Protein dominates our plates, but do we really need so much?
Think every meal should include protein? Actually, most of us are getting far more protein than we actually need — especially when it comes to meat — thanks to a variety of cultural factors.
Many Americans continue to be influenced by struggles of the Great Depression, when protein — especially meat — was unaffordable my many families. And in parts of the world where poverty levels are still high, the ability to enjoy meat with a meal is considered a symbol of affluence.
Even as prices for meat have fallen, it continues to be associated with wealth or affluence, leading many families to make it part of every meal, said Judith Wyatt-Rosett, a nutritionist and registered dietitian at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx, N.Y., and an AHA volunteer on the Nutrition Committee.
“People think they won’t feel full if they don’t eat meat,” Dr. Wyatt-Rosett said.
What’s the harm in getting too much protein?
The main problem is that often the extra protein is coming from meats high in saturated fats, which can add to elevated cholesterol levels of the LDL — or “bad” — cholesterol. And, Dr. Wyatt-Rosett says, eating more protein is coming at the expense of other food groups that most Americans struggle to get enough of. “If people would just eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, we’d be full on low-calorie foods,” she said.
How much protein do you actually need?
The actual recommended daily allowance (RDA) is a complex calculation that takes into account your age and weight. Based on weight, growing children and pregnant or lactating women require a little bit more protein than a typical adult man or woman because their bodies are building more muscle.
Generally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 10 percent to 35 percent of your daily calories come from protein. So, that’s about 46 grams of protein for adult women and 56 grams for adult men.
So what does that translate to in terms of food?
Drink an 8-ounce glass of milk, and you’ll log 8 grams of protein. Add a cup of yogurt for another 11 grams. Follow that up with a 3-ounce piece of meat — which is about the size of a deck of cards and has about 21 grams of protein — and a cup of dry beans, which has 16 grams and you’ve already reached the 56-gram requirement for an adult man.
The American Heart Association has a guide outlining suggested servings for each food group.
The USDA takes a visual approach. In 2010, the federal agency revised its dietary recommendations in favor of the simpler MyPlate campaign, which sets aside a quarter of the plate to protein. The campaign offers lots of resources, including a handy list of different types of protein and a guide to healthy portion size and tips on how to make healthy protein choices.
Finding balance, choosing the right kind and amount of protein.
- When choosing protein, opt for low-fat options, such as lean meats, skim milk or other foods with high levels of protein. Legumes, for example, can pack about 16 grams of protein per cup and are a low-fat and inexpensive alternative to meat.
- Choose main dishes that combine meat and vegetables together, such as low-fat soups, or a stir-fry that emphasizes veggies.
- Watch portion size. Aim for 2- to 3-ounce servings.
- If you’re having an appetizer, try a plate of raw veggies instead of a cheese plate. Cheese adds protein, but also fat, Dr. Wyatt-Rosett said.