“Am I getting enough protein?”
“Is too much protein bad for me?”
“What type of protein should I eat?”
These are just a few of the many concerns that we have about protein.
As is the case with carbohydrates and fat, we are surrounded with myths and misunderstandings about the nutrients that we consume.
These myths cause not only confusion but also worry and fear.
Many of us see protein as the king of macronutrients. We want to make sure we get the best quality and the right amount at the right times.
Let’s explore some common lies we’ve been told about protein and hopefully clear up some of the confusion.
1. You Need to Consume at Least 1 Gram of Protein per Lb of Body Weight per Day
While specific requirements will vary on an individual basis, research has not shown support for the 1g/lb/day (roughly 2.2g/kg/day) recommendation, and studies have suggested that much less than this is enough, e.g. 0.83g/kg/day1.
Research has not indicated benefits of protein intake above the recommendations, even for strength and power athletes. For instance, a 2006 study did not find benefits of protein intakes above the recommended level 1.6-1.8g/kg/day in collegiate strength/power athletes2.
2. Eating Too Much Protein Is Bad for You
Just as many of us are worried about getting enough protein, many of us are worried about getting too much protein. While a high-protein diet may be harmful for individuals who already suffer from kidney dysfunction, there is a lack of evidence suggesting that a high-protein diet is dangerous for healthy individuals3.
If it is weight gain that we fear, then excess calories – from protein, carbohydrates, or fat – can cause weight gain. However, high protein itself is not dangerous for healthy individuals. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, meaning that high-protein diets can be especially effective for weight loss.
3. Certain Types of Protein Are Superior
There are quality ratings for protein, but don’t let this convince you that some sources of protein are good and some bad. Protein quality ratings like the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) and Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) reflect the quantity and digestibility of amino acids in protein sources.
For example, pea protein has a PDCAAS score of 0.597-0.7, while eggs have a PDCAAS score of 1.04. This means that if your only source of protein is pea protein, you are lacking in certain amino acids.
However, as long as we consume a variety of protein sources, there is no reason to be concerned with the protein quality of every single food we eat.
4. We Need to Consume Complete Protein at Each Meal
A complete protein contains an adequate proportion of all nine essential amino acids. As referenced above, there is no reason to stress about food consumed during a given meal as long as we have a variety of protein sources in our diet.
A variety of incomplete protein sources consumed over the course of the day can provide all essential amino acids. There is no reason that the body needs to consume all essential amino acids in each meal. Getting all essential amino acids over the course of the day (or week) is just fine!
5. Protein Will Make You Lose (or Gain) Weight
Protein powders are often labeled with flashy terms like “skinny” or “gains.” These terms and their related marketing slogans lead many to believe that protein will either make us lose fat or gain muscle.
However, our overall caloric intake vs. caloric expenditure dictates what will happen to our body weight. We cannot predict how simply adding or removing protein from our diet will affect body weight or body composition unless we know what is happening with the rest of the diet.
Replacing a full meal with a scoop of protein powder mixed in water can reduce overall caloric intake, but adding an extra protein shake to what you are already consuming can make you gain weight. Of course, that weight gain can come from muscle – but only if you put in the work!
6. Vegetables and Legumes Are Good Sources of Protein
This is a confusing statement. What we mean by this is that, for plants, these foods have high protein content. When we consume animal protein, we consume a part of the animal that has a large amount of protein. If fat is low, most of the macronutrient content is protein.
This is not the case with plants. Plant-based foods tend to be mostly carbohydrates, as with vegetables and beans, or mostly fat, as with nuts and seeds. You can’t “trim the fat” like you can with animal sources of protein.
A healthy diet is one that has a large percentage of plant-based foods, but we shouldn’t pretend that foods are “protein sources” if most of their energy is from carbohydrates and/or fat.
7. Vegetarians Do Not (and Cannot) Get Enough Protein
Just because vegetables and legumes are not great sources of protein doesn’t mean that vegetarians can’t get enough protein.
Many assume that vegetarians will not be able to get enough high-quality protein, and this could certainly be true if someone only sticks to one or a few sources of protein. A vegetarian diet can supply adequate high-quality protein if a variety of plant-based foods are consumed5.
8. We Can Only Benefit from 20-25g Protein at a Time
In the past, it was thought that any protein consumed over 20-25g per meal would be wasted. However, factors including the type of protein and other types of food (if any) are consumed with the protein can affect rate of absorption.
A recent article by Schoenfeld and Aragon addressing the controversy suggests that protein consumption over 20g may be used for tissue-building6. While it can be a good idea to consume multiple high-protein meals throughout the day to help with factors such as muscle protein synthesis and hunger/fullness, there is no reason to stress about exact numbers.
There are many factors to consider, and each meal that you consume will have a different effect on your body depending on these factors. As a general rule, this line of thinking can be applied to other myths about protein timing (e.g. “you need to consume protein immediately post-workout”).
Paying attention to our protein intake can be an incredibly useful tool to help us reach our fitness and health goals.
When dieting, protein can help us feel full between meals. When looking to gain muscle mass, protein can help us repair and build muscle (and other tissues). Unfortunately, protein “rules” are often driven by companies whose main goal is to make money.
Stressing about exact grams or minutes is likely just a waste of time and effort. Factors including other foods consumed and overall caloric intake can impact the body’s response to a protein feeding.
Only consuming “high-quality” protein sources might mean missing out on other nutrients not found in these foods. On the other hand, consuming “low-quality” protein sources can be equally if not more detrimental if the diet is limited to one or a few main sources of protein.
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- Li M, Sun F, Piao JH, Yang XG. Protein requirements in healthy adults: a meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies. Biomed Environ Sci. 2014;27:606–13.
- Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Kang J, Falvo MJ, Faigenbaum AD. Effect of Protein Intake on Strength, Body Composition and Endocrine Changes in Strength/Power Athletes. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2006;3:12–8.
- Cuenca-Sánchez M, Navas-Carrillo D, Orenes-Piñero E. Controversies surrounding high-protein diet intake: satiating effect and kidney and bone health. Adv Nutr. 2015;6:260–6.
- Rutherfurd SM, Fanning AC, Miller BJ, Moughan PJ. Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Scores and Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Scores Differentially Describe Protein Quality in Growing Male Rats. J Nutr. 2015;145:372–9.
- Craig WJ, Mangels AR, American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:1266–82.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2018;15:10.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2013;10:53.