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Judging by all the protein bars, shakes and powders out there, you get the impression you need more protein. There are claims it curbs appetite, helps with weight loss and builds muscle. But what’s the real story?
“Contrary to all the hype that everyone needs more protein, most Americans get twice as much as they need,” says Kristi Wempen, a Mayo Clinic Health System registered dietitian nutritionist. “This is especially true for males 14-70 years of age, who the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise to decrease meat, poultry and egg consumption. Even athletes are often getting more protein than they need, without supplements, because their calorie requirements are higher. And with more food comes more protein.”
True or false: Big steak equals bigger muscles
Although adequate protein throughout the day is necessary, extra strength training is what leads to muscle growth ─ not extra protein intake. You can’t build muscle without the exercise to go with it.
“The body can’t store protein, so once needs are met, any extra is used for energy or stored as fat,” adds Wempen. “Excess calories from any source will be stored as fat in the body.”
Wempen explains extra protein intake also can lead to elevated blood lipids and heart disease, because many high-protein foods are high in total fat and saturated fat. Extra protein intake, which can tax the kidneys, poses an additional risk to individuals predisposed to kidney disease.
How much protein do you need?
Anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of your calories should come from protein. So, if your needs are 2,000 calories, that’s 200-700 calories from protein (50-175 grams). The recommended dietary allowance to prevent deficiency for an average sedentary adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For example, a person who weighs 75 kilograms (165 pounds) should consume 60 grams of protein per day.
“Once you hit 40-50 years old, sarcopenia starts to set in, which means you start losing muscle mass as you age,” says Wempen. “To help prevent this and to maintain independence and quality of life, your protein needs increase to about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight.”
People who exercise regularly also have higher needs, about 1.1-1.5 grams per kilogram. People who lift weights regularly or are training for a running or cycling event need 1.2-1.7 grams per kilogram.Excessive protein intake would be more than 2 grams per kilogram of body weight each day.
“If you are overweight, your weight is adjusted before calculating your protein needs in order to avoid overestimating,” says Wempen. “You can see a dietitian to help develop a personalized plan.”
Where does protein come from?
Wempen says the healthiest protein options are plant sources, such as:
“Meet your dietary protein needs with these whole foods as opposed to supplements,” she says. “Supplements are no more effective than food as long as energy intake is adequate for building lean mass. Manufactured foods don’t contain everything you need from food, nor do manufacturers know everything that should be in food. There may be compounds in real foods that we haven’t even discovered yet that may be beneficial for the body. So always be careful of foods created in a lab.”
When is the best time to consume protein?
Wempen recommends that you spread out protein consumption evenly throughout the day. On average, she says, people tend to get most of their protein during evening meals and the least at breakfast. Certain recent studies show moving some protein from supper to breakfast can help with weight management by decreasing hunger and cravings throughout the day. Of course, more research is needed before these claims can be verified.
General recommendations are to consume 15-25 grams of protein at meals and in the early recovery phase (anabolic window) — 45 minutes to one hour after a workout. Studies show higher intakes (more than 40 grams) are no more beneficial than the recommended 15-25 grams at one time. Don’t waste your money on excessive amounts.
What if I do want to use a protein supplement?
If you want to use a protein supplement, Wempen advises to look for:
What does 15-25 grams of protein in whole foods looks like?
Eating a banana, Greek yogurt and a hardboiled egg will get you 19 grams of protein on average. A three-ounce chicken breast with a half cup rice and half cup vegetables amounts to 25 grams of protein. The recommended 15-25 grams per meal or post-workout snack is attainable. If these were meals, you would want to balance them out by including all food groups: protein, grain, dairy, fruit and vegetables. Most people ─ even athletes ─ can reach their protein needs by including a serving of dairy at each meal and a piece of meat the size of a deck of cards at lunch and supper.
“Protein should be an accompaniment to fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It should not be the entire meal,” says Wempen.
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