Americans are obsessed with protein. We buy high-protein bars, high-protein cereals, protein-fortified drinks, and eat meat, eggs or dairy at nearly every meal. In fact, we eat more meat per capita (mostly pork, poultry, and beef) than any country in the world, more than 175 pounds per person per year. But why?
As health researchers, we hear a lot of confusion about how much protein people need every day. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), established by the Institute of Medicine, is around 46 grams of protein per day for a woman and around 56 grams per day for a man (0.36 grams protein/per pound of one’s body weight).
The RDA even has a safety buffer built in, so that 98 percent of Americans who get that amount will meet or exceed their daily requirement. In other words, many of us need less.
In actuality, the average American clocks in at around 100 grams of protein per day, or around twice the RDA. Around 80 percent of this protein comes from animal sources. For example, three eggs for breakfast (20 grams), a turkey sub for lunch (20 grams), and a small (5-oz) portion of steak for dinner (50 grams) would provide 90 grams of protein. Factor in the other foods most people eat in a day and you’re at more than 100 grams, just like that.
Now consider the fact that that 100 grams probably represents several pounds worth of corn or soybeans in the form of animal feed, and all the resources that go into growing them (as well as their environmental impact), and you might begin to question our national protein fixation. Industrial-scale meat production practices also have other problems and have been directly connected to: climate change, water and energy shortages, antibiotic overuse, farmland topsoil losses, and dead zones in our waterways from pesticide, fertilizer, and animal waste run-off.
While the human body is equipped to store excess carbohydrates and fats consumed, there is no place for the body to store excess protein. Instead, it is broken down and converted to carbs, fats, and to ammonia that is excreted in the kidney, where it can cause problems over time.
What a lot of people need to know is that you can easily get enough protein from plants, as most vegans do. We also have the choice to choose less meat, and meat from pasture-based, sustainable producers. But it’s also time to think systemically, and address our collective protein obsession by updating our nation’s dietary guidelines. And we’re far from alone in this belief.
In the lead up to this year’s new guidelines, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), an independent scientific body, has recommend shifting to more plant-based foods and less animal protein, citing extensive scientific evidence for benefits both for human health and the health of the environment.
However the DGAC recommendations are only that–recommendations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for the final revisions to the guidelines, and the agency is under pressure from the meat and livestock industry to reject the DGAC recommendations. In fact, some industry lobbyists are pushing to extend the USDA’s process to delay any shifts towards a healthier and more sustainable diet.
We hope that the important evidence-based conclusions of the DGAC will be incorporated into the revised 2015 Guidelines. While the recommended changes to the new dietary guidelines might not change Americans’ protein intake over night, it could go a long way toward creating an important cultural shift—and it could help us begin to curb our protein obsession.
The DGAC recommendations are currently open to public comment until May 8.
Arlin Wasserman also contributed to this commentary.