Fitness magazines are full of ads for high-protein supplements. Yogurt, cereal and granola bar packages proudly display the number of grams of protein in their products. Diet books recommend eating more protein.
So, the more protein, the better, right? Not so much, according to Rod Hansen, associate professor of nutrition at Weber State University.
“We tend to get more protein than we need,” said Hansen. “Athletes do need more, but they get way too much. They think if a little is good, then a lot is better. Atkins and other fringe movements tell you to eat lots of protein to convert it to carbohydrates.
“There is an element of truth to that, but you can’t eat it endlessly. Your body is not designed to do that for weeks, months, years on end. Chronic conversion (of protein to carbohydrate) is potentially hard on the body and organs and is not using the cells the way they are supposed to be used.”
Myth: To be healthy, eat lots of protein
No doubt about it, protein is essential.
“It is absolutely a must for daily vital tissue repair,” said Joan Thompson, Weber State University professor of nutrition.
Protein can also help you feel full longer and lose weight, said Rebecca Richards, an adjunct professor of nutrition at Weber State. But, she also points out, Americans are getting two to three times more than they need — and bodybuilders may be getting three to four times more than they really need.
Jennifer James, a registered dietitian with Ogden Regional Medical Center, said the recommended daily amount of protein from the Food and Drug Administration has recently gone down.
Most people, she said, need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of body weight, per day. Those who are athletic need 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram, and long-distance runners may need up to 2 grams per kilogram. Those who are growing, pregnant or recovering from a wound also need more.
“A 200-pound person should get 80 grams of protein a day. Most people in the gym will tell you to eat 150 to 200 grams a day. Your body doesn’t need that much,” said Grant Cefalo, a registered dietitian with McKay-Dee Hospital.
The recommended daily allowance for protein is even less on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. It says protein should be 10 percent to 35 percent of your daily calories — about 46 grams for women over the age of 19 and 56 grams for men over the age of 19. (The CDC lists this breakdown for younger persons: about 13 grams for children age 1 to 3, 19 grams for children 4 to 8, 34 grams for children 9 to 13, 46 grams for girls aged 14 to 18, 52 grams for boys 14 to 18.)
Yet most Americans eat too much and consider it healthy.
“Protein is the ‘in’ thing right now, the good guy,” Hansen said. “Marketing pushes protein consumption. Americans like to label all foods the good guy or the bad guy. Right now, protein is the good guy, and carbohydrates and gluten are the bad guy.
“It’s not true. Everything has a balance.”
Myth: Protein will make you stronger, faster, better
Another problem, Hansen said, is that athletes believe protein enhances their performance.
“From an athletic perspective, a high-protein diet is not ideal for performance. It creates an acidic environment that is detrimental for performance. I ask athletes who do high-protein stuff, ‘Why do you want to hurt yourself?’ ” he said.
Thompson said excess protein leads to the production of too much urea, which can be damaging to vital organs.
“The functional end is that that much protein makes you more prone to inflammation and disease,” she said.
James adds that too much protein also takes the place of other healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, which have important nutrients — and protein sources like meat products are higher in fat, cholesterol and calories.
Myth: Be sure to get complete proteins
Hansen said a complete protein has all of the essential amino acids, and an incomplete protein has only some of them. Animal proteins are complete; plant-based proteins are incomplete.
“I wish we didn’t use those kinds of labels because they imply that animal protein is better than plant. That is not correct and very easy to get around,” he said. “Complementation,” or consuming two different plant proteins, Hansen said, can also give you all of the essential amino acids.
That’s not something people with a balanced, varied diet need to worry about, though.
“We are wired to make incomplete proteins complete. A peanut butter sandwich is complete. In any culture, a vegetarian dish complements, like the Mexican corn and beans or the Oriental nuts and rice. It’s neat to me that we’re already wired to do it,” Hansen said.
Cefalo said complementation does not even need to happen in the same meal.
“There’s an old adage that grains have to complement in the same meal,” he said. “As long as it’s within 24 to 48 hours, it works just fine.”