Protein: seems to be pretty essential, right? Considering how much everyone talks about it? This is the first article on protein in the Protein – Questions Answered series so let’s start at the beginning by looking at why we need protein and how much protein we actually need to be optimally healthy, despite the many misconceptions promoted by ‘the high protein, low carb’ diet industry.
Why do we need protein?
The word protein comes from the Greek word proteios, which means “of prime importance”. Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is one of the three macronutrients in our diet. Protein plays a very diverse role in our body and is essential to our health. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids and there are about 20 different kinds that combine together to create hundreds of thousands of different kinds of protein. Of these twenty amino acids, our body is able to adequately synthesize twelve internally. The other eight amino acids must be derived externally; consumed from food sources, also known as essential amino acids. Think of an amino acids as being like letters in an alphabet. They combine in thousands of different ways to form different words (proteins). The sequence in which they are bound together produces proteins that perform different functions in the body.
There are two main kinds of proteins, structural and functional. Structural proteins provide strength and support for all our body tissues, enabling us movement. The most abundant protein in the body, collagen, is found in bones, cartilage, and tendons. Keratin is the structural protein of hair and nails.
The functional proteins are aptly named because they do things rather than form structures. The range of functions that proteins perform in the body is nothing short of miraculous. Some proteins help support immune function (antibodies), others help regulate growth and development (hormones) and others are biological catalysts that regulate every single chemical reaction that goes on in the body (enzymes).[i] Other proteins act as transport molecules, like the hemoglobin that transports oxygen in the blood and others act communication agents in the body (neurotransmitters). All these proteins help make life possible.
Proteins wear out on a regular basis and must be replaced. In addition to the protein that gets reused and recycled in our bodies, we must also receive new protein through food consumption. When digested, these proteins give us a new supply of the amino acid building blocks to make and replace the proteins that wore out.[ii]
But how much protein in food do we actually need to replace those old worn out proteins in our bodies? As a culture we’ve come to readily believe that if some is good, then more must be better, but as we will see, this is rarely the case.
Everyone seems to be so worried about getting enough protein. If I had to guess, I would bet that you would be hard pressed to tell me the name of protein deficiency. Can you think of it off the top of your head? I’m not using this as an example to showcase lack of knowledge – not by any means, but to demonstrate how incredibly rare protein deficiency – or rather Kwashiorkor – actually is. There are less than 5 deaths per year related to kwashiorkor in the US. Yet, excess protein is directly related to heart disease, killing almost 600,000 people per year in the US alone. Yet there is still so much hype and propaganda revolved around not getting enough protein that many people can’t seem to let go of this unfounded fear.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
Think about this question for a moment. What’s your best guess? How much protein, as a percentage of total calories do you think we need to function optimally? Despite what you’ve been taught to believe, humans need a remarkably low level of protein in their diets to meet all protein requirements. Many national health agencies, including the World Health Organization recommend that we need between 5%-15% of our total calories from protein, stating that 10% is in fact adequate. The safe level for a population was defined as the average protein requirement of the individuals in the population, plus twice the standard deviation (SD).[iii] This means that they are adding quite a large margin of safety to provide a ‘buffer’ zone to make sure that 97.5% of the population is met by these requirements. They also have to adjust upwards for digestibility and protein quality. This substantially increases the stated protein requirement, to nearly double what we may actually need.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University and former senior science advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research, as well as world-renowned author of the book The China Study, (I highly recommend this book!) discusses the RDA for protein intake. “According to the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein consumption, we humans should be getting about 10% of our energy from proteins.”[iv] Dr. Campbell goes on to say that “This is considerably more than the actual amount required. But because requirements may vary from individual to individual, 10% dietary protein is recommended to insure adequate intake for virtually all people.” Dr. Campbell recommends that we only need 5-6% of our total calories to come from protein to replace the protein we routinely lose.
Dr Douglas Graham, author of The 80/10/10 Diet (another book I hight recommend!) has helped thousands of people regain their health and has also coached and consulted top athletes to maximize athletic performance. Dr Graham has been advocating eating under 10% of our total calories from protein and has seen incredible success with this dietary guideline over the past 30 plus years of health coaching. And he certainly walks his talk – a true pioneer in the field, he’s been eating this way for several decades now and happens to be in excellent health with remarkable fitness levels. In his book Dr. Graham states: “In light of the near-double safety factor of the U.S RDA, I have no concerns when I see my clients consuming even less protein relative to their size. In my experience, about 5% of calories from protein, especially when it is high quality and unadulterated by heat, is adequate and healthful.”
I find it particularly interesting that mother’s milk is comprised of approximately 5-6% of calories from protein. We drink our mother’s milk in the most rapid growth phase that we experience in our entire lives. This happens to also be the exact same range that respected doctors like Dr. Campbell, Dr. Gabriel Cousens and Dr. Douglas Graham are also recommending.
What Is Average Protein Intake?
You may find it surprising that most people consume about 15-16% of their calories from protein, lower than most people assume and about twice as high as what’s necessary. Despite what you may believe, very few people consume protein upwards of 20% unless consuming large (and unhealthful) amounts of isolated protein powders (a highly refined food product) and egg whites. I know it may be hard for you to believe, but we do start to see health problems when we start consuming protein in excess of 10% of total calories and much of the ‘average’ population would benefit from lowering their protein intake – not raising it.
In the next post, I cover the negative health consequences of consuming too much protein, exceeding 10% of total calories consumed.
Protein: Questions Answered
What’s your opinion about protein consumption? Has this challenged you to take a closer look at your belief systems surrounding your protein requirements? Does this bring up any new questions that you might have regarding proteins and how much we need to be optimally healthy?
Aloha from the Big Island of Hawaii,
[i] Essential of Human Anatomy and Physiology, Ninth Edition, Elain N. Marieb
[ii] The China Study Startling implications for diet, weight-loss and long term health. Page 29
[iv] The China Study Startling implications for diet, weight-loss and long term health. Page 58.