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  • Writer's pictureDerrick W. Spell, MD FACP

Proteins - The Final Chapter

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

What is a protein? The word protein comes from the Greek word proteios meaning "of prime importance." Proteins are complex molecules that are comprised of basic building blocks called amino acids. They are vital for the basic structure of our cells as well as the building and maintenance of tissues throughout our body. Proteins operate in various capacities - they regulate our bodily functions as enzymes and hormones; they support our immune system as antibodies; they also assist in the transportation and storage of other molecules.

One important issue is determining how much protein you need. Too much protein can be harmful and too little protein can lead to malnutrition. Dietetic experts are not completely in agreement on how much protein we need. In addition, protein requirements vary greatly among individuals. Active people and pregnant women need more protein, while some people need less protein.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for most adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. You can also achieve this calculation by multiplying 0.36 with your weight in pounds. (Weight in pounds X 0.36 = RDA of protein in grams) Still, this result includes a large latitude for safety and errs on the side of extra protein. The true protein needs of the average adult may be lower than the RDA. Be that as it may, most healthy adults need between 45 and 65 grams of complete protein per day, which should account for about 10 to 15 percent of their daily caloric intake.

The average American today consumes more protein than they require. Documents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that protein accounts for 18% of total caloric intake for Americans today. The average American acquires about two-thirds of their protein from animal sources, with most of that coming from meat products. By contrast, Americans today consume over 40% more meat than they did in 1950. This should come as no surprise, since protein has been synonymous with meat in our country for generations. We learned in the previous blogs that animal products like red meat and eggs contain a lot of protein, but they also have a lot of saturated fat and cholesterol. Only just recently have most Americans made the connection between red meat and saturated fat.

The optimal amount of protein to eat for optimal health during weight loss is unknown. If you are eating the Recommended Daily Allowance, I believe it is much more important to focus on the quality of protein instead of the quantity of protein. The quality or type of protein is more significant because current research has consistently demonstrated the deleterious effects of animal protein. A recent study of middle-aged people (ages of 50 and 65) found there was a 75% increase in premature deaths from all causes among those who consumed 20% or more of their calories from protein. Specifically, there was a 400% increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes among heavy consumers of animal protein. Interestingly, these bad outcomes were either eliminated or attenuated if the proteins were plant-based. Other studies, like The China Study, have confirmed that mortality rates from heart disease were positively associated with increased animal protein consumption.

You will automatically be eating enough protein if you eat a well-balanced diet that is rich in vegetables, legumes, and whole grains! I don’t recommend routinely tracking your consumption of protein. If you utilize an app like MyFitnessPal, your daily protein data is available for your review anytime. Don’t believe some of the recent claims that protein works best at keeping you full. Simply put, the existing studies are conflicting and misleading. I find that meals and snacks containing both fiber and protein (along with drinking enough water) keep me satiated the best. This is why I often eat nut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread for lunch. However, eating fruit with plenty of fiber, like apples and pears, also keeps me full. We are all different, so find out what works for you!

P.S. If you choose to enjoy “protein bars” as a meal replacement or snack, I recommend eating those that are the least processed. I also recommend avoiding those with added whey and casein. These are milk proteins that carry the same long-term health risks as other animal proteins. Watch out for the added sugars as well. Many of these bars are glorified candy bars with added protein! Eating real, whole food is always better than eating a protein bar.

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