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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266 comments to Why are Americans so concerned about protein?

  • Mindi

    I love this post. It’s something that I’ve been really trying to do. I grew up in a ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of family, my parents grew up in one as well, and so it seems like this is the only way to do things. Your main dish is a ‘meat’, you have a starchy side, and then a spoonful of vegetables. I’ve been trying to switch my own family away from this ‘all meat loving’ idea. It’s a process, but we’re working on it. It is a ridiculous amount of work to keep track of the numbers of our food. Thank you for doing it this once so I can prove to my husband that what we are trying to do really is good!

  • Lindsey

    Totally agree with everything in this post! I am a single girl in my mid-20s and have been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for the last 6 years. I’ve met with a dietitian twice in that time to review my diet and ensure that I’m maintaining appropriate nutritional intake. While my fruit, vegetable, and even oil intake is lacking somewhat, she assures me every time that I am getting MORE than enough protein (from milk, eggs, nuts/nut butter). Americans have a completely skewed view of protein. Many don’t understand that it can come from many sources (besides meat) and portion sizes for meat are often WAY supersized. I love seeing your posts and use your daughters’ school lunches as inspiration for my own (…still young at heart, I guess!). Thanks for your commitment to this lifestyle and sharing this information & ideas with the public!

  • Such a great article. Just goes to show you how people just don’t get eating right. I am 100% with you we count nothing. We eat real food and that’s that. What so many people don’t get is you can get a lot of protein from other foods aside from animal products. My husband competes in local strongman competitions and he got better performance when we DROPPED the protein shakes and went more veggie and fruit based along with grass and pastured raised meats.

  • Leah

    Great post. Since switching to a 90% real food diet, I’ve noticed how differently I eat from the rest of my family who are almost always on diets. At a barbecue this summer, one of my uncles couldn’t believe how little chicken I was eating. I had half a large chicken breast, corn, salad, and probably bread, etc., trying to keep to proper portions of everything. He said, “you need more protein, girl!” and tried to put more on my plate. I cringed, to be honest. These nonsensical ideas of nutrition drive me batty!

  • Nancy

    I think many Americans are worried about protein because their diets are completely off balance to begin with. Take my former roommate for example—it appears she completely missed the stage of her childhood where she should have been introduced to different foods and different flavors so now she is a) completely incompetant at feeding herself to meet her nutritional needs b) extremely picky about even foods that are good for her. Her standard dinner? Ramen noodle. Or crackers. She didn’t even like eggs until she had scrambled eggs that were cooked properly. I have an inkling that many of today’s young adults are in the same unfortunate boat and thus to at least cover their nutritional needs, they worry about protein.

  • Jasmine

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know my concern with protein stemmed from being on high protein/low carb diets like South Beach and Atkins. Also, at one point I was working out 7 days a week and on a pretty high protein cutting diet. Now that I’ve stopped dieting and just trying to eat clean, I don’t really count anything. So to answer you question, I think it started with some of those fad diets.

  • Natasha

    Great post, Lisa! You really hit the nail on the head with the reference to Michael Pollan and the “From Foods to Nutrients” movement of the last 50 years or so. We have totally befuddled ourselves with the shift; and yet, it’s so ingrained in people that they don’t even realize how much they care about adding up all the magical, mythical “nutrients” … and forget to focus on just eating some plain ole real (and good!) FOOD!

  • Great Post – and I couldn’t agree more! Being a vegetarian I get this questions CONSTANTLY and wow, does it get old. We eat a healthy wide variety of things (except meat obviously) and try to have a well rounded diet. I don’t count Anything – and don’t want to! I’m not worried about my family’s protein intake – but everyone else seems to be ha. You summed this up very well and I’m glad you took the chance to directly address this preconceived idea. Great Job!

  • Crystal

    If you have Netflix, I strongly encourage you to watch a movie called “Food Matters.” It investigates what effect different foods have on our body. The film makers interview two top-of-their-field physicians who speak about the effect animal-based protein has on our body. I don’t want to give too much away, but the research shows that animal-based protein can be directly linked to cancer development and growth. Whoa!! The amount of protein we need is actually significantly less than the average American assumes. Please, watch the movie and be informed! :)

  • there’s a few reasons why i’m concerned about the amount of protein i get, which i’m sharing only because you asked:

    for a few years, i followed a vegan diet, transitioning into a raw foods diet, after discovering i had a dairy and wheat allergy. i hoped to cure myself or at least find my way back to better health. having four kids pretty much devastated and depleted me in every way possible and i’d just lived through what felt like 10 years of the flu.

    and the change to raw foods did make me feel better, but i never felt truly energetic or well. in addition, i gained A LOT of weight. and this eating only a very pure, whole foods diet. this summer, i reintroduced meat back into my diet and i finally, finally feel more like myself, and the weight has just come right off, and at age 35 i’m performing better and running faster than i ever have in my life.

    i think it’s wrong to assume that every BODY needs the exact same type of food, and i wish you’d mention this more often on your blog or facebook pages. just because your children or your family don’t require significant portions of meat (which i’m assuming is what you’re really referring to in this post when you use the term “protein”) doesn’t mean that all of us shouldn’t require it. i’m a long distance runner who can’t eat a lot of whole grains because of allergies, and dairy is out of the question, so my body does require protein from other sources.

    in addition, my older children are active teenagers who participate in an intensively competitive soccer league. they often run for more than two hours a day. that lifestyle does require more food than i see in your younger, sweet little girls’ lunches. the olympian michael phelps was eating 10,000 calories a day to support his training leading up to the olympics.

    i’d love for you to consider that some of us have much more physically demanding lifestyles and do indeed require a different diet than yours or your children’s to keep our bodies lean and strong.

    • sarah

      I agree. Our bodies will tell us what they need if we learn to truly listen and pay attention to the signals, rather than just following a diet plan.

    • Thanks for your insight Rachel. I agree 100% that there’s no one ‘magic’ diet that’s perfect for everyone. We are all different! The focus of our blog is to help readers cut out processed foods, but this is really a foundation to be built upon. We talk mostly about what works for us on the blog because, well, we are us, and we think we’re pretty typical. Hopefully a broad audience finds the resources useful :)

  • Jill

    Thank you for this post. I’ve recently had to go dairy free because of an allergy. I keep saying I need to focus on protein since I was getting a lot of my protein from dairy. But, I have been able to replace that protein source with seeds & nuts mostly. If vegans can get enough protein, surely I can do it since I only gave up dairy not meats.

    I’m also trying to lose weight. I was going to count calories, but since I am making most of my meals with real food and not using packaged scannable items, calorie counting was too much of a chore. Thanks for reminding me that I don’t need to count anything if I eat real foods.

  • Annette

    Protein is needed for sustainable energy in between meals. Carbs only give us a short-term burst of energy that, while important for getting us going, cannot get us through until the next meal. That said, you are absolutely correct that whole grains and dairy are great sources of protein. I think a lot of people incorrectly equate protein with meat.

  • AMP

    As a dietitian I get this question/concern ALL THE TIME!! People are usually meeting or exceeding their protein needs, then adding more in just because. Most people don’t realize all of the places that you actually get protein from, which you have outlined quite nicely. I agree with a previous poster, a lot of it stems from the atkins, south beach, paleo lifestyles. If people focused as much time and energy on making sure they get their fruits and vegetables as they do their protein I think individuals would be a little healthier. Great blog by the way…I often recomend it to people :)

  • Judy

    I am diabetic and we are told that eating certain amounts of protein with certain amounts of carbs helps to prevent spikes in our blood sugar. Does anyone have credible research to back that up or dispute it?

    • Chrystal

      I’m also diabetic, and my husband is a physician who has encouraged me not to pay much attention to nutrition science, as he believes most of it is poorly done and/or irrelevant. As he says, “All health is personal, and you need to find what works for you.” I think the best research you can do is in your own home, testing yourself after meals to see what works and what doesn’t.
      After 11 years of experimenting, I’ve found that a low-grain diet without any processed foods is what works for me. I find that protein, fat and fiber help to manage blood sugar best. I eat few grain-based carbs, which seem to cause the worst glucose issues–no matter what I eat them with. Oats are the main exception to that rule. (I also exercise every day.)
      I’ve gone from 36 units of Lantus to 3, and from 12 units of novolog at meals to zero. My last A1c was 6.3. If I’d followed the standard diabetic diet that several dietitians recommend to me over the years, I’d still be on those original doses, if not more. It may not be science, but it worked!

      • Judy

        I am type 2, diagnosed in March. Prior to my diagnosis I tried to eat “healthy”, lots of fruit and vegetables, but I felt terrible. Then right after my diagnosis I got “scared” to eat much of anything and was eating about 800-900 calories a day. So, I still felt terrible. Now I have added more protein from all kinds of sources. I really have to limit my potatoes and rice as they seem to cause problems no matter when or how I eat them. Also, I exercise at least five days a week. Thanks for your encouragement. I will just test and watch my numbers to see how things work with my body!

  • Jenifer Williams

    Excellent! I get the protein flack all of the time too, and it amazes me how fooled Americans have been into thinking that 1) we NEED that much protein and 2) that quality protein only comes from animal products. Did you know (of course you probably do) that there are more grams of protein in 100 calories of broccoli than 100 calories of lean beef? Also – human breast milk, long touted the “PERFECT” food for developing human beings, is only 5% protein? That is almost the same % as in a banana! Thanks for trying to bring this into light!

  • Jane

    It’s really hard to judge. For example, I don’t feel well eating a lot of protein at breakfast but my MIL is the opposite. I know from experience that if I ate this lunch in adult sized portions, I personally would be hungry soon after and my MIL would have a monster headache in 2-3 hours. Also remember not all kids are equal. I assume this is for a young child – mine are middle and high school long distance runners. They would be famished after eating this – they probably burn more calories while they are sleeping than this meal contains! If the commentors in question are giving their kids sugared cereal or pop tarts for breakfast, they are probably right that their kids need protein for lunch to get through the rest of the day. So maybe it’s Atkins marketing or maybe it’s ignorance or maybe it’s something in their personal experience that makes them respond the way they do.

  • aja

    I came across this blog approx. 5 weeks ago and we have been eating unprocessed foods about 90% of the time. There are still a few things I have to figure out like which dairy products to buy. After eating lowfat dairy for so long, we are a bit afraid to take the plunge into whole fat products (besides the cheese- the post on shredded cheese grossed me out). The first week we went through the cabinets and threw away a bunch of processed foods. The first few weeks grocery shopping was expensive b/c we had stocked up on some staples (e.g. whole wheat flour, pure maple syrup, pure PB & almond butter, etc.). The last couple of weeks have been better.

    My husband and I have both lost between 5-6 lbs. I no longer have major food craving like I used to and I now get grossed out when I pass certain food aisles on the store that are stocked with processed foods. I now understand why you just posted this post about getting enough protein. I feel like we are getting enough proteins, vitamins, etc. from the food alone. I made a batch of “clean” whole wheat/fruit/yogurt muffins using only unprocessed ingredients. Two of my co-workers refused to eat them b/c they were “muffins” and they were trying to eat healthy. I tried explaining that they were unprocessed, but they didn’t understand. You are completely right- when you focus in eating real foods, everything else falls into place. I am eating several times a day and I am never hungry. I don’t feel guilty or think about fat, calories, etc. I don’t feel as sluggish as I did before, I have fewer headaches, and I don’t feel bloated. Thank you for sharing your blog with all!

  • Jigna

    I am a lacto vegetarian (no eggs, but yes to milk and dairy products!) and I completely agree with your post! People assume that I eat tofu all day to get my protein source, when in reality, I get plenty of protein in a normal day! Unless a person is doing serious weight training, they really don’t need that much protein! On a side note, your blog is great! Thank you for all the information and recipes!

  • Marisa

    Breastfeeding your toddler gives them plenty of protien too!

  • Jenn

    I agree that different people are comfortable or feel better eating different things. I am a vegan and I feel amazing. I run, bike, etc. and have plenty of energy. But my diet isn’t for everyone.
    What I LOVE about this blog is it is one family and how they work to eat well. She never says “this is what your kids should eat for lunch” she says ” here is what I give my kids”. It is a guideline. A springboard to look at.
    A lot of people defend their way of eating by bashing those of us who eat healthy. I get tired of the protein question as well. Let’s compare cholesterol. I bet mine is lower. You can always argue.
    I say, eat what makes you feel good. What really makes you feel good. And, most importantly, educate yourself about food.

    • Jane

      Sure, but diet is not the whole story for cholesterol since it has a genetic component. My MIL ate vegan and raw for years and has recently added small amounts of fish and chicken to her diet (she thinks she has fewer headaches and feels less hungry w/ some animal protein) and her cholesterol has always been higher than mine and her ratio is always worse – I eat lean meats but don’t care if it’s pork or beef or chicken or fish. I think that’s why this blog sometimes makes me feel twitchy – sometimes info is presented in a very black and white, all or nothing way when the truth is so many shades of grey.

      • Shannon

        Twitchy, yes. Thats a great way of putting it.

      • Lisa

        Jane – Thanks for your feedback. The info may seem “black and white” because it’s based on our family’s experience and findings and (thus far) we have been fortunate enough to not have to deal with any health conditions such as high cholesterol, food allergies, diabetes, etc. Those who struggle with unique health issues should always check with their doctor for answers. I hope that helps!

  • You are awesome! Smart, thorough, knowledgeable and great communicator. Thank you so much for sharing such helpful, specific information.

  • Kelly

    Great post. I’m currently pregnant and try to get 100g/day. With my first pregnancy, I tracked my protein intake for a week or so just to make sure I was getting enough. This time, I don’t think I’ve counted at all, I just eat when I’m hungry and try to sneak in some extra snacks of nuts, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, etc.
    People get way too hung up on numbers, like the “big news” of McD’s listing calories on their menu–calories are not the main concern, it’s the ingredients.
    Speaking of protein, here we go again with flawed studies and singling out one food (as discussed thoroughly in In Defense of Food): http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/08/sunny-side-up-in-defense-of-eggs/261600/

  • Lori

    Protein does help us feel full and helps us not crave snacks in-between meals. My Dr. recommends a balance between protein and carbs for each meal and snack. I really feel like balanced meals are important and protein needs to be a part of those balanced meals. While it might work for some people to not pay any attention to how many carbs, fats, protein, etc. they are eating, this is not a realistic for families dealing with illnesses like Diabetes. Just because some families eat more protein than you do, and carefully monitor their carb in-take does not mean that they do not eat a healthy, balanced diet.

    • Jessica

      When you think of “carbs”, what do you think of? Bread, potatoes, etc. fruits and vegetables are considered “carbs” too. I can bet that most of America (maybe not you and your family) think this way too. It just shows how skewed the American view on food really is..

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Lori. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree every person and family is different and everyone needs to do what works/is necessary for them. The posts focus was more about the concern by many about the amount of protein in our meals and pointing out that protein is in many more foods than what typically comes to mind (i.e. meat). Thanks again for brining another viewpoint to the discussion. Jill

  • Pam

    I would be thrilled beyond words if my grandchildren ate a diet half as good as your children do! Just keep doing what you are doing and don’t worry about nay-sayers :-) .

  • I wholeheartedly agree!! In fact, I just wrote about plant based sources of protein in my recent newsletter. As a whole, we consume way too much. I think we just got so used to growing up with meat at every meal, and now portions at restaurants are double what we need. Great post!
    Kellie McGarry
    Certified Health Coach

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