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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  • Comments

    1. 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!

    2. 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!

    3. |

      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.

    4. 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!

    5. 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.

    6. 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.

    7. 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!

    8. |

      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!

    9. 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! :)

      • Alison |

        Another great documentary along those same lines is”Forks Over Knives”. It is on Netflix as well. Very thought provoking. I highly recommend it.

        • Crystal |

          Oh my goodness! Thanks for commenting because you are right. I got the movie mixed up in my head. It is Forks Over Knives that I was thinking of for their research. Disregard the other movie title. Oops!

          • Jessica |

            Food Matters is still a great one! It discusses more of the Gerson Therapy..

    10. |

      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 :)

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