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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269 comments to Why are Americans so concerned about protein?

  • Thanks for this. This is so helpful. I still remember the 3-2-4-4 from 2nd grade. It’s burned in my brain. Nice to relax a little.

  • […] general, I really like the philosophy of 100 Days of Real Food  that if we eat a variety of whole foods (without overeating), there should be no need to count […]

  • Lisa

    First I have to say I have never, not once posted a comment anywhere!!! But lisa, I can’t resist! I love, love, love this post! I love the message you’re sending about food in general and the tone with which you send it! Eat people eat and enjoy all that whole food has to offer! It’s really delicious when you cook real food including oil, cheese and all the other delicious but tabu items when you’re counting!!!!!

    Thanks- I will be visiting often:).

  • Tianna

    Where do you get the lunch containers from? I want to use those for my daughter who will be starting school soon.

  • Lisa

    You may believe you are ingesting 54g of protein in one day but looking at your ingredients you are not consuming 54 grams of COMPLETE proteins. That is really what matters.

  • Stephanie

    I wanted to take a moment and let you know that I enjoyed this article. I like your approach of variety rather than counting. Above you said (calorie)counting began in the 1980′s – perhaps I am mistaken but I thought it began earlier (1950′s-60′s?). I remember reading about it a few years ago in “The Body Project” by Joan Jacobs Brumberg which was assigned in an Anthropology of US culture course. Its possible that I am remembering incorrectly though.
    I agree that constantly measuring and stressing over precise calculations is silly, it can help you if done OCCASIONALLY to make sure that you are getting enough variety. Beyond that, I don’t see much merit to it. While it appears that YOU are eating *enough* protein each day, it does not mean that EVERYONE gets enough. My dietary practices are best described as Primal (though like many, I make exceptions for brown rice occasionally as well as lactose-free dairy products). I’ve read Paleo & Primal blogs that recommend that people log what they eat to make sure they get *enough* protein (if you subtract the dairy & legumes from the 1-day plan up above – would you still meet anything close to your daily requirement[without eggs or meat added]?)

    I certainly don’t mean to insult or berate you. As I’ve already said, I agree that we should not be so anxious about constantly counting everything as long as we eat a wide variety of (*real*) foods. I have read elsewhere from medical professionals that the suggested 46- 50 grams of protein does not necessarily apply to everyone- some of us can be just fine with less (in the 30 gr range) – I don’t know how plausible that is but considering not everyone has the same physical activity or height … its something to consider.(Right now, I’m jogging /running ~4 miles 3 days a week & lifting 2-3 days a week as well- with fewer carbs I need to make up for it by aiming to actually hit the 40 – 50 gr range which seems to be working just fine for me). Though I will occasionally venture beyond Primal(ish) eating, I almost never worry about getting *enough* protein (enough iron is a different story though).

    IMO – if you’re already dedicated to a varied diet based on “Real Foods” (assuming you eat a reasonable amount of it raw & some of it fermented [for probiotics]), the best way to tell if you’re *missing* something is paying attention to how you feel and “listening” to your body. Personally, when I start craving nut butters & meat- its usually because I’m not getting enough proteins. It doesn’t happen often though. Either way It doesn’t take a chart & counting to tell me what my body already knows.
    This has become a much longer comment than I intended- Mea Culpa.

  • Rachael

    I was directed to this article via the Facebook post today. Thank you for sharing this information. I agree that foods other than meat can be a good source of protein. Although, it needs to be acknowledged that optimally a zone diet consists of 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carbs (my doctor has researched this extensively). It is just recognizing that we need to get a good ratio of all three! It does depend on ones individual situation. I’m slightly hypoglycemic and would not survive without eating a significant amount of protein. Also, hypoglycemic symptoms are not often recognized. One may have insulin sensitives and not know it. Just to note! Also, making sure it is a “complete” protein is important. While other sources can be sufficient protein providers, animal protein has components that vegetable or grain proteins lack. Mostly, it is the fat. But overall, it is important to keep the ratio! I admire all of the work Lisa has put into keeping her family wholly healthy! Thank you as always for sharing! Definitely sparks my interest!

  • Its not my first time to pay a visit this site, i am visiting
    this site dailly and take good facts from here daily.

  • This is so helpful. My gut instinct is to feed my family this way, but I so often get swayed by fad diets and expectations of others. Just eat real food!

  • Mike

    Thanks for you blog and while I have agreed with most everything you’re promoting for the real food diet/lifestyle. I think what you need to realize is people are concerned with their protein intake because must of what is in the American food supply is so high carb if the average person would probably consume 70% of their diet in carbs. That would probably wouldn’t be too bad if the source of those carbs was from plant based whole foods. I do find it interesting that a country (Sweden) has now officially recommends a low carb diet for its nation. http://www.foodproductdesign.com/news/2013/10/sweden-recommends-low-carb-high-fat-diet-to-comba.aspx

    People who are overweight need to track their numbers to learn or retrain their thinking as to what is healthy servings of whole foods. For example, a person wouldn’t want to consume more fruit which could cause them to keep the weight on or even gain in some cases.

    As someone who eats clean/real whole food probably 95 – 98% of the time I can say I believe in this concept you are promoting and I am happy to see all the great information provided. Knowledge is the key and this certainly can help anyone if used in the right way.

    Keep up the great work,

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