The Importance of Protein in our Diet
Posted: December 2, 2021
By Daniel Rodgers, RD
If you see me in the clinic, you can probably guess I am going to ask about your eating habits, patterns, and food choices. To which I all too frequently respond with: “I don’t think you’re eating enough protein.”
Why is protein so important?
Protein is one of the primary building blocks for nearly everything in our body: bones, skin, muscle, organs, immune system, enzymes, you name it. Our body cannot make protein. It can make fat from carbohydrates (and very rarely, protein). It can make glucose (sugar) from protein, but it simply cannot make protein from other nutrients. We must consume protein in our diet.
Where do I get protein?
The most concentrated sources of protein in our diet come from animal sources: meat, eggs, and dairy. Plant foods that have more modest protein content are beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, soy, and some grains.
What are some common misconceptions?
- Protein is bad for your kidneys
- Healthy kidneys are just fine with protein and long-term follow-up studies have verified this repeatedly.
- Studies showing potential negative impacts of protein on kidney function are isolated to people with pre-existing kidney disease. No studies have linked dietary protein intakes to the development of kidney disease. Additionally, more recent studies have even shifted blame away from protein itself being the culprit in potentially worsening pre-existing kidney disease. If you have kidney disease or any other medical condition that could be potentially impacted by your protein intake, speak with your medical team first before making dietary changes.
- Eating more protein will make you gain weight (body fat)
- No. Hypothetically, protein could be converted to fat, but this is so unlikely you’d have better luck winning the lottery. Our body wants to use protein for building and repair. It does not want to use it as fuel or convert it to fat.
- In fact, if you were to only eat protein with little-to-no fat or carbohydrates, you could rapidly lose weight and perish. Please do not do that.
- Too much protein is bad for my bones
- No. In fact, adequate protein intake is vital for bone health.
How much then?
- For sedentary adults, the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) recommends a paltry 0.36 grams per pound of bodyweight or 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. This is currently being revised to 0.55 grams per pound or 1.2 grams per kilogram.
- The values listed above are considered “adequate” not “optimal.”
- Protein needs can dramatically increase based on many conditions, including degree of muscle mass or need to preserve/build muscle mass, activity level, wound healing, and altered absorption to name just a few factors.
- A higher ratio of fat mass relative to muscle mass skews the above calculations as they do not account for body composition so be aware.
Don’t want to do the math and adjust for body composition, exercise, medical needs, etc? Let’s keep nutrition simple and functional before we get complicated. Here are some numbers that are useful, generalized starting points for many people. I have found these numbers are often not met by the vast majority of my clients.
- Women: aim for no less than 60 grams of protein daily unless directed otherwise by a medical professional
- Men: aim for no less than 80 grams of protein daily unless directed otherwise by a medical professional
* Remember: these are just reference points to start you off and often come quite close to average minimum requirements for many people.
As always, speak with a medical professional if you have questions about how your diet may impact you and your individual needs. Nutrition is not “one size fits all.” If you would like a consult with me to determine what is best for you, please contact Cancer Care Northwest at (509) 228-1000.
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