How much protein do we need?
That depends, said David Egerdahl, a registered dietitian and manager of patient services at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men. While the RDA is generally a good goal for Americans, weight, activity level and age should all be taken into consideration when figuring out your daily protein needs.
“For example, as we age we’re losing muscle at an accelerated rate, so to retain your muscle, you need more protein, typically close to double the RDA. Younger kids also need more protein than the RDA because they’re growing,” Egerdahl said.
Dr. Annie Moore, MD, MBA, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and medical director of patient coordinated services at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, said you can also think of protein needs in terms of a percentage of your daily calorie intake. She recommends that 25-to- 30 percent of your daily calories come from protein. If you’re a competitive athlete burning 4,000 calories a day, for example, you should consume about 1,000 calories of protein. Someone on a typical 1,600 to 1,800 calorie diet needs only about 400 calories of protein per day.
Protein: Quantity vs. Quality
Protein is an important nutrient in our diet. It’s an essential source of amino acids, which the body can’t produce on its own. Protein helps build muscles, tendons, organs and skin. If you don’t get enough of it, bodily functions can break down. Quantity is important but quality is too.
Moore points out that protein often is accompanied by fat. “The most common cousin with protein is fat. You need to think about what type of fat you’re eating with the protein. For example, nuts and certain fish come with healthy fats. Organic meats usually do, too,” she said.
Kristina Comer, UCHealth clinical dietitian for solid organ transplantation, doesn’t think Americans have a problem with the quantity or quality of protein we get in our diets. The problem, she said, is the quantity of calories in our diet. Common go-to snacks are chips, candy bars and crackers. A protein bar would make a healthier choice, but it should be consumed instead of — not in addition to — other snacks or even a meal.
“These [protein bars or shakes] are marketed as health foods so often a person will add it to their day rather than changing things around. Even though most of these products are packed with nutrients like fiber and protein, they also come with about 200 calories.”
Sugar content should also be considered, she said. Some bars and shakes have as much sugar as a candy bar. Comer advises consumers not to let the grams of sugar in the bar or shake surpass the grams of protein.
Protein Bars, Shakes and Snacks, Oh My!
Protein shakes and bars, and even snacks like cookies and chips, come in all flavors and contain different ingredients. There are whey and casein products and vegetarian varieties such as soy and pea. You need to factor in taste, dietary preferences, allergies, etc. as you would any other type of food before choosing the product that’s right for you. If you can’t tolerate dairy products, you’ll want to steer clear of products with whey and casein, two popular protein sources. Going vegan? Try a shake made with protein sourced from peas or soy.
Egerdahl and Comer agree that while whole food is always the best choice, protein bars and shakes can be a healthy snack choice or even meal substitute if you use them and choose them wisely.
Bars and shakes are considered nutritional supplements, meaning they should be used to supplement something that’s missing from your diet, Egerdahl said. According to a recent study, most Americans are getting their fill of protein. So, chances are if you’re not a semi-professional athlete needing to repair or rebuild muscles after a challenging workout, you don’t need a 20-gram protein shake. “There’s no benefit to eating excess protein,” said Egerdahl.
But it is important to spread your protein consumption throughout the day since your body can only digest about 20 to 40 grams of protein at a time (a 3-ounce serving of chicken has about 25 grams). If your breakfast typically consists of pancakes, waffles or cereal, a protein bar or shake, instead, in that case, would be a good swap.
Comer thinks that protein bars or shakes make good snack choices. “Protein makes you feel full, and it also helps regulate your blood sugars, whether you’re a diabetic or not. So, grabbing a protein bar instead of a granola bar is a good choice.”
On the flip side, Moore is not a fan of protein bars and shakes — at all. She prefers natural sources of protein.
“I’m a big fan of whole foods. I have never seen a bar that I thought was better than real food,” she said. “If you need a quick, healthy snack on the go – grab some almonds.”
Can You Consume Too Much Protein?
For people with liver or kidney issues, eating too much protein can further damage those organs. The kidney and liver help process protein, eliminating the waste produced by it. When those organs don’t function properly, proteins are not adequately metabolized, and waste can build up in your system.
For people with properly functioning livers and kidneys, excess protein for prolonged periods of time may put a strain on those organs.
“There’s not a lot of good information with regards to the danger for healthy people to eat an excess amount of protein. In fact, a lot of athletes do it without any trouble. But to be on the safe side, I typically recommend people don’t go beyond one gram per pound of body weight. If you’re a 150-pound person, you wouldn’t want to go beyond 150 grams of protein a day,” Egerdahl said.
Comer points out that when you’re exceeding the amount of protein your body can process, that protein is going to end up as fat. “It’s extra calories that your body doesn’t need or can’t process,” she said.