Are you getting the right amount of protein? Whether it’s too much or too little, for many people, the answer is no.
Whether they’re following the keto diet or just eating what seems the most satiating, many people like to eat extremely protein-heavy meals, sometimes even without grains or vegetables. They do so out of a desire to feel full, gain muscle and lose fat, without fully understanding how that process works.
On the flip side, it’s not uncommon for people on plant-based diets to eat a plain salad or a veggie sandwich without any protein. I often hear over and over again that most people eat too much protein, and along with warnings of the potential risks of doing so. Since so many plant-based foods contain protein, it’s easy to assume that you’re getting the right amount of protein throughout the day without having to put too much thought into it, but is it really enough?
I’ve looked into this issue extensively for my own health, and since I have people close to me at either end of the spectrum, I wanted to share this research with my friends and readers. Obviously both dietary approaches have their down-sides, so before we get into how much protein to aim for, let’s talk about why getting the right amount of protein is so important.
Side Effects of Too Much Protein
This ISRN article, along with several other articles I came across highlight the main health issues caused by eating too much protein as calcium deficiency and loss of bone density, as well as kidney problems, including kidney stones.
According to both the ISRN article, and another one I found by Harvard Health, some of the other health concerns that are often associated with high protein intake, such as heart disease and various types of cancer, are specifically attributed to animal-based proteins, which tend to be significantly higher in saturated fat and cholesterol than their plant-based alternatives.
Side Effects of Too Little Protein
The wide range of symptoms caused by not getting enough protein tend to have a more direct impact on everyday life than the symptoms of getting too much protein. Common symptoms of protein deficiency, outlined by mindbodygreen.com, include muscle weakness and joint pain, hunger; hair, skin and nail problems; slow recovery from injuries, edema or fluid retention, poor immune function and brain fog. If you gradually start eating less protein, some of these symptoms can be easy to miss.
Building Complete Proteins
There are 9 essential amino acids that need to be consumed through diet since the body doesn’t synthesize them, along with 2 additional amino acids that the body can’t synthesize in large enough quantities. A complete protein has all 9 (or all 11, depending on who you ask). While animal-based sources are typically complete proteins, the amino acid profile of plant-based proteins vary more significantly.
Different amino acids affect different parts of the body and different aspects of your overall health. One amino acid will impact your hair, skin and nail health, while another affects brain function, and others affect muscle growth. If you’re getting the right amount of protein overall, but not eating enough of one of the essential amino acids, the range of symptoms could be different depending on the deficiency. Different plant-based proteins contain the various amino acids in different quantities, so it’s important to keep variety in your diet. Legumes, including peanuts and soy, have a similar (but not identical) amino acid profile, nuts and seeds have another, and grains have yet another.
It’s fairly complex, and there are definitely some proteins in each category that are closer to being complete than others. I hope to get into this more in a future article, but the main takeaway from this should be that in addition to getting the right amount of protein, it’s important to eat protein from a variety of sources throughout the day.
For instance, if you are planning on having tofu with lunch and black beans with dinner, you might consider having brown rice or another whole grain with one or both of those meals, and almond butter as a snack. Some protein powders contain the full range of essential amino acids, so starting the day with a smoothie or protein shake can be a good option as well. (I use this Protein Powder.)
So, Are You Getting the Right Amount of Protein?
Now that we’ve covered what types of protein to eat, are you getting the right amount of protein? How many grams of protein should you eat in a day? The generally agreed upon RDA is .36 grams per pound of body weight, but as mindbodygreen.com points out, the RDA is just the absolute minimum intake to avoid a protein deficiency; it’s not necessarily the ideal amount for a healthy diet.
Various factors, such as age, pregnancy, obesity and activity level may affect the recommended intake, but as a general rule, the article suggests aiming for .55-.73 grams per pound of body weight (that’s 77-102 grams per day for an average 140lb adult) or no more than .91 grams per pound of body weight (127 grams for a 140lb athlete) for athletes and body builders. The .91g/pound maximum intake is also suggested in this article from Harvard Health.
There doesn’t seem to be wide agreement about how much protein is actually unsafe for long-term daily consumption, but the general consensus seems to be that consuming excess protein is just an expensive way to eat calories with no real benefit.
Please consult with a doctor if you are pregnant or have underlying health issues. Consider talking to a registered dietician to figure out what amount of protein is right for you, especially if you’re considering eating amounts of protein outside of the range of .36-.91 grams per pound of body weight per day.
For plant-based protein recipe ideas, checkout our Easy Veggie Tofu Scramble, Tempeh Bacon BLT, or Chocolate Cherry Adaptogen Smoothie for more ideas. If you have your own favorite plant-based methods for getting the right amount of protein, please share in the comments!