Americans are crazy about protein.
You can even buy high protein water.
Do we need all that protein? No.
Do we need meat to get the protein we need? No (unless you have a medical condition).
Do we have to combine “complementary” plant sources to get the protein we need? Nope.
How much do we get?
Worldwide, the average healthy person’s diet is about 4 to 5% protein. To be extra safe, the USDA set the minimum recommended daily requirement at double that amount, 8 – 10% of total calories, enough to generously meet the needs of our largest citizens. Most of us get a lot more than that. The average woman needs about 50 – 70 grams per day, and the average man about 60 – 80. Americans get around 120 grams per day.
There’s nothing wrong with a little extra. But 4 or 5 times more than recommended? Diets with too much protein are associated with increased risks of osteoporosis, kidney disease, cancer and heart disease.
Also, since we get most of our protein from animals, too much is hard on the environment.
How much do we need?
That depends on how old you are, whether you are an athlete, your health, your muscle mass and how active you are. Below are resources if you’re in the mood to dig, or check with your physician, but the basic rule of thumb for an average person:
.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight, or .36 grams per pound
For a 160 pound person: .36 grams x 160 pounds = 57.6 grams
How much protein can we get from plants?
All of it.
It’s true that not all plants have equal amounts of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Some are low in the amino acids the body doesn’t produce on its own, aka “essential” amino acids. In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé’s pioneering cookbook instructed vegetarians to combine, say, rice with beans, complementary proteins, to make sure of an adequate supply of essential amino acids.
We’ve since learned this is a myth (France Lappė corrects the mistake in later editions). The truth is:
- All edible plants contain all amino acids.
- While some plants are low in essential amino acids, a varied diet fills in most of the gaps. Eating whole plants can provide not just the minimum requirements, but more than the recommended requirements.
- Most of us have access to many plants offering a complete set of essential amino acids, including buckwheat, quinoa, soy and potatoes.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ve cut back on protein from animals, and stopped worrying about whether I’m getting enough.
If you’re a normal, healthy, red-blooded American, you probably should, too.
**Two demographic sets who tend to be low in protein intake in the U.S.: teen girls and the elderly.
DGAC Sustainability guidelines not adopted, Yale Environmental Review
Stop Freaking Out, Mother Jones
Drawbacks to High Protein diets, Physicians Committee for Responsible Health
RDA vs. Dietary Guidelines, Micaela Karlsen