The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans are due out this fall, and one nutrient I’m hoping will get a lot more attention is protein.
The 2005 DGAs (they’re updated every five years, by law) all but ignore protein, saying essentially that Americans get enough. That’s true; research shows most of us generally follow the Food Guide Pyramid’s recommendations of seven to nine servings a day. But protein is rarely eaten in isolation; it comes attached to other nutrients—some more healthy, some less—and therefore the source of our dietary protein affects the health of our overall diet.
Yet the way I read the DGAs, all protein sources are more or less created equal. There is no distinction among hyped-up protein bars (often these are a waste of money); beans (a good source of fiber); or a nice cut of sustainably fished Alaskan salmon from the fishmonger (a good source of health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids). Protein comes in vastly different packages, and it’s the nutrients that it comes bundled with that may be more important than the type of protein itself: the fiber, the fats, the phytonutrients.
In the past, those who favored vegetable proteins over meat were cautioned that these were “incomplete” proteins (they don’t contain all the needed amino acid building blocks that the body requires to build new protein chains), and a lot of care and fuss were made about combining proteins to avoid some vaguely implied but terrible deficiency. The truth is that the rules for combining are pretty loose and obvious: As long as you’re eating a variety of protein-filled foods throughout the day, your body will get all the amino acids it needs to run at full capacity. Among other things, proteins help fight infections, keep fluids balanced, repair tissues, and grow healthy hair and skin. The goal for vegetarians, carnivores, and those who are relatively active (not the triathletes or professional athletes) is the same: 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight, or about 68 grams for a 150-pound adult.
The American obsession with meat—it’s hard not to use that word when you look at mega-burgers, foot-longs, and frisbee-sized steaks—even seemed to push fish to the side of the last Dietary Guidelines. The “foods to encourage” category did not mention fish, even though researchers were busy documenting the health benefits in populations that consume lots of seafood. Fatty fish are the only source for the best omega-3 fats, the nutrients that appear beneficial to both the cardiovascular system and the brain.
We need to reset our default protein sources, away from beef and pork and chicken, and toward sustainable fish, shellfish, dairy products, beans, soy, nuts, and seeds. A serving of beans offers phytonutrients and plenty of fiber. Nonfat Greek yogurt supplies calcium and phosphorous. Nuts provide fiber and good-for-you fats.
This is not an argument against meat: You can still enjoy a nice, modest piece of juicy flank steak, not only for its meaty goodness but also because it contains vitamins and minerals often absent from plants.
“Nice, modest piece” is the operative phrase, not “nice, big piece.” The 800-pound gorilla in the American diet is portion size. Supersizing any protein is a ticket for calorie overload, and supersizing proteins that come attached to saturated fats—like flank steak—just adds to the health risks. The simple fix: Reset your portions, too. Allow meat-based protein to comprise one-fourth of your plate and whole grains and produce to make up the remainder.
The protein issue puts a spotlight on the central problem of dietary recommendations today. Nutrition science gets more complicated with each discovery of a role for this or that nutrient. Yet recommendations should get simpler. Here’s all you need to know about protein: Mix it up; include eggs, seafood, legumes, or soy in addition to a little meat or chicken. Favor plants when you can, covering your plate with colorful produce and leaving less space for meats. And watch your portion sizes, so you can enjoy all foods.