Excellent question, and one that I get at least a handful of times every week in my practice.
The answer is there is no answer (this, by the way, is the title of a new book I’m working on, but I digress.) More specifically, there is no one answer for everyone. But there are reasonable guidelines that most people can follow and have a very good idea of what works.
The CDC recommends a daily allowance (RDA) of protein based on age and gender. The following table is pulled directly from the CDC’s website.
|Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein
|Grams of protein needed each day
|Children ages 1 – 3
|Children ages 4 – 8
|Children ages 9 – 13
|Girls ages 14 – 18
|Boys ages 14 – 18
|Women ages 19 – 70+
|Men ages 19 – 70+
The CDC also says that 10-35% of daily calories should come from protein.
Here’s the math you should understand to get a grip on what exactly this means. Each gram of protein has 4 calories so if someone eats 1500 calories in a day 10% of that is 150 calories of protein, which is 37.5 grams. On the other end of things 35% of that is 525 calories of protein, which is 131 grams. If someone eats 2000 calories a day those numbers increase to 50 grams and 175 grams. You’ll notice that the high end of this is significantly more than the grams listed in the chart above for all age groups, and would easily be considered a high protein diet. This strikes me as odd, but far be it from me to take on the CDC.
When I queried a naturopathic practitioner group I’m in on Facebook, the lion’s share of my colleagues said they specifically follow the chart above. This surprised me greatly as most of the practitioners I know lean toward higher percentages of protein in the diet.
Other sources vary in the how they recommend protein.
- Zone diet: 30%
- Atkins diet: 25-30%
- Ornish diet: not specified but it is recommended that 80% of calories come from carbs which means closer to 10% protein at most.
- Paleo diet: not specified but protein should be part of every meal and every snack.
Remember though, there is a catch with all of those numbers. Everyone has different needs. Some people have health issues that require more or less protein (for example diabetes, higher protein, kidney disease, less.) Some people feel much better on a higher protein diet. Some people have ethical issues with eating animal protein but need to avoid soy and gluten (the most concentrated sources of vegan protein and those used in most vegan protein substitute products.) Some people want to build muscle and lose fat. Some people are endurance runners.* And some people have a narrow range of what works for them and others have a great deal of flexibility.
So where does that leave you?
If you don’t have any special circumstance, I would typically recommend falling in around the 30% range. If you’re not a numbers person, this will usually mean protein with each meal around the size and thickness of the palm of your hand and some protein with your snacks. The benefit of this is that your blood sugar will be more stable, you’ll have less sugar in your system (carbohydrates all break down to sugar, even the good ones) and your energy is likely to be better and more even. If you are a numbers person I recommend tracking your food in MyFitnessPal.com. I have posted a tutorial on how to use it with ease here on YouTube.
But, you must keep in mind the quality of the protein you’re eating as well.
Commercially raised cows will have antibiotics and hormones fed to them. She will likely have been very stressed during her life and slaughter. Even a free ranging cow, if she spends the last few weeks of her life at a feed lot will have a poor fatty acid profile. So if you are looking for beef, it should be grass-fed and grass-finished. Chicken should not only be given access to the outdoors (commercial chicken farming is pretty gnarly, won’t even get into that) but ideally would live outdoors and have access to natural grasses, seeds etc. Salmon wild, not farmed. Protein powder? Avoid soy, if you eat dairy use organic whey, no bodybuilding formulas with alcohol sugars and other additives. You get the gist.
The take home? Base your choices on your body, your needs, your health. Eat high quality proteins. Avoid falling into the trap of a book or a fad. If/when you eat meat, be conscious of where it came from and how the animals were treated. Enjoy your food.
Yours in Health,
* I have a new friend who is an ultra-marathon runner. We had dinner a few weeks back, about a week before a 100-mile, high altitude race (through the forest). After dinner he scarfed down at least 4 gluten-free cupcakes and pastries and mentioned he was carb-loading. I emailed him and asked “And by the way can you really start carb loading 6 days before your run? Or do you just love cupcakes?” His response? “Strictly speaking, 6 days is too early to carbo load for a race. 48 hours is a more realistic carbo-loading window, frankly. But who am I to turn down a tasty cupcake?” Duly noted.