Protein is a big focus in media headlines and on food labels. But in the foodie and fitness communities, myths are swirling around about protein use and consumption. Luckily, we are able to bust some of these myths with Dr. Jared Dickinson, assistant professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University.
About Dr. Dickinson
Dr. Dickinson received his PhD in human bioenergetics from Ball State University’s Human Performance Laboratory and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in muscle biology/rehabilitation sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Jared’s research interests are to better understand the overall adaptive responses of skeletal muscle to exercise, nutrition, aging and clinical disease and to develop targeted exercise and nutritional strategies that can be utilized to improve muscle health and function in older adults and clinical populations. A portion of his work focuses particularly on the role and impact of protein ingestion as a complimentary strategy to enhance muscle health.
So let’s dive in and begin with the basics.
1. What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient that is comprised of amino acids. Ingesting protein in our diet provides amino acids, which serve as building blocks for forming protein and other structures in our body.
2. What are some health benefits of protein?
Protein is critical for maintaining a healthy immune system to fight off infection and repairing injury to tissue. Additionally, protein is linked to both bone and muscle health, and thus proper protein ingestion may provide a strategy to prevent the loss of muscle tissue that occurs in clinical populations and as part of the aging process. Protein ingestion may provide a useful diet strategy as well. Emerging research has shown that eating a diet higher in protein may help with weight management by reducing your hunger while at the same time providing the nutrients to preserve lean body mass during dieting.
3. Do Americans consume too much protein?
That’s a common misperception with a complex answer- simply put, it depends on the person as protein needs vary based on the individual’s needs. Variables that influence protein needs include weight, gender, and activity level. Some may be getting enough protein in their diet, and some may not be getting enough. In order to understand further, let’s look at the protein recommendations.
4. What are the recommendations?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day for people over 18 years of age. For a 75kg (165 lb.) adult, this would translate into 60 grams of protein per day. This intake was defined by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) as the level to meet sufficient protein requirements for the majority of healthy individuals. However, this is a recommendation to prevent deficiencies rather than support optimal health. The RDA also does not distinguish between men and women, activity level, and other factors that would affect protein needs. Another way to look at protein recommendations is one the IOM has established called Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for protein. The AMDR for protein is 10-35 percent, meaning Americans should get 10-35 percent of their daily calories from protein. Based on national data, on average, Americans consume only about 16 percent of their calories from protein, indicating there is some room to increase protein intake based on this recommendation.
5. How do the recommendations differ?
The recommendations differ in how they are calculated. For example, the RDA is based on your weight, so the more you weigh, the more protein you need to eat. The AMDR is based off of total calories in a day. Depending on what foods you eat, the AMDR for protein will change.
6. Which recommendations should Americans follow?
Based on emerging research and studies performed in my lab, I would actually recommend following a meal-based protein intake rather than a daily intake. This approach focuses on spreading protein intake throughout the day, which has been shown to be beneficial for reaping the health benefits of protein such as increased muscle stimulus. For instance, emerging research indicates that ingesting 25-30 grams of protein in a given meal is needed to maximize specific health benefits of protein, specific to muscle stimulus, in adults ages 18-50. For adults older than 50 years of age, consuming 30-35 grams of protein in a given meal may be necessary.
Most Americans consume a majority of their protein at the evening meal, around 35-40 grams. Much less is consumed during the morning and mid-day meals, typically only 10-15 grams at breakfast and lunch. This is not enough to maximize the benefits of ingested protein. For instance, an individual who consumes 50 grams of protein at the evening meal, but only 15 grams during both breakfast and lunch may still meet the daily recommendations for total protein ingestion. However, the ability for ingested protein to stimulate health benefits, such as muscle stimulus, is largely only experienced following the evening meal because not enough protein was ingested during the other meals to maximize the health benefits. On the other hand, consuming 25-30 grams per meal (30-35 for adults > 50 years of age) would maximize the ability for protein consumption to stimulate health benefits during each meal. Thus, I would recommend spreading protein intake over 3 meals, each consisting of proper amounts of protein per meal (depending on age) and would recommend 4 meals with these levels of protein for more active individuals.
7. What populations could benefit from additional protein intake above the recommendations?
Athletes, those seeking to increase lean muscle, pregnant women, and adults over the age of 50 should be incorporating more protein in their diets, particularly into each meal.