Scan food labels at the grocery store, and you might think protein deficiency is rampant in this country. Everywhere you look manufacturers prominently display the protein content of frozen pizza snacks, breakfast cereals, even jars of baby food. Even protein powders and protein bars, once confined to gyms and health food stores, have gone mainstream. The protein emphasis may have its roots in the Atkins and South Beach diet crazes that promised rapid weight loss by limiting carbohydrates and focusing on high-protein foods. But neither plan ever pushed pizza snacks. So why the protein push today? Do we really need to search out and buy only the highest protein foods? Does anybody really need those powders and bars? With the exception of two specific groups of people, the answer is no. Most Americans get all the protein needed in a day without even trying.
Protein is essential for the function or repair of just about every cell in the human body, from hair, nails and hormones to muscle, bones and blood. Because it can't be stored in the body like fat and carbohydrates, we need to replenish the supply every day. Yet the actual amount needed may surprise people accustomed to platter-sized steaks. Half a chicken breast and a couple slices of cheese supply all the protein that most healthy American adults need in a day. As vegetarians know, there are many good nonanimal sources of protein, especially if incomplete sources are combined to make a complete protein, as with rice and beans.
The Department of Health and Human Services says your need for protein depends on weight and activity level. A 130-pound average adult needs 47 grams, the amount you would get in 3 ounces of cooked chicken, 8 ounces of yogurt and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. A 200-pounder needs another 26 grams, so he could add another 3-ounce serving of chicken.
Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, nuts and soy products are the most protein-packed sources.
Morton Plant Mease registered dietitian Nadine Pazder says it's best to spread out your daily protein intake across several meals. "We don't absorb much more than 20 grams of protein per meal," says Pazder, "so these people who are eating protein by the scoopful may not be getting the benefit of it."
Although extra protein won't hurt most people, some should limit their protein intake, including the estimated 20 million Americans who suffer from chronic kidney disease. Healthy kidneys flush out waste products produced by dietary protein. If the kidneys aren't working properly, eating too much protein can put additional stress on the kidneys and worsen the condition.
Kidney patients are usually instructed to keep track of their protein intake and choose lower-protein foods, such as oatmeal for breakfast instead of bacon and eggs or to use one slice of meat in a sandwich instead of two.
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Protein intake has long been the subject of much debate in sports circles, especially among bodybuilders and weightlifters. Men's fitness magazines are full of ads for protein products that promise to build muscle and improve strength faster than any exercise regimen alone. Some athletes who routinely compete in marathons, triathlons and other endurance sports also insist that extra protein gives them an edge.
But do they really need to buy expensive protein powders, shakes and bars to bulk up or cross the finish line first?
"Only if they want to increase the American economy, then yes," says Dr. Marc Hilgers, a sports medicine specialist at Florida Orthopaedic Institute in Tampa. "But if they want to improve their physical performance, no."
In fact, Hilgers says, protein bars and shakes can be high in calories, and consuming them in addition to regular meals may cost you more than money. Any calories the body does not need — and protein calories are no exception — are stored as fat.
Hilgers says the typical American diet provides plenty of protein and most athletes don't need to use supplements. "The one possible exception is vegetarian athletes," he says, especially those who don't consume eggs and dairy products and have a hard time getting enough vegetable protein.
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Pazder says there's another group that may need to pay particular attention to protein intake: the elderly, especially the frail elderly who don't have much of an appetite.
They are at risk for a condition known as sarcopenia, a loss of lean muscle mass and muscle strength due largely to aging and inactivity. It's a process that typically begins in the 40s but accelerates in the mid 70s.
Losing lean muscle can cause weakness and leaves some seniors without sufficient strength to carry out the activities of daily living. It also puts them at risk for falls.
Exercising with resistance bands and small hand weights and being careful to get enough protein every day can fend off those effects.
"We are now recommending that most seniors get at least 20 grams of protein at every meal," says Pazder.
That can be done easily by having a turkey sandwich with a glass of milk or a cup of yogurt or 3/4 cup of cottage cheese.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3416.