Why are Americans so concerned about protein?

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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  1. 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

  2. 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!!!!

  3. 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”.

  4. Diedre Birkmeyer |

    I like this post. I recently started going to a circiut training gym. The personal trainer wants me to have 100-120 grams of protein a day (I am 5’4 and 143 lbs). I also eat more vegan/vegetarian plant based foods. Also the trainer informs me to lower my carbs and fat grams to below 40. I am tracking every day and losing the enjoyment. I make a lot of Lisa’s recipes that obvioulsy are not in a food data base (mostly processed foods). Trying to figure out the calories etc is time consuming. I informed the trainer I would not be getting that much protein in everyday. THank you Lisa for this post.

    • Marc |

      You should listen to your trainer, not this poorly informed article.

      • Sally |

        You should also listen to strangers on the internet who don’t offer justification for their commentary!

  5. |

    The reason people are so concerned with Protein is because of it’s vital role in recovery and building almost every organ in the body
    In fact, behind water – protein is the most prominent constituent of the human body.
    Hair skin, organs, hormones, muscles, etc.. are all made up of protein.

    The problem is far too many people confuse protein diets with fat diets (look at how people wrongly think of Atkins as being a high protein diet) … or people will eat some Peanut Butter and think they getting plenty of protein when in fact the protein is the lowest macronutrient in this food behind fats an carbs.

    Many American have a diet that is far too heavy in simple carbs and fats but low in lean proteins.

    It is no coincidence that when Low Fat diets became the craze, we started the exponential increase in obesity and diabetes we see in America today.
    Sugars and simple carbs were substituted for the removed fats and now decades later we have an overweight, diabetic generation of “sugar burners”.

    Michael Spitzer

  6. Ikue T |

    Now this makes sense. I would have never thought your lunches didn’t contain enough protein or whatsoever- growing up in Japan we definitely ate a lot less meat. But Japanese people are absolutely healthy. I think people here just really enjoy eating a lot of meat. When you are eating a lot of meat all the time, maybe your body craves for it, all the time.

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