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How Much Protein Do you Need?

Beans, an excellent source of protein. Picture source: flickr, by: elana's pantry's

I just stumbled upon Runs on Green blog today by Danielle who’s studying to become a dietitian. The post made the point that you can get enough protein on a vegetarian diet, eating real food.

I thought it was a great post. She showed that you CAN get more protein than you need without meat, meat substitutes, or protein shakes. And I agree. If you eat smart, you can.

There’s one related point I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while and reading that post just pushed me to sit down and write it. How much protein do we really need? Is the recommended amount specified in CDC reports and the RDA for protein (0.8 g/kg) enough?

(1 kg=2.2 lbs)

We discussed this in one of the graduate classes I took last year. And it there are few reasons to believe that we need a little more than what is officially recommended by the mentioned guidelines.

First, let me explain how protein needs are calculated: through nitrogen balance studies.

What does that mean?

Nitrogen is an element that makes up important compounds in the body, such as hormones, DNA, enzymes, etc. We get nitrogen from the protein in food, both animal and plant sources. The body takes all the nitrogen it needs and gets rid of the excess. So we have to have enough nitrogen in, at least equal to the amount that is coming out. And that’s nitrogen balance.

So when we estimate how much protein we need, we try to measure how much nitrogen we need to get to nitrogen balance, or a net of zero.

The problem with nitrogen balance method is that nitrogen out is measured through the nitrogen lost in the urine. But some is lost from the hair, skin, nails, and feces, and it’s possible that we are losing more than we think. And, we are not accounting for it when we calculate nitrogen balance.

Second, even if we account for all nitrogen losses, nitrogen balance method calculates the minimum that is needed to get to zero (nitrogen in equals nitrogen out). This amount is not from the OPTIMUM amount needed for muscle growth, repair, immunity, etc.

My third point, which is more of an applicable one, is that the protein recommended is less than what I would like to see at each meal and snack to improve satiety and help with weight management. For example, an adult women needs 46 g a day. If you want to have a 15 grams of protein at each meal and 5 grams at each snack, that will add up to 55 a day.

I’m not saying that we need a whole lot of protein. Actually, more than 2 grams per kilogram is a waste even for athletes. There’s no harm in a little more protein and I tend to recommend more than the RDA. I really think that the 5.5 ounces on a 2,000 calorie meal plan recommended by MyPyramid is just too little. I like the sports nutrition guidelines (1.2-1.8 g/kg). Stick to the lower end if you’re not in serious training or athlete.

What do you think about protein needs? Do you tend to eat more than what is recommended? Would love to hear your thoughts….

Coming up next:

Have you ever had yogurt juice? On Friday, I will be posting my dad’s recipe. Perfect thirst quenching drink for summer heat!

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • The Food Hunter June 18, 2010, 12:24 pm

    Very interesting…I probably need to add a little more protein to my diet.

  • taylaaa hammm. September 15, 2010, 1:59 pm

    hayyyy, i love proteinnn. (:

    • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD September 24, 2010, 9:36 am

      please do love protein and eat protein foods… just don’t spend your money on protein shakes… most people don’t need them!

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