How much protein do you really need? It’s probably not as much as you think. Most calculations are based on a multiplier of grams per pound (or kilogram) of body weight. Some show by percent of daily calories. In this blog, I’m going to break through the confusion and use some common sense to settle this debate once and for all. Let’s get started.
What Is Protein?
Protein is important because it is a grouping of amino acids, nine of which are essential to our basic functions. We cannot make essential amino acids, so we have to rely on food to supply them. They help us with metabolism, growth, and muscle development.
Safe Level of Protein for Normal Activity
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) and the value accepted for the safe level of protein intake by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is 0.34 g/lb of body weight (1). That is about 11% of daily calories. This is for a normal, active person, of course, but what about an athlete or body builder?
Recommended Level of Protein for Athletes
Data from 49 studies with 1,863 athletes was compiled to see the effects of protein supplementation on muscle mass when weight lifting. Extra protein definitely helped with gains in strength and muscle size for these participants. However, protein intakes greater than 0.7 g/lb of body weight per day did not further benefit muscle growth (2). So, there is no need for even an athlete to go beyond this measurement. What percent of daily calories is this? It is twice as much as a normal person needs, but is it double the percentage of daily calories?
Not necessarily. When athletes are in training, they need about double the amount of overall calories. That means they also double their fat and carbohydrate calories. Their daily calories in protein still come out to about 11%. It’s simply not necessary to eat a lot of it. It’s an important macronutrient, but it’s easier to get too much than too little.
Protein in Mother’s Milk
Let me ask you some common-sense questions: Wouldn’t you agree that an infant is growing at the most rapid rate of his lifetime? He doubles in size the first six months of his life. That is when he would need the most protein in his diet. Right? Well, wouldn’t you also agree that mother’s milk is the perfect food for that infant? Mother’s milk meets every nutritional need of a baby at every stage until he is weaned.
How much protein do you think is in mother’s milk? 50%? No. 30%? Lower. 10%? You’re getting warmer. Mother’s milk briefly reaches 2.38% protein upon the birth of the child and peaks at 1.6% during those crucial six months of explosive growth. One serving of broccoli has that much! Most fruits and vegetables average about 4%. Our bodies were not designed to need large amounts of it.
Dangers of Eating Too Much Protein
Our bodies use the glucose from fruits, vegetables, and sprouts as its first choice for energy. Starchy carbohydrates are the human body’s next choice as its source of energy. Then it uses fat. Protein is the body’s last choice. In fact, excess protein gives the body too much nitrogen, which causes fatigue. Animal protein is also highly acidic, causing calcium to leach from our bones in order to neutralize the acid. This causes osteoporosis, which is uncommon in whole-food vegans.
Overconsumption of protein has been linked to breast, liver, and bladder cancer and to an increase in the incidence of leukemia. According to William J. Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic, in an address before the American College of Surgeons, “Meat-eating has increased 400 percent in the last 100 years. Cancer of the stomach forms nearly one third of all cancers of the human body. If flesh foods are not fully broken up, decompositions result, and active poisons are thrown into an organ not intended for their reception.” (3)Harvey Diamond
New research from the University of Sydney shows that excessive consumption of protein “may reduce lifespan, negatively impact mood and lead to weight gain.” It also shows that “it’s best to vary sources of protein to ensure you’re getting the best amino acid balance.” They recommend beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy proteins for vegetarians (4).
Eating a variety of vegan, whole food is more than adequate to supply your daily protein needs. If you are concerned, you could add a raw, vegan, whole-food protein powder to a daily smoothie. Try getting about 10% of your calories in protein at first (0.3 g/lb). Experiment with increasing or decreasing that percentage until your body feels balanced.
If you must eat meat, get it from a clean source, free of GMOs, pesticides, and hormones. Try to get pasture-raised meat and eggs or wild-caught fish, rather than factory-farmed. Add more vegan sources of protein to crowd out meat, fish, and eggs from your plate. You’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll feel.
- FAO Nutrition Meetings Report Series, No. 52; WHO Technical Report Series, No. 522, 1973. Energy and protein requirements: report of a Joint FAO/WHO Ad Hoc Expert Committee.
- Morton RW, Murphy KT, McKellar SR, et al. “A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.” British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2018;52:376-384.
- Harvey Diamond, et al. Fit for Life. Warner Books. New York. 1985. 63.
- Samantha M. Solon-Biet, et al. “Branched-chain amino acids impact health and lifespan indirectly via amino acid balance and appetite control.” Nature Metabolism, 532–545. 29 April 2019.