A side note: my body was so sore most of the time that I ended up taking ibuprofen on  a daily basis which caused painful gastritis. I've since scaled down my strength training efforts to a manageable-soreness level!) My protein-fest didn't last more than a few months...I just found it too heavy, too imposing on my time, and unsustainable. Looking back, I see how deficient in fruits and veggies my diet was, and how important it is to fuel up on plant foods first and foremost for their protective benefits.

Interestingly, a few years later I again tried a higher-protein and higher-fat diet (GAPS) which was recommended to heal my stomach issues resulting from food intolerances and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory use (ibuprofen and Alleve.) At the end of nine or ten months I was overweight, my fasting blood sugar was higher than it had ever been, and my cholesterol was climbing into the unhealthy range. After the sobering blood test results, I adopted a plant based diet and have never looked back. 

Ok, so whether you're a meat eater or a vegan, a couch potato or an aspiring gym rat, the most important question you may have is "what does an optimal amount of protein look like in real life?" Given the fact that all plant foods contain protein, and that HG follows a plant-based diet, the sample day below is what we recommend and do ourselves.

An Optimal Protein Day

On days that you aren't intermittent fasting, you may want to eat a breakfast that includes whole grains, a lunch that contains beans or nuts, and a dinner that includes a small amount of animal or soy protein. A sample menu could look like this:

  • Breakfast: 1 cup of cooked oatmeal, 1/2 cup unsweetened soy milk, 1 cup of blueberries, 1/4 cup of walnuts = 14 grams protein
  • Lunch: Salad with 4 cups of leafy greens, 1/2 cup of black or pinto beans, 1/2 cup thawed, frozen peas, 1-2 cups of mixed, raw veggies such as red pepper, cucumber, red onion, radish, tomato. Drizzle with a 1/2 cup of homemade cashew or chia seed dressing (so easy to make) = 23 grams protein
  • Dinner: Soup with either 2 ounces of free-range chicken ( 14 grams) or 4 ounces of cubed tofu (10 grams,) or 1 cup lentils (18! grams,)  1/2 cup brown rice (3 grams), broccoli, carrots, sweet potato = a range of 15-20 grams protein.

That's about 52 grams of protein. You could scale back a little if you're a woman, or increase the legumes if you're aiming for lots of muscle. Note that all the veggies contain some protein, so we added 2 or 3 grams to the total amount of protein for lunch and dinner, but the plant protein superstars are clearly beans, nuts & seeds. If you're still skeptical that a diet of plants can meet your protein needs, check out some of the many vegan bodybuilders.

While we usually don't focus on macro nutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) here at Healthy Girlfriend, in light of the recent findings on protein consumption we felt an obligation to discuss it. Remember, it's really all about the micronutrients (healthy-promoting chemical compounds) in plant foods that should always be our focus. No other foods provide the level of protection from disease and healing power of fruits and vegetables. 

Worry less about the grams of protein consumed over the course of your day and be inspired by the amount of colorful plants you eat instead. Your health and your appearance will be your proof. Plus, you'll accidentally get all the protein you need. Win-win.