Many Americans have a deeply rooted fear that they're not getting enough protein. Like most fears, it's used to sell stuff -- in this case, packaged food, with bold letters that say something like, “Now With 1,369% More Protein!” as though you definitely need more protein, if only there were a cracker to deliver it.
And dammit if it doesn’t work like a charm. I even like Whole Grain Goldfish better than the originals now.
But how much protein do we really need in our diet to be healthy? Are vegetarians and vegans in danger of collapsing due to protein deficiency? We asked Dr. Stephen Neabore of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to find out, and holy Angus beef burgers if these findings didn’t blow our minds.
There's protein all around you
“I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me ‘Where to you get your protein from?’” Dr. Neabore muses. “People think that meat, chicken, eggs and milk are the only thing with protein with them. In reality there’s not any food in existence -- that isn’t made in a factory -- that does not have protein in it. Everything that grows in the ground has protein in it. Literally, everything.” So… does that mean… everything?
Yes, it means everything. Even those wispy grains of wheat have protein, and it has its own special controversy surrounding it. You've heard of gluten, haven't you? Yep, that's protein.
Protein isn’t an exact science
Dr. Neabore admits there’s a lot we don’t know about protein levels yet, but he’s still pretty sure you’re worrying way too much about it.
“There’s a lot of information out there, [but] I don’t think anyone knows 100% yet... Everybody has different activity levels and deficient levels -- there’s no one absolute answer.” Not even the US government (which issues dietary guidelines) knows for sure, and even they say that at the very least, guys could probably stand to cut back on it a bit.
“There’s this conspiracy where people think they’re not getting enough protein. From a medical point of view, we don’t really ever see protein deficiency. Aside from ICU patients, or people who are really sick -- you would look at them and know they didn’t look well, whether it was liver disease or AIDS -- those are people that may have protein deficiencies.”
If you're not in the ICU, you're probably getting enough protein
What this means is that unless you're sick or have an underlying medical condition, there's a pretty good chance you're all set on your protein intake. And you probably recognize what a severe protein deficiency looks like: “Remember those commercials with the starving kids with the big bellies? That’s a sign of protein deficiency,” Dr. Neabore explains. “The protein in your blood that’s normally circulating works to hold on to some of the water, so when you don’t have it there, the water disperses to other spaces.”
Not to say that a protein deficiency couldn't happen to you, but you'd likely know that you should seek medical attention. “You’re going to know something is wrong if you're not getting enough protein; it’s like being malnourished. Your body starts breaking down, it can create changes in your skin, hair. Think about people who are anorexic. You’re going to look like someone who's dying if you're not get[ting] enough protein.”
Not convinced? Dr. Neabore himself doesn’t even know how much protein he’s getting, and he studies this for a living.
“I have never counted how much protein I eat. I know I’m getting enough because I don’t look like those kids on TV or an ICU patient.”
Advertisements are tricking you into thinking you need more
This is tough to believe, but sometimes ads don't tell the whole truth. Those packaged foods trying to sell you on higher protein levels may also nudge you into thinking more protein is somehow healthier than… less protein. “You hear people say ‘I’m eating this because I need my protein,’” said Neabore. “The way they're saying it is that they don’t have enough. There’s this thing they call the ‘health halo effect’ -- if consumers have the choice, they’re usually going to buy the one with extra protein in it, thinking it’s healthier. That’s not always the case. Of course, those are also things that are processed. You never see tomatoes in the store that say 'with extra protein.'"
Adding protein might be why you're gaining weight
How’s this for upsetting news: According to Dr. Neabore, all those times you added chicken to your salad because you thought you needed some protein might have just piled on extra fat and calories that you didn't need, and wouldn't otherwise have eaten.
And low-carb diets, which typically boost protein intake and often lead to short-term weight loss, reinforce this belief. “People say they want to lose weight, so they eat more protein. But people typically have enough protein, so then what happens with the extra protein you're eating? It turns into fat. If you’re already eating fruits and vegetables and whole grains, you’re eating low fat anyway, and you’re getting enough protein from all those things. The rest of it is fiber, so it will fill you up. There’s not really any need to take in extra protein on top of that.”
“Then you have the guys at the gym who are trying to bulk up, so they eat a lot of protein. They call this the 'protein paradox.' You have guys eating protein to gain weight, and you have people eating it to lose weight. So it’s like, which is it? What’s going on here?"
That's a good question, and the answer probably lies in the processed foods that Dr. Neabore mentioned earlier. People who switch to low-carb, high-protein diets tend to cut out processed foods, which leads to weight loss. It's likely not the protein itself, because, as Dr. Neabore notes, “Even if you ate just rice during the day with nothing else, there’s still protein in there. As long as you’re getting enough calories, you’re getting enough protein.”
Too much protein doesn’t really exist, thanks to your body
Just as you don't have to worry about getting too little protein, it's pretty tough to get too much. "Foods are made up some combination of carbohydrates, fats, and protein… We don't really store protein. It’s a building block for things -- enzymes, and to make parts of different cells -- but there’s not not really area in our body that’s concentrated for protein. The body either uses it, or else we will pee it out -- it’s one of the things that makes up urine -- the rest of it just gets converted to fat."
Remember that protein isn't a food
Despite the fact that "pick your protein" has become a standard directive at build-your-own bowl eateries everywhere, Dr. Neabore says you should really stop telling people you’re eating protein for a meal.
“Somehow protein has become a food,” he said. “You don’t go out and hunt protein; you don’t pick protein from the ground. It’s not a food. It’s a part of food. So when restaurants ask [if] you want to add protein to your plate, that’s the wrong idea. It goes back to that halo effect, that you’re not getting it unless you add it.”
It’s not actually the protein our body needs
“We don't actually need protein, we need amino acids,” explains Dr. Neabore. “The building blocks of protein.” And yet, you don't see that menu on the Korean-Mexican fusion food truck asking you to "choose your amino acids" for your bowl.
“There are 20 different amino acids that we eat in food. Some of them are essential, which means our body can’t make them, so we need to eat them, and some of them are not essential which means our body creates them. Research shows the protein that comes from animal sources (like red meat) is can lead to diseases and cancer, whereas [with] the plant proteins -- like soy -- that same association wasn’t found.”
Vegetarians DO get enough protein
If you happen to be a vegetarian, you can take this last word from Dr. Neabore to the next family gathering and give it to that aggressive, steak-chomping uncle who won't leave you alone. "There’s no vegetarian that has to worry about getting enough protein."
If you're eating at all, you're eating protein, and you don't need to worry about adding more.
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Liz Newman is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and will probably still purchase Whole Wheat Goldfish and add carnitas as a “protein” to her Chipotle burrito bowls -- but that doesn’t mean she doesn't now know she's being duped! Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @lizn813.