High protein diets have been around for decades, most recently popularized by the Keto and Paleo craze. Protein is not just for great skin, hair, and nails. It's critical for health.
Without it, you wouldn't be able to grow or repair damage (even cellular damage).
You need protein to digest food, fight infections, build muscle and bone, and create hormones. You need protein to think and it’s a precursor to mental health and mood. Higher protein diets can help fight high blood pressure, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Protein also has great benefits for metabolism boosting, satiety (feeling full after a meal) and weight management.
Protein is important, and this is a given.
However, not all protein is created equal. And if you have an autoimmune disease or chronic inflammation, you need to prioritize your protein punch.
There are a few factors to consider when calculating how much protein you need. I go through those calculations with you. Then I list the amount of protein in some common foods and what types of protein are best for managing inflammation (hint, not all protein is equal).
How much protein is enough?
There isn’t a real rule that equally applies to everyone. Rather, there are a few factors to consider when figuring out how much protein you need. You need to consider your weight, your level of activity and take into consideration if you are recovering from an injury or illness.
Start with the minimum recommendation of 0.8 g/kg (0.36 g/lb) per day. So, for a 68 kg (150 lb) healthy, non-athletic adult, this is about 55 g protein/day.
This calculaion is a minimum to prevent protein deficiency.
It's not optimal for good repair, digestion, immune function, muscle/bone building, hormones, brain function or mood. It's certainly not enough for athletes, seniors or those recovering from an injury either.
If you fall into one of these camps, you may need to increase the minimum protein intake. Aim closer to 1.3 g/kg (0.6 g/lb) per day.
Athletes need more protein for their energy and muscle mass. Seniors need more to help ward off muscle and bone loss that's common in the golden years. And injured people need more protein to help with recovery and healing.
For children, recommendations vary based on age, starting with 1-2 servings at a young age and up to adult requirements by teen years. You need to take into consideration your child's weight, health condition and level of activity. Just like adults, athletes may need more - and we have learned that protein is a requirement for healing and repair when our kiddos have a chronic injury. If you're uncertain about how much is enough for your child, speak to your doctor, naturopathic doctor or nutritionist.
How much protein is too much?
As with fat and carbohydrates, eating too much protein can cause weight gain. Extra protein can be converted into sugar or fat in the body. The interesting thing about protein is that it isn’t as easily or quickly converted as carbohydrates or fat. This is because of its "thermic effect." The thermic effect is the amount of energy required to digest, absorb, transport and store a nutrient. To digest protein, your body needs to spend energy (i.e., burn calories).
If you’re concerned that high protein intake harms healthy kidneys, don’t be. If your kidneys are healthy, they are more than capable of filtering out excess amino acids from the blood. The problem only occurs in people who already have kidney issues.
FUN FACT: Plant proteins are especially safe for kidney health.
How much protein is in food?
Here are some measurements so you can calculate how much you're getting of your favourite foods.
4 oz serving of beef contains 28g protein.
4ozchicken breast contains 22g protein.
4 oz salmon contains 21g protein.
1 serving protein powder ranges from 15 - 28g protein.
½ cup firm tofu contains 10g protein.
½ cup cooked beans contain 6 - 9g protein.
A large egg contains 6 - 8g protein.
¼ cup nuts contains 4 - 7g protein.
1 medium baked potato contains 3g protein.
What is good quality protein?
As you can see, not all protein is created equal in terms of protein delivery. Take into consideration farming practices and processing, and the quality of protein content can dramatically vary.
Deli meat does not deliver the same nutrient density as a piece of real turkey breast. Egg whites in a box? Yes, the whites are high in protein, but the yolk contains choline and other key nutrients for health. Beyond meat burgers? You’ll get 22g of protein per serving, but you also get 29g of added fat, 8g of added sugar and a whopping dose of sodium.
If you are a vegetarian, you need to eat more plant-based foods to acquire the amount of protein you need to function. You can’t rely on potato or starch alone. You must incorporate whole beans, soy, nuts and seeds to hit your daily targets.
If you are managing chronic inflammation or an autoimmune disease, certain proteins can help your healing process while others can hurt. Fish and seafood top the list of best protein sources due to the Omega 3 content. Grass-fed beef and organ meat are next in line because of the iron content and minerals.
For those with autoimmune condition, soy, eggs, beans and legumes can irritate gut health (and trigger an immune reaction), and should be avoided until your gut health is restored.
Others will benefit from the fibre content of beans/legumes, as in the case of metabolic syndrome or high cholesterol. These little power houses will satiate and help with recovery, as long as your gut is in good standing. Legumes and beans are also very helpful if you are trying to lose weight … and they are good for the environment. They are key ingredient in many Mediterranean dishes, easy on the budget, and a great pantry staple.
Protein is an essential nutrient we should all get enough of. “Enough” is about 0.8 - 1.3 g/kg (0.36 - 0.6 g/lb) per day. If you're a healthy non-athlete adult, you can aim for the lower level. If you're an athlete, senior, or injured person, aim for the higher level.
Protein is also important for children. If you have concerns your child may not be getting enough protein for their level of activity or autoimmune disease, seek out expert counsel.
Too much protein can cause weight gain, so it's best to have just enough.
And what about quality? A little goes a long way. Save the processing for on-the-fly days when there are no other choices and stick to nutrient dense, whole foods to help you reach your health goals.