Protein: Recommendations and Use (Part 1)

I love being able to tell you about other GREAT resources, especially when they come from other awesome dietitians. Melissa Joy Dobbins is a Chicago-based RD, and has started her own podcast. I highly recommend listening to it.

You know how a lot of things can either be a little too fluffy ("The 10 Foods You Should Never Eat") or too heady ("Apolipoprotein A1 Regulates Coenzyme Q10 Absorption, Mitochondrial Function, and Infarct Size in a Mouse Model of Myocardial Infarction")? This podcast is neither of those. She takes interesting subjects and teases out the research, best practices, and psychology of good nutrition. Without oversimplifying, or making your head spin. So check it out!

The first episode that I listened to was about protein, which I thought was a great topic that I'd want to share on my blog. Below is essentially a summary/review of the content. Melissa interviewed Doug Paddon-Jones, a Professor of Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX. His disclosure includes being a researcher with grants from the NIH.

Protein Recommendations

If you look on the shelves of your grocery store, you probably notice one of two things written on the package - "gluten-free" or how much protein is in the food. Protein is definitely the nutrient du jour, and people are OBSESSED with getting enough. Is that warranted? How much is enough? How much is too much?

When it comes to protein recommendations, there are two main ways that we talk about it:

  • 0.8g/kg/day (or 0.36g/lb/day)
  • 10-35% of your total calories

You'll notice that both of these involve math, and that they might give you very different answers. Let's take a woman who weighs 150 pounds and eats about 2000 calories per day as an example. Using the first equation, she needs about 54.5g of protein. If you use the range, she needs to get between 200-700 calories from protein. With 4cal/g, that means 50-175g of protein. That is a HUGE range!! How do we make sense of all of this?

The major difference in the two recommendations is that the calculation refers to what your body needs to maintain itself. Consider this a bare minimum. The second range is to ensure that you're getting a good variety of nutrients, and not crowding out fat or carbohydrates from your diet by focusing too much on protein. The ranges are designed to prevent chronic disease.

Studies like NHANES show that the average American consumes 1.2g/kg/day of protein - or about 1.5 times the low-end needs. Which would indicate that we're doing fine, and don't need to worry about it. In other words, NHANES might tell us to chill the heck out over when it comes to protein.

Protein Use

Here's the rub, though. Most of us eat very little protein at breakfast, while dinner is protein-centric. We have very skewed distribution of our protein intake. The reason that is an issue, is that the body does not store protein. You might be tempted to believe that your muscles are protein stores, but that's not the case. Eating more protein is not the way to build more muscle (oh how we wish!).


This makes protein different from carbs and fat, which are stored. So you could (hypothetically) eat all of your carbohydrates for the day in one meal, and your body would use it as it needs it. Same is true of fat - though a meal of just avocado or just olive oil doesn't exactly make my mouth water. But the body is designed to store and use as needed.

Instead, protein requires a meal-by-meal approach to help in the necessary growth and repair activities. Which might make you question whether a 24-hour protein recommendation is the right way to go. Instead, maybe it's a per meal recommendation.

So how much can the body actually use (vs convert to fat for long-term storage)? General consensus is that your body can only use about 25-35 grams of protein at one time. Of course, this depends on your body - size, health status, energy requirements, etc. So despite all the variables and the fact that it's research (not real life), it's a good place to start.

Tune back in on Monday, for part 2!

Do you have a favorite health-related podcast? What are your go-to resources for quality information?