Protein guidance can be confusing

161863082How much protein should I eat every day?

Determining how much protein an adult should consume each day might seem confusing. According to the Institute of Medicine, which sets nutrition recommendations, a healthy adult should consume anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of total calories in protein per day. That’s a big range. The average American diet amounts to about 15 percent protein, or about 75 grams a day for those on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet.

Additionally, the Institute of Medicine advises that adults should eat a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or 0.37 grams per pound) of ideal body weight. For a person whose ideal weight is 160 pounds, for example, that would be a minimum of about 60 grams of protein.

Paying attention to both pieces of guidance is important — particularly if you’re severely restricting calories for weight loss. If you’re eating, say, 1,200 calories a day, and you’re keeping your protein to the minimum of 10 percent of total calories, you’d only be consuming 30 grams of protein a day (each gram of protein has 4 calories). That’s not nearly enough for most adults. You’ll want to eat a higher percentage of protein and trim back one or both of the other macronutrients, carbohydrates and fat.

Note that when you make shifts in one macronutrient, it affects the percentages you’re consuming in the whole diet. Total fat should be limited to 30 percent of total calories, with most coming from healthier unsaturated types. For carbohydrates, the recommended range is 45 to 65 percent of total calories, with half coming from healthier whole grains. A minimum intake of 130 grams of carbohydrates per day is necessary for normal brain function.

For protein, the best choices include meats with relatively little fat, including lean beef, pork and poultry; fish, including salmon, trout and other choices high in omega-3 fatty acids; and beans, peas, soy products and unsalted nuts. For more detail, see the advice for protein in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans at

If you’re trying to lose weight, you might have noticed that many mainstream diet plans recommend a higher proportion of dietary protein. And it’s true that protein helps with satiety, that feeling of fullness after eating. So, if you’re stuck in your attempt at losing weight, you might consider bumping up your lean protein intake while reducing carbohydrates, as long as you stay in the overall guidelines. That said, a 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine comparing different regimens showed restricting calories overall was the key to weight loss, not where the calories come from.


Teen athletes need more carbohydrates

My son started playing football this year. He says he “hits a wall” during practice and needs more protein. How much protein does he need during the football season?

It’s likely your son needs to pay more attention to carbohydrates than protein.

Most people need just 6 or 7 ounces of protein a day from a variety of sources, including lean meat, poultry, seafood, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds. Athletes may need a little more to build and repair muscle tissue, but not much.

When athletes “hit a wall,” what’s happening is that their body has run out of carbohydrates to use for energy. The body first uses blood glucose, but there’s only a certain amount available for immediate energy needs. Then it turns to its supplies of glycogen, the form of carbohydrate stored in muscle and the liver. With less-intense physical activity, the body uses both glycogen and fat. With higher-intensity activities, including football, the body primarily uses glycogen stored in muscle.

Your son may need to eat more carbohydrates throughout the day to build up glycogen supplies. When adding carbohydrates to your son’s diet, remember that half of all grains consumed should be whole grains. Whole grains include oatmeal, whole-grain bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and popcorn. Potatoes, corn, lima beans and other high-starch vegetables are also good sources of carbohydrates.

In addition, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating a carbohydrate-rich snack or meal three to four hours before exercise, along with a small amount of protein to help build and repair muscle tissue. The food should be low in fat and fiber to make sure it digests easily and quickly.

Then, 30 to 60 minutes before the activity, eating a piece of fruit, drinking a sports drink or even enjoying a few jelly beans, low-fat candy or orange juice diluted with half water will top off the body’s blood glucose and glycogen stores. Energy drinks with large amounts of caffeine or other stimulants aren’t recommended for teenagers because of the health risks they pose.

Your son also needs to make sure he stays hydrated. Water carries oxygen and glucose to muscles, helping produce energy. He should drink:

  • Two cups of water or a sports drink two to three hours before an activity.
  • One to 1.5 cups about 15 minutes beforehand.
  • A half-cup to 1.5 cups every 15 minutes during the activity, without overdoing it.