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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319 thoughts on “Why are Americans so concerned about protein?”

  1. Lindsay Untherbergus

    Thought I’d share my two cents here :) You don’t really hear about people that have carb deficiencies or fat deficiencies, but protein deficiencies do happen! Like you, I was simply eating a variety of whole foods and expected the rest to just fall into place… numerous health issues later, I was in the doctor’s office getting blood tests and finding out that my protein was severely low. Ever since I upped the protein, I feel miles better. So for me, I need to make an effort to get a good amount of protein in every single meal. I guess my body just doesn’t absorb it as well as other people do. That’s why protein is a big deal for me, and possibly other people :) But kids probably don’t need as much!

  2. Thank you for THIS!!! I’m starting my 6th year packing lunches for my kids and sending a new one to kindergarten with celiac disease, and THIS is what I needed to read again! There is very little this girl DOESNT eat but when it comes to eating cold or packing se appearance picky! (She loves Brussels sprouts, they make her top food list but she likes them roasted, not reheated or cold!)
    Throwing my hands up from the ‘worry’ of packing and enjoying this awesome year and experiences that she’ll have in kindergarten!!

  3. It’s interesting, also, that “feeling full” is equated to eating protein. I’m no nutrition expert, but I understand that it’s fibre that helps us with the “full” feeling, not protein,

  4. I’m glad you followed up with the note about everyone’s needs being different. My son is an elite athlete who sees a sports dietitian; she has recommended 150-200 grams of protein a day based on his workout schedule and how much weight he’s trying to gain.

  5. I don’t count grams, but I know how I feel. I’ve often had the same reaction to your photos — where’s the protein? For me, it comes down to energy. I know that when I try to skip it at lunch, my energy fizzles out sooner.

    What does help is to eat good fats with lunch, or as a snack. Lately, I’ve been having guacamole or Greek yogurt (whole fat) as a mid-morning snack. While your kids may feel fine with what they’ve got, I wouldn’t.

  6. Debbie Handley

    This is completely and utterly true. Americans are obsessed with protein. I believe we as a nation eat double the daily protein we actually need. Two years ago I became a vegan. That’s the first question everyone asks, “But where do you get your protein?” My mother worries that I’m not getting enough.

    I’m getting plenty. I feel amazing and more energetic at 57 than I did at 35. At my last yearly blood test I asked my doctor to include a test for protein. It came back back perfect.

    1. I think the protein thing is because of the obsession in recent years for low carbing. Really though, is it swinging too far the other way?
      When it comes to weight loss, people obsess about counting because no matter what you’re eating, calories in vs out does still matter. You can eat a completely whole food diet but still not lose weight if you’re consuming hundreds more calories a day than you need.

  7. I’m so thrilled to see this post today. I have recently started following your blog and have completely transformed our family meals to real food just four weeks ago. My hubby has been missing the “protein”, even though he is getting plenty of protein. I think what he really means is he is missing the significant amount of beef and processed meat that had become the focus of our dinner meals. I am definitely going to encourage him to read this! Thanks for your blog posts, meal plans, recipes, and so much more!

  8. I’d say, in short, people worry about protein because advertising has told us to worry about it! Same goes for milk – “It does a body good” – when that isn’t necessarily true. Not trying to bash anyone’s diet here, just giving a little “food” for thought!

  9. The current recommendation is 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight (not pounds). It certainly can be an issue if you have very picky/selective eaters. Additionally, as a children’s mental health clinician our psychiatrist who also specializes in integrative medicine, informs parents that we need sufficient protein to produce serotonin (which when off balance can lead to depression/anxiety/other mental health difficulties). Just some extra details that may be of interest.

  10. I’ve had Bariatric Surgery, and have to take supplements for the rest of my life. I also see a nutritionist a couple of times a month to go over my food diary, and she suggests ways to improve my nutrition.

    The point of my comment is that a post-surgery patient’s daily goal for protein is 64 grams, which I suspect is probably more than what a normal adult should aspire for. Because I’m unable to eat the same amount of food as most people, I aim to have high-protein snacks – cheese, yogurt, nuts, milk, etc. It really isn’t difficult to reach that goal every day for me.

  11. Like others who have commented, I do not eat protein in a conventional American way. I have been vegan for seventeen years. I only recently started “trying” to eat more protein. Basically, that means I eat black beans for lunch everyday now. Other than that I have never tried to eat more of one thing or another. I listen to my body’s cravings and figure out what will make me feel good. People always ask if I take vitamins or supplements and frankly I don’t bother. I am healthy and energetic, so I don’t worry.

  12. As a long-term vegetarian, you have no idea how often I face this question. (Or apparently you do!) Like you say, there is no real need to count any kinds of nutrients when you’re eating a well-rounded diet; aside from the usual suspects of meat, beans, tofu, nuts, and dairy products, there is usually some small amount of protein in EVERYTHING, and it all adds up (and while many of those vegetarian sources are not “complete,” that doesn’t matter at all so long as you’re getting lots of different sources over the course of the day). Whole grains have a fair amount of protein, a lot of vegetables have smaller amounts of protein, and other vegetarian favorites like tempeh and seitan are great sources too. Combine that with knowing that the necessary amount of protein is really not that high, and I’ve felt fantastic for years on my whole foods plant-based diet.

    The only exception I’ve found for tracking protein (in particular, and other nutrients less so) is during pregnancy. Since protein needs pretty much double during pregnancy, I did find that food journaling and tracking my protein was essential (at first, anyway) to make sure that I was getting an adequate amount while on a vegetarian diet.

    1. ours do not stay anywhere close to frozen, even when I put a freezer pack in our lunch bag. Like the other commenter said, they’ve opened up and made such a huge mess that I don’t try it anymore.

  13. Jennifer Murray

    I sometimes have the nagging sense that I am not getting/giving enough protein when I cook for my family. I know when I was trying to lose weight and build muscle, many sources said that I needed protein equivalent to my weight. So, I weighed about 145lbs. at the time, and I should have been consuming 145g of protein each day. It was NOT easy to consume this much without a protein shake of some sort. I guess I still have this feeling that, if I want to be healthy and have more muscle than fat, I need to make sure I am getting a lot of protein, and so does everyone around me! Thanks for the reminder that it’s really not necessary to have so much protein in our normal, everyday diets, and that there are much healthier sources of it than just meat!

    1. Too much protein can cause kidney stones. You do not need to eat your weight in protein. If you eat the number of grams of protein you weigh, you will be deficient in other food areas. We need to eat the rainbow. We also need fat to satiate us and help us with fat soluble vitamins. Complex carbs help fill us up and will give us an initial burst of energy after eating.

      1. Michael Brenneman

        minerals cause kidney stones. it just happens that a lot of dense protein sources are also high in minerals which can deposit in your kidneys and form a stone

  14. The people that can’t feel full without protein are probably bring filed by the fat in their protein source rather than the protein.

    1. Yes. I have lost 100 lbs. and do not watch my fat. I find that it makes me feel the most satisfied of anything. I do watch simply carbs and do not eat a lot of deep fried foods (which are usually high in simple carbs.) But, I don;t avoid anything. I just try to eat smart. For example, I was hungry, so I had a healthy snack, then I ate some candy. Since I had a healthy well-balanced snack before the candy, the candy won’t mess with my blood sugar and insulin so much that I crash in an hour.

  15. I think everybody is different, and everybody needs to find out for themselves what works best. For me, my weight is a constant struggle.. it’s not enough to just not overeat. I find that higher protein foods such as turkey work very well for me, and reduce my urge for junk food.. but everybody is different. If a person has never had a weight issue they may not understand.

    1. I was 100 lbs. overweight and have found that I feel great eating the way the author mentions. I like to eat a variety without worrying about any one thing. I do find that limiting sugar and simple carbs helps with my hunger and keeping my weight off more than anything. Maybe focusing on protein is keeping you away from simple carbs, which will spike your blood sugar and leave you hungry in an hour or two.

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