Protein is now everywhere — from shakes and powders to granola bars to… Hell, even the Nesquik Bunny is peddling the stuff. Meat, too, is part of our cultural DNA, whether it’s giant steaks or burgers that have quadrupled in size since the 1950s.
Obviously you can’t live without protein — it’s the basic building block of the human body, making up all of your bones, tissues and cellular structure — but our recent cultural obsession with the stuff is way out of proportion to the amount we actually need.
And yes, this is still the case for dedicated gym rats. You’ve been told that your muscles need protein, and it’s true: Muscles grow as a result of a process called protein turnover. This, explains Carolyn Dean, a medical advisory board member at the Nutritional Magnesium Association, is the “breakdown of damaged muscle proteins and the creation of new and stronger ones.”
Put more simply, when you work out, you’re deliberately damaging your muscle tissues so that they grow back bigger and stronger, and for this to happen effectively, the body needs a good supply of protein. But since there are limits to how much protein your body can actually use, chugging protein shakes may be doing you more harm than good.
How Much Protein Should We Be Eating?
The best way to calculate your protein needs, according to Dean, is to “multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.35.” The figure you get is roughly how many grams of protein you need to consume in one day. In other words…
- If you weigh 175 pounds, you should be eating 61.25 grams of protein daily (175 x 0.35 = 61.25 grams).
If you, like pretty much everyone else, have trouble visualizing 60 grams of protein, it’s less food than you think. One 4-ounce chicken breast contains 43 grams of protein, so if that’s in one of your meals, you’re already more than two-thirds of the way there. Add in two eggs for breakfast (6 grams each) and a serving of broccoli (4.5 grams) and you’ve met your daily allotment.
Or you can take the easy route: A 9-ounce steak comes close to 80 grams of protein by itself, so that puts you way over in just one meal.
How Much Protein We’re Actually Eating
Short answer: Too much. “Current protein intake is above the recommended dietary allowance for protein,” says Jamie I. Baum, an assistant professor of nutrition in the food science department at the University of Arkansas. In fact, most of us are eating almost double the protein we need, and it’s definitely not all going to our muscles. Even eating more than 30 to 35 grams of protein in a single meal isn’t helpful, according to Baum: “Anything over that won’t do much [for your muscles] because the pathways in our body are maxed out after that amount.”
The excess gets turned into body fat because your system can’t use it. “Without exercise […] extra protein isn’t going to do much for you as far as physical fitness and physique are concerned,” Baum says. “[In fact], too much protein when trying to get in shape can lead to excess weight gain.”
What Else We Should Be Eating
Unsurprisingly, the secret to healthy eating is balance. “Your diet should be a balance of complex carbs, fats and protein,” Dean says. Complex carbs contain nutrients like fiber and starch, so going for broccoli, grains, apples and beans instead of that third chicken breast helps contribute to a more balanced metabolism. As for fats, health, nutrition and lifestyle consultant Mike Kuhn warns against crude oils and fast food, recommending coconut oils, avocado, grass-fed butter and eggs (the yolks especially). Fats are important, since they stockpile nutrients and energy and protect our vital organs from physical harm.
How Did We All Get It So Wrong About Protein?
It’s not actually a new phenomenon: We’ve been eating too much of the stuff since at least the 1960s. It’s not just Americans, either — many developed nations take in too much protein, so much so that there’s a correlation between developed nations and the occurrence of gout from too much meat intake, according to Dean.
More recently, fad diets like paleo and Akins — those that advise people to run screaming from carbs but eat all the meat they like — have played a part. They may be superficially helpful in losing some weight quickly, but it’s thrown our awareness of real nutritional balance way out of whack.
The paleo diet, especially, invokes the image of our tough, sinewy caveman ancestors, raised on a diet of raw leaves and mammoth steaks. But even this is bullshit, since the protein intake of a caveman was wildly irregular. “Our ancestors ate seasonally,” explains Dean. “When the fish were ‘running,’ they ate fish. They hunted in the fall and winter and stored food for the next season. There was no ‘daily’ amount of protein that they ate.”
As for protein in the modern age? You really can have too much of a good thing.