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?”

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  1. I went on a nutrition course (just a quick 2 day top food for top performance) and the Nutrionist had us write out our meals for the day and figure out the protein. I was way over and could totally have left out a lot of meat. She did touch on the ways to make a meal with complete proteins, example:beans and rice.
    For the most part, she said the same as this article. It really made me interested in how to eat to get the most out of food without overeating.

  2. 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.

    1. Michael Brenneman

      dairy and soy foods are packed with protein. meat isnt the only thing packed full of protein.

      also, no. eating a lot of meat doesnt cause you to crave it the way that eating a lot of carbs causes you to crave carbs. theres a thing called dietary hormone manipulation, and eating a diet high in protein helps control your hunger cues in your brain while eating a diet high in carbs will make you feel hungrier and eat more because of the different hormones those macronutrients trigger in your body.

  3. 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
    Author
    FITNESS AT 40,50,60 AND BEYOND

    1. Michael Brenneman

      thank you for posting some actual information in this comment

      i recently surprised my mom when she thought she was doing good on protein because she has cashews every day (she has other sources of protein in her diet, but had the mentality that the nuts she eats was going to ensure she had enough protein). cashews are good for their fats, but definitely not one of the foods in my diet i choose specifically for their protein content

  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.

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

    1. I also work with a personal trainer four days a week, and he encourages eating a healthy, balanced, varied diet (basically the same as the author of this article). I try to eat limited meat, so I get protein from eggs, hemp, nuts, seeds, flax, etc. When I stopped focusing on ‘being on a diet’ and just started eating to fuel my body and enjoy what I was eating, it came a lot easier and the weight started coming off. There is no need to overload on protein – you aren’t training to be a professional body builder. If you would like some recipes, websites to look into, etc., I am happy to help out.

    2. Seconding the part where you should listen to your trainer. This article is fine, for an everyday person. You are a person who is TRAINING. You’re body can’t build muscle from fat and carbs. You’re body NEEDS protein to build with. Even if you are not looking to build muscle, increasing your protein intake while training helps preserve muscle so that your body doesn’t start cannibalizing it. This should be all common knowledge of why you’re paying a trainer to begin with. Perhaps you should ask your trainer why you, specifically, need that much protein rather than looking at an internet article that is supposed to be aimed at the average person and going “eh, you’re wrong I aint’ doin’ it!”. Anyone who is training, trying to build muscle, or who is healing needs an increased protein intake.

      1. Trainers are not dieticians or nutritionists. One should work with specialists to figure out needs for exceptional circumstances.

    3. Michael Brenneman

      theres a reason your trainer is telling you this. the CDC’s recomendation of 46 grams does not take into account activity level. when you start training, you need more protein to recover adequetly. lacking recover will lead to the feeling of getting burned out. your training will be a lot less painful if you give your body the tools it needs to recover

  5. 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”.

  6. 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!!!!

  7. 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

  8. Thank you so much for this post! As a vegetarian ( well pescatarian) I get this question all the time especially regarding my son. We eat lots of beans, chickpeas, whole grains, yogurt, milk etc… We’ve never had issues with his iron levels or protein intake. Completely agree that if you’re earning whole real foods you get the appropriate nutrients. I have never understood the obsession with protein.

  9. What about the protein requirement for a 15 year old swimmer? My grandson swims two hours in the morning before school and has training after school. Usually alternate days of dry land and swimming. He is hungry all the time. We pack him a breakfast and lunch. We need some ideas on how to keep his energy level up during the day and into late afternoon. He is not a picky eater and will devour almost everything. However, we do want to give him a balanced diet necessary for his growing needs.

    1. I am a vegan who sticks to a mostly whole foods diet and I am in the gym for 2-3 hours a day. When I first started working out I was tired all the time and did not have enough energy to get through workouts. My trainer then sat down with me and it ended up I had a 700-850 calorie deficit each day.

      So I started eating more at each meal and incorporating lots of snacks though out the day and it made a huge difference. I will give you an example of what I eat in a day hopefully it will help.

      In the morning about an hour before workouts I have a piece or two of rosemary sough dough bread with some homemade sun dried tomato hummus or chia seed pudding topped with fruit.

      30 minutes before a workout I eat some raw fruit such as a banana, plums, or a figs. The sugar will help him have energy through out the workout.

      **If the workout is cardio intensive he can dilute some fresh squeezed fruit juice with some water for during the work out.

      30 min to an 1 hour afterwards I usually have 1-2 cups of mixed raw nuts and seeds also you can make a hummus wrap with hemp seeds. You can also make some oatmeal with chia and hemp seeds mixed in.

      For lunch I usually have a huge salad with spinach, kale, and swiss chard. I usually load up the salad with lots of fresh fruit, veggies, beans, and nuts.

      I also variety it up every day for example:

      Mexican themed with black beans, corn, cilantro, crumbled tortilla strips, shredded carrots, red/green/yellow bell peppers (if you are not vegan you can add cheese sour cream ect) , and a chipotle ranch dressing.

      Middle Eastern themed with crumbled homemade falafel, chickpeas/lentils, olives, pickled veggies, and a homemade hummus dressing.

      Asian themed with kimchi, brown rice/quinoa , cucumber, green onion, shredded beets, tempeh, and a homemade sweet mustard dressing.

      **You can also turn any salad into a wrap the options are limitless.

      2-3 hours after lunch I have a snack of fresh fruit, veggies, and mixed nuts. An average snack might consist of carrot sticks, cucumber slices, zucchini slices, 1-2 strawberry, 1/2 a handful of blueberries, some grapes, maca covered raw cashews, raw almonds, and some raw pistachios.

      I will also drink some raw coconut water mixed with chia seeds and a little fruit juice before a night workout.

      I hope this helps as long as he gets enough calories in the day he should be fine but if he is complaining he is hungry he probably should be eating more.

    2. Don’t be afraid to feed him fat! It will help satiate his hunger and fuel his brain. Nuts, seeds, olives, whole fat dairy, oils, even eggs. It really makes a difference.

  10. This has been a question for so long with so many easy answers…thanks for making real life examples for all of us. Speaking on proteins in the lunchbox, but a little off topic…I purchased the silicone yogurt/smoothie tubes pictured and have tried them several times in the ways mentioned, but every time they leak or explode and make a huge mess. My big girl’s teacher won’t let me send them any more. Will you explicitly mention every step with yogurt, smotthie, or applesauce again, please? Thanks!

  11. My son decided to eat vegetarian about a year and a half ago at age 9 (his father is a vegetarian and I am not). I have had to field that protein question a lot from my parents. But believe me, I read every book I could get my hands on once he decided not to eat “anything with eyes”. I was surprised at how little protein we need in our diet and how many non-meat sources there are. Now, if I count anything, it’s the fruits and veggies – to make sure he’s eating more of those and not in danger of becoming a “carb”atarian.

    BTW, I made your Raspberry Lunchbox Waffles the other night, except I used blueberries instead of raspberries and we ate them warm as part of a breakfast-for-dinner. There were none leftover to try in the lunchbox the next day! Yummy – thanks!

  12. Love this article so many people are just so focused on far,calories and protein love the idea of just focusing on a variety of REAL whole food!

  13. I used to count everything….now I just go for color and variety and I know I feel better. If I “slip” once in a while I am not hard on myself, just feel lousier! Back to the color and variety!

  14. 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,
    Mike

  15. 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!

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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:).

  20. I’ve always been told that protein is very important, and now that I’m logging my food, I’m finding that I’m eating way too much!! So much for that!!

  21. Brilliant post, seriously some people need to stop bashing people for actually educating us in a different way to feed our kids and stop the obesity!!!!
    Lisa I think you are fabulous and look forward to your pics on what your kids get for lunch, you are an inspiration xxxx

  22. When I first made the decision to eat a whole foods diet, I also decided to only eat meat twice per week. Of couse I grew up with the belief that you must have protien at least twice per day, so I started using myfitnesspal.com to track my food intake. I was usually within four grams of my goal for protien, except when I ate meat. Then I was always at least five grams over!

  23. I like this post! Some get too caught up in numbers without realizing that your body only absorbs 19 grams of protein in one sitting and the rest then is stored as fat.

    1. This is not exactly true Bonnie. Excess calories beyond caloric needs cause fat storage. However, the human body preferentially chooses fat to store as fat. We can convert carbs to fat, but this process (de novo lipogenesis) is very limited and only gets upregulated in extreme circumstances. In order for protein to be converted into fat, it would first have to be converted into glucose and then converted into fat. This is a very unlikely scenario.

      Anyway, enough of all that science mumbo-jumbo. The take-home message is this: excess calories = fat storage.

  24. Nine times out of ten, when someone finds out DD and I are vegetarians they ask “Where do you get your protein?” Makes me want to rip my ears off.

  25. Interesting. I actually receive the opposite comments “you eat way too much protien.”. Personally I do not subscribe to the notion that one has to eat X amount of grain, fat, carbs and protien to be eating a “balanced diet”. I consumed a balanced diet for years recommended by countless RD, and MD and all it did was make me sick, foggy and heavy. it was not until I started eliminating foods from my diet did I discover that I am healthier without grains, little dairy, and lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and oh the forbidden protiein. What works for one may not be the solution for another. Continue to do what works for your family and thank you for sharing your information with those who have an open mind and can embrace viewpoints that may not align with what they believe or practice. Treat the rest as noise!

  26. You actually eat a bowl of refried beans, cheese and sour cream??? That seems strange to me. It seems like there should be rice or something with that.

    1. Yes, all the time and my six year old does, too. I guess if you are thinking canned refried beans it would be questionable but the recipe from this blog is amazing! I save the liquid I drain off and eat it, as is. It is the most delicious “bean soup.”

  27. I love this article on protein! I absolutely was happy to finally come across information about the Protein Shake ingredients, because most sites won’t say nothing bad about them, and companies will do anything to sell them. I got suspicious purchasing an organic popular brand, and seeing some of those ingredients in the back, wondering why they weren’t convincing enough…nothing of them seem natural just more chemically/processed.

  28. Thank you for this article! I too am vegan and get “helpful advice” about protein all the time. Your body breaks down protein into amino acids, which is what is in fruits and veggies. When you cook meat you bind the protein together making it difficult for your body to break down. I agree that Americans need a new perspective or food pyramid for better health, our country is obviously struggling with medical issues.

  29. Doing all these will complement your use coconut oil for
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  30. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Pat. Since it is a highly processed food (most often sourced from GMO crops) tofu is on the list of items we avoid as is soy milk. ~Amy

  31. I like tofu but am now reading that soya can have a link to dementia. Also I’m not fond of cows milk so use wholebean soya milk in moderation. Can you comment please on the health benefits or otherwise as I’m now confused. thank you.

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