Are protein recommendations antiquated?


breakfast might be the hardest meal to push protein

A new method is proposed to determine protein requirements

I came across an interesting article about protein requirements that deserves some discussion.  The gist of the article was this: the traditional way of measuring protein needs is out of date.  It likely underestimates requirements.  A new way of assessing requirements is proposed which results in increased recommendations for daily intake.  Finally, the authors note that older people may require even higher protein intakes to combat sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass that comes with age.

So should you rush out and load up on 16-oz steaks and 3/4 lb burgers?  Not quite.

The authors of the study recommend a technique called “indicator amino acid oxidation” (IAAO), instead of the traditional nitrogen balance study, to determine protein requirements.  Using the IAAO method, adults should consume about 1.2 grams protein/kg body weight/day, or roughly 13% of calories.  For people older than 65 years, the numbers are 1.29 grams/kg or 15% of calories.  Compare that to the traditional recommendation of 0.8 grams/kg body weight/day for an adult, or about 10% of energy intake.

But in practical terms, this doesn’t represent a vast increase in protein intake.  Take a woman who weighs 140 lbs, or 63.6 kg.  She would need to consume 51 grams a day according to existing recommendations; the IAAO recommendation would be 76 grams per day.  The extra protein amounts to about 4 oz of cooked meat or fish.  By the way, food intake studies indicate the average protein intake for a woman is 66 grams per day.

The authors make another important point.  It’s not just amount of protein.  It’s when you eat it.  Loading up on giant steaks or racks of ribs or triple cheese burgers at one meal, typically the evening meal, is a bad way to consume protein.  It needs to be spread out throughout the day, in roughly equal amounts at each meal to optimize protein utilization for muscle mass.  Skimping on protein all day and then gorging on giant slabs of meat at dinner is not the best way to achieve that.

Another reason for spreading protein out during the day: appetite control.  Protein can help curb your appetite if you’re trying to control food intake to lose weight.

So our theoretical woman would need to eat about 25 grams of protein at each of 3 meals everyday.  High protein foods, like meats or fish, are typical at lunch and dinner, so 25 grams of protein shouldn’t be a problem.  Breakfast can be tricky though, for lots of reasons.

  • you aren’t hungry
  • you don’t have time to eat much
  • you eat in the car
  • you buy breakfast on the run

But the biggest barrier might be this: you’d have to eat a lot of typical high protein breakfast foods to get 25 grams of protein:

  • 3-4 cups yogurt
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 eggs + 1 oz cheese (an omelet)
  • 4 ounces of cheese
  • 2 bowls of Special K plus one cup of milk on each bowl
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter (>800 calories!)

You get the picture.  But don’t give up!  There are some strategies to help you maximize breakfast protein without resorting to strange meal choices.

  1. As noted above, omelets, even a 2-egg omelet with cheese, packs a protein wallop.  For convenience, wrap it in a tortilla to eat on the go. Add chopped veggies or a glass of OJ for balance.
  2. Add granola and a sprinkling of nuts to your yogurt.
  3. Pick Greek style yogurts, which are higher protein
  4. If you make smoothies, use milk and/or yogurt and add a bit of protein protein powder.
  5. Put peanut butter or hummus on your toast or bagel, and add a yogurt or glass of milk to boost protein.
  6. 2 oz smoked salmon on a bagel spread with Greek Style yogurt instead of cream cheese
  7. Have unconventional breakfasts: a burger, a tuna sandwich, a chicken wrap.
  8. Add a morning snack and include a small amount of a high protein food, such as cheese, nuts or yogurt.

The protein intake recommendations generated by the IAAO method are not the official government recommendations, which remain 0.8 grams protein/kg/day.  And the method isn’t without controversy.  Some researchers dispute it’s usefulness.  Nevertheless, the idea that protein intake should be spread evenly through the day is good advice.

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