Why are Americans so concerned about protein?

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One of my daughter’s lunches that received a lot of comments about not containing enough protein: Bell pepper and carrot slices, homemade ranch dip made with sour cream, a frozen smoothie pop made with yogurt, berries, banana and spinach, and brown rice cakes (in the bag)

You may have noticed that almost every time I post one of my child’s lunches on Facebook quite a few readers leave comments such as…”Where’s the protein?” or “I personally need a lot more protein to feel full” or even “My kid wouldn’t have enough energy to get through the day if I don’t give them more protein.” All of this feedback has gotten me wondering…why is our society so concerned about protein? When and how did the notion begin that we need protein, protein, and more protein!? So here’s what I’d really like to say about protein…

Why we don’t count protein (or grams of anything for that matter)

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again…part of eating a real food diet means not counting fat grams, calories, carbs, protein, etc. You simply eat a variety of whole foods (without overeating) and the rest falls into place. Other countries outside of the U.S. routinely follow this practice and don’t obsessively add up numbers like we do. According to Karen Le Billon in her book French Kids Eat Everything, in France “Enjoyment is the goal of eating. You can’t enjoy yourself if you are … counting calories [or] keeping score of micronutrient consumption.” She also says “Variety is a happy side effect of this approach (because new foods are interesting thus making the French happy).”

This is exactly how our ancestors used to approach food…for centuries before us. According to Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, it wasn’t until the 1980s or so that the shift began “From Foods to Nutrients.” And has this shift really gotten us anywhere?

The many sources of protein

While we don’t keep track, I still think it’s important to point out that there are many sources of protein beyond meat. Just because you don’t see a big hunk of meat on someone’s plate does not mean they aren’t getting any (or “enough”) protein. According to the CDC, protein is found in the following foods:

  • Meats, poultry, and fish
  • Legumes (dry beans and peas)
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds (including sunflower and pumpkin seeds)
  • Milk and milk products (like yogurt, cheese, and cream cheese)
  • Grains, some vegetables, and some fruits (provide only small amounts of protein relative to other sources)

You’re probably eating more than enough protein

Straight from the US government’s website… “It’s rare for someone who is healthy and eating a varied diet to not get enough protein.” So let’s go back to the example of my children’s lunches. Both of my daughters are between the ages of 4 and 8 years old, and according to the CDC website the recommended protein intake for their age group is 19 grams. Did you know that 1 cup of milk alone contains 8 grams of protein? Both of my daughters have milk in their cereal almost every morning (a little less than half a ½ cup), they both have oatmeal made with milk for their morning snack at school (another ½ cup), and they each usually have milk with dinner (usually close to 1 cup). So right there with their milk consumption alone they get almost the full recommended dietary allowance for protein…and that’s with them both drinking water with their breakfast and lunch.

Plus these estimates don’t even take into account the nuts and seeds that are in their homemade granola cereal, the yogurt, cheese, hard boiled egg, hummus, beans, and other protein sources that I often send in their lunches, nor does it take into account anything that we’re eating for dinner, which does oftentimes include at least a little meat or seafood and/or other sources of protein (like cheese, which we happen to love around here).

Now if you look at the recommended protein allowance for adults that number is quite a bit higher. For females 19 years of age and older the CDC recommends 46 grams of protein per day, but this still doesn’t have me concerned. We just did some quick estimates based on what I might eat in a typical day…

  • My Breakfast: Granola cereal (about 10 grams of protein) with milk (another 4 grams) and fruit that’s usually followed by a maple mocha that’s made with around ¾ cup milk (another 6 grams).
  • My Lunch: Bowl of refried beans (about 13 grams) with cheese and sour cream on top (another 2 grams or so) with fruit or veggies on the side.
  • My Dinner: This varies quite a bit, but just for fun let’s say it is a vegetarian dish of homemade whole-wheat pizza topped with sauce, cheese, and mushrooms (about 12 grams) and a spinach salad on the side mixed with goat cheese, glazed pecans and balsamic vinegar (another 5 grams or so)
  • After Dinner Treat: Handful of peanuts with a square of dark chocolate (about another 2 grams)
  • DAILY TOTAL: 54 grams of protein! That is well over the recommended allowance and that’s without “trying” to eat any particular foods that are high in protein.

Wow, that was a lot of work dissecting the food I eat. I can’t imagine doing this on a regular basis!

So…you’re off the hook

Hopefully now you feel convinced that you’re off the hook from having to worry about eating a certain amount of protein, the right number of calories, or even the optimal amount of carbs. If you simply eat a variety of whole foods (without overeating and incorporating lots of produce – this part is important!), all of these things will just naturally happen as an automatic and lovely side effect. It certainly sounds like a much more enjoyable way to eat food…and guess what, it is! :)

Note: It is important to mention that everyone’s needs are different, so defer to your health care professional’s advice, especially if you have specific ailments or special nutritional needs. 


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282 comments to Why are Americans so concerned about protein?

  • I used to count everything….now I just go for color and variety and I know I feel better. If I “slip” once in a while I am not hard on myself, just feel lousier! Back to the color and variety!

  • Melanie

    Love this article so many people are just so focused on far,calories and protein love the idea of just focusing on a variety of REAL whole food!

  • Jennifer H

    My son decided to eat vegetarian about a year and a half ago at age 9 (his father is a vegetarian and I am not). I have had to field that protein question a lot from my parents. But believe me, I read every book I could get my hands on once he decided not to eat “anything with eyes”. I was surprised at how little protein we need in our diet and how many non-meat sources there are. Now, if I count anything, it’s the fruits and veggies – to make sure he’s eating more of those and not in danger of becoming a “carb”atarian.

    BTW, I made your Raspberry Lunchbox Waffles the other night, except I used blueberries instead of raspberries and we ate them warm as part of a breakfast-for-dinner. There were none leftover to try in the lunchbox the next day! Yummy – thanks!

  • April

    This has been a question for so long with so many easy answers…thanks for making real life examples for all of us. Speaking on proteins in the lunchbox, but a little off topic…I purchased the silicone yogurt/smoothie tubes pictured and have tried them several times in the ways mentioned, but every time they leak or explode and make a huge mess. My big girl’s teacher won’t let me send them any more. Will you explicitly mention every step with yogurt, smotthie, or applesauce again, please? Thanks!

  • Lucille

    What about the protein requirement for a 15 year old swimmer? My grandson swims two hours in the morning before school and has training after school. Usually alternate days of dry land and swimming. He is hungry all the time. We pack him a breakfast and lunch. We need some ideas on how to keep his energy level up during the day and into late afternoon. He is not a picky eater and will devour almost everything. However, we do want to give him a balanced diet necessary for his growing needs.

    • Lauren

      I am a vegan who sticks to a mostly whole foods diet and I am in the gym for 2-3 hours a day. When I first started working out I was tired all the time and did not have enough energy to get through workouts. My trainer then sat down with me and it ended up I had a 700-850 calorie deficit each day.

      So I started eating more at each meal and incorporating lots of snacks though out the day and it made a huge difference. I will give you an example of what I eat in a day hopefully it will help.

      In the morning about an hour before workouts I have a piece or two of rosemary sough dough bread with some homemade sun dried tomato hummus or chia seed pudding topped with fruit.

      30 minutes before a workout I eat some raw fruit such as a banana, plums, or a figs. The sugar will help him have energy through out the workout.

      **If the workout is cardio intensive he can dilute some fresh squeezed fruit juice with some water for during the work out.

      30 min to an 1 hour afterwards I usually have 1-2 cups of mixed raw nuts and seeds also you can make a hummus wrap with hemp seeds. You can also make some oatmeal with chia and hemp seeds mixed in.

      For lunch I usually have a huge salad with spinach, kale, and swiss chard. I usually load up the salad with lots of fresh fruit, veggies, beans, and nuts.

      I also variety it up every day for example:

      Mexican themed with black beans, corn, cilantro, crumbled tortilla strips, shredded carrots, red/green/yellow bell peppers (if you are not vegan you can add cheese sour cream ect) , and a chipotle ranch dressing.

      Middle Eastern themed with crumbled homemade falafel, chickpeas/lentils, olives, pickled veggies, and a homemade hummus dressing.

      Asian themed with kimchi, brown rice/quinoa , cucumber, green onion, shredded beets, tempeh, and a homemade sweet mustard dressing.

      **You can also turn any salad into a wrap the options are limitless.

      2-3 hours after lunch I have a snack of fresh fruit, veggies, and mixed nuts. An average snack might consist of carrot sticks, cucumber slices, zucchini slices, 1-2 strawberry, 1/2 a handful of blueberries, some grapes, maca covered raw cashews, raw almonds, and some raw pistachios.

      I will also drink some raw coconut water mixed with chia seeds and a little fruit juice before a night workout.

      I hope this helps as long as he gets enough calories in the day he should be fine but if he is complaining he is hungry he probably should be eating more.

    • Jennifer

      Don’t be afraid to feed him fat! It will help satiate his hunger and fuel his brain. Nuts, seeds, olives, whole fat dairy, oils, even eggs. It really makes a difference.

  • Blaire

    Thank you so much for this post! As a vegetarian ( well pescatarian) I get this question all the time especially regarding my son. We eat lots of beans, chickpeas, whole grains, yogurt, milk etc… We’ve never had issues with his iron levels or protein intake. Completely agree that if you’re earning whole real foods you get the appropriate nutrients. I have never understood the obsession with protein.

  • Meredith

    The notion of complete protein is a myth. Americans get plenty of protein.

  • Emily

    Ladies, if we all believed that the government promoted what was best for us, we’d be in a sorry state. In order to get the protein locked away in nuts, seeds, and legumes, they must be sprouted or fermented. This also reduces or eliminates the phytic acid and other anti-nutrients the seed uses to discourage predators from eating them. I urge you to visit http://www.nourishingourchildren.org and read the article http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/the-scientific-approach-of-weston-price/ to understand how to have robust health through proper food preparation and choice. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Without them, we don’t get any of the feel good chemicals/neurotransmitters like serotonin, catecholamine’s, GABA, and endorphins. But, it’s not just about protein, it’s also about animal fat. It’s the ONLY food we eat that has vitamin D (mushrooms have D2), vitamin K2, and vitamin A (carotenes such as from carrots are the precursor to vitamin A and do not transform at high levels to vitamin A plus they need fat to transform). Vegetarians are ok if they eat lots of pastured eggs and raw dairy. My kids and I eat braunschweiger with avocado on crackers for many lunches. We always eat some form of eggs for breakfast. They don’t eat processed cereal since it SO bad for you, save some occasional sprouted oatmeal I get from here: http://www.organicsproutedflour.net/. They also have sprouted flours and beans. For dinner we always have meat/seafood/eggs, veggies, and potato/sweet potato/squash/pasta

  • Kate

    The key phrase in this whole article is “without over eating “!!!! People without eating disorders, can eat varied meals and still keep their weight at a normal range, because they are not over eating! We emotional eaters, however, have a different dilemma – it is almost impossible not to eat something when we have a craving, or to fill our plates up and eat the whole thing plus seconds and thirds!!! There is a sense of insecurity if we stop before the endorphins kick in!!! It is as if we were alcoholics or drug addicts, but the difference is we cannot go without food, therefore, we are emotional wrecks until the day we die or the day we overcome this issue.
    That expression “moderation in all things “does not apply for us – moderation is not in our vocabulary, until we get help in figuring it out or are able to overcome it ourselves!!!!

  • Laura

    I work in the radiology. I agree, protein is overrated, it’s fiber that more adults and parents need to address. I see so many kids have unnecessary x-ray exams due to the lack of fiber in their diets. Fiber is what helps to keep you “full”. There is some truth to the old saying “An Apple a day”.

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