How Much Protein Do I Need?

  Dr. Marchon Schuler, 3/8/20

Hello Health Warriors. We had several questions about protein in our Workshop last week. Hopefully this post will answer all of those questions and more.

 

Here is a YouTube video excerpt from Dr. Marchon’s Aggressive Health Solutions Workshop about protein that has a lot of information. And the article under this YouTube video has additional information and references.

Protein Summary

We can get our protein needs met from animal-based foods and/or from plant-based foods. Proteins are made up of Amino Acids. There are 9 Essential Amino Acids that we must get from our food. A “Complete Protein” will contain all 9 Essential Amino Acids. Red Meat, fish, poultry and eggs are complete proteins. If your personal protocol allows for animal products, this makes it much easier to get all your essential amino acids in reasonable ratios, but plant-based sources should still provide the bulk of your protein requirements.

However, if your personal protocol does not allow animal products, you will need to be much more conscientious in selecting a variety of high-protein plant sources. In truth, we all should be focusing on eating a variety of plant-based high-protein foods. Studies suggest plant proteins are superior for our health. So why do I recommend small amounts of animal products? In my practice, I almost never see a vegetarian or a vegan who is not protein deficient.

Therefore, based on clinical experience and supported by recent scientific studies, I recommend about 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So, for example, a 200-pound person should eat 140 grams of protein per day. Eating protein will help you feel full longer and will also rev-up your metabolism, so it is helpful when trying to lose weight.

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend any protein powders. Independent lab tests indicate it is very difficult to find a plant-based protein powder that is not contaminated with harmful elements, with an accurate ingredients label, and where those ingredients are all healthy for us. It’s best to get your protein from the foods you eat. We see the exact same issue with supplements and nutraceuticals. That is why I spent over 100 hours of research in picking my current nutraceutical vendors, and why they are so expensive. I think it is sometimes necessary to take nutraceuticals. I do not think it is necessary to take protein powders.

Do not get too hung up on counting grams of protein. If you are following the program and eating 85-90% veggies, fruits, nuts, legumes, beans, and seeds, and 10-15% animal products you are getting enough protein. If your personal protocol prohibits animal products, be sure to eat a variety of different high-protein foods from different food categories – veggies, nuts, legumes, seeds, and beans (if they don’t give you gas). When you suspect a food is not agreeing with your body, do the Pulse Test on that food. Here is a list of some foods that give a lot of protein per calorie. This is useful to those of you who are trying to lose weight. But again, it’s not just protein we care about. So, for example, egg whites are the highest protein-per-calorie food I know, but they are very deficient in vitamins, fats, and minerals. Eating large amounts of egg whites would not be conducive to health.

We want a variety of foods for many reasons and getting a balance of amino acids is one of those reasons. In general, plant foods do not have all of the essential amino acids, so you need to combine them. Eat grains (quinoa, rice, or oats) to get the necessary amount of some essential amino acids; beans, legumes, and veggies to get others; nuts and seeds to get yet others. These different food groups don’t need to be combined in the same meal. Eating them in the same day will suffice.

 

Are you 65 years old or older? Most people over 65 are losing muscle at an increasingly alarming rate. Getting enough protein can slow the muscle loss that is so common in the elderly, but don’t overdo the animal products because an overall acidic body is another reason for muscle loss. Stick with the 85-90% plant-based, 10-15% animal-based diet.

The bottom line is that it is very hard to give general recommendations about protein levels and whether individuals should be eating more, or less animal products vs a plant-based diet. Science tells us that a plant-based diet is healthier if done correctly. Clinical experience tells me the theory isn’t working for the vast majority of people I see.

If you’re one of those who wants to see the scientific data, read the references in the Details section below.

Details

Protein regulates nearly every biochemical reaction in the body. It is one of the primary building blocks of all life. It’s the most abundant organic molecule in your body and every cell has hundreds to thousands of individual proteins. Proteins are made up of chains of Amino Acids. Amino Acids account for 95% of your muscle mass, 100% of hormones, neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, and 75% of your overall dry weight[1]. There are 22 different Amino Acids. Your body can synthesize 13 of these, so they are called non-essential Amino Acids. But there are 9 Amino Acids that your body cannot synthesize. We call these 9 the Essential Amino Acids because it is essential that we get them from our diet.

Essential Amino Acids

Here is a list of the Essential Amino Acids along with RDA recommendations for an adult.

 

 

Essential Amino AcidRDA mg per pound bodyweight per day
Histidine6.35
Isoleucine8.62
Leucine19.05
Lysine17.24
Methionine8.62
Phenylalanine14.97
Threonine9.07
Tryptophan2.27
Valine10.89

 

Note that the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is about half of what I recommend for protein consumption. Why? The RDA for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your minimum nutritional requirements. In a sense, it’s the minimum amount you need to keep from getting sick — not the optimum amount to keep your body functioning at peak performance. (This optimum vs minimum is analogous to the Functional Blood ranges vs. Lab Ranges we discussed at length in the Aggressive Health Solutions Workshop.) We want optimum levels of protein, not minimum levels. The RDA also assumes you live a sedentary lifestyle, but we Health Warriors are not sedentary, so we need even more protein.

The Protein Summit reports in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition argue that .8 grams/kg is inadequate, and that Americans eat too little protein, not too much as was previously thought. This is surprising given the amount of meat the average American eats. This study suggests higher daily protein will preserve muscle strength while aging, and will maintain a lean, fat-burning physique[2]. The author of the summit report thinks the RDA is about half of an optimal level of protein, which is about 20-25% of your total calories coming from protein.

The potential benefits of higher daily protein intake include preserving muscle strength despite aging and maintaining a lean, fat-burning physique. Some studies described in the summit reports suggest that protein is more effective if you space it out over the day’s meals and snacks, rather than loading up at dinner like many Americans do.

To get all essential amino acids requires food combining if you are not eating animal products because most plant sources are limited or devoid of at least one essential amino acid. For example, beans and vegetables are very low in an amino acid known as methionine but they have significant levels of Lysine. Whereas nuts and seeds are very limited in lysine but have significant levels of Methionine[3]. By eating high-protein foods from several categories like nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and vegetables, you will probably be getting the ratios of amino acids that your body needs.

Animal vs Plant Protein, is there a difference? There is a link between cancer cell growth and levels of IGF-1. Animal protein increases levels of IGF-11, whereas plant protein decreases levels of IGF-1. That is why many alternative medicine plants discourage the consumption of animal protein. and consumption of animal protein[4].

Protein in Common Foods

Here is a table that lists common foods and the amount of protein in each per calorie. Those trying to lose weight may want to decrease calories while keeping protein high by eating more protein-rich foods.

Foodgrams ProteinCaloriesg/Cal
1 Egg white4160.25
1 Chicken Breast532840.19
1 ounce Salmon5.6400.14
1 cups Spinach5.2400.13
1 Chicken Thigh13.51090.12
1 cups Asparagus3.130.80.10
1 Large Egg6.28720.09
1/2 cup Green Lentils121400.09
1.5 cups Peas161920.08
1 cup Red Lentils121500.08
1 medium Artichoke13.92000.07
1 cup Split Peas162310.07
1 cup Broccoli3.7550.07
6 Brussel Sprouts3450.07
1 cup Black Beans152270.07
1 cup Kidney Beans13.42100.06
1 cup Pinto Beans142340.06
1 cup Green Beans2340.06
3 TBSP Hemp Seeds9.51660.06
1/2 cup Pumpkin Seeds143200.04
1 almond0.36.90.04
1/2 cup Quinoa uncooked123130.04
1/2 cup Oats uncooked41200.03

 

Essential Amino Acids in Specific Plant-based Foods

 

 

Essential Amino AcidBEANSNUTSGrainsVeggiesLentilsSeedsFoods High in this Amino Acid
HistidineGoodGoodLowOkayGoodGoodNavy beans, potatoes, hemp seeds, chia seeds, cauliflower
IsoleucineGoodOkayOkayGoodGoodGoodSpinach, cabbage, beans, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
LeucineOkayLowOkayGoodOkayGoodFresh fruits, leafy greens, hemp seeds, chia seeds, grains, beans
LysineGoodLowLowLowGoodGoodHemp seeds, chia seeds, lentils, beans,
MethionineLowLowOkayLowLowGoodBrazil nuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, quinoa, oats
PhenylalanineOkayGoodOkayGoodGoodGoodLeafy greens, olives, seeds
ThreonineOkayOkayOkayGoodGoodLowLeafy greens, sweet potatoes, asparagus, carrots, onions, peas, beats, lentils
TryptophanOkayGoodOkayGoodGoodLowLeafy greens, carrots, celery, onions, beans, lentils
ValineOkayGoodOkayGoodOkayGoodBroccoli, spinach, legumes, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, beans

Note: We didn’t include fruit in this table. It’s not a great source of essential amino acids, but it is packed with loads of other things essential to you health. So be sure to eat this important food group every day.

Protein Supplements

Unfortunately, we are unable to find a plant-based protein powder that we can recommend. The Clean Label Project (cleanlabelproject.org) had 134 popular protein powders tested by an independent lab and the results were abysmal[5]. There was only one plant-based protein powder that didn’t have significant levels of Lead, Cadmium, BPA, or Arsenic. But that one had unacceptable ingredients like sugar and natural flavors. The only way to assure adequate levels of protein is to eat high-protein foods. To be fair, there are some questionable scientific shortcuts taken in the Clean Label Project that may render the results to be suspect[6]. As with just about every scientific study ever done, we need to try and identify conflict of interests.

Therefore, I also looked at another lab’s results – Labdoor.com has also done extensive testing on protein supplements. The ranked 80 different protein supplements. There was not a single plant-based protein that received an A, B, or C grade that I would feed to my family. (Actually, there was one protein that received a C grade, but when I searched to buy it, both the label and the ingredients had changed since its testing in 2018.) To make it worse, ingredients like preservatives, sugar, natural colors did not negatively affect Labdoor’s grade, so most of these protein supplements would be off our list before we even consider contaminants and inaccurate ingredient labels.

Principles of Health

If these were the only issues I had with protein supplements, I might still recommend the “least harmful” brands to people who were having trouble meeting their protein requirements. But I also have three philosophical issues with protein powders.

  1. We should always try to avoid highly processed foods. Protein powders are highly processed. For example, hemp seeds are lightly processed and have hemp protein in them. The issue is they also have considerable fats. Those fats are good for us, but many people are trying to lose weight and it would be nice if they had a lower-calorie protein option. Hemp protein contains the protein separated from the fiber and the fats. This is done via a manufacturing process that I consider to be highly processed. Stevia is another example. I have no issue with stevia leaves, but the chemical process required to turn those leaves into the packaged powder that most people consume is not conducive to health in my opinion.
  2. Always prefer whole foods to partial food derivatives due to the synergistic nature of foods and phytonutrients. There are many tens of thousands of phytonutrients in a carrot that you don’t get with beta-carotene supplements.
  3. Always eat a variety of foods to maximize amino acids, vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, and micronutrients. If a significant amount of your diet is from a few foods, it violates this philosophy and does not promote overall health.

Sedentary people over 65 lose about 1.2 percent of their muscle mass every year[7] but if you’re reading this you are a Health Warrior and “sedentary” does not apply to you. But you can tell your friends that muscle loss in seniors can be significantly slowed by eating “adequate” amounts of protein and exercising. For younger people, the risk of cancer increases as we eat more animal products, but around age 65 the curves cross and higher animal protein levels result in a reduction of cancer risk. In other words, cancer risk goes up for meat eaters until age 65 vs their vegetarian counterparts, but then starts going down with more meat consumption[8]. Unfortunately, death from diabetes increases with increased animal product consumption7. It’s always a tradeoff.

However, keeping muscle on has another complication – those who overindulge in animal products tend to lose more muscle due to acidosis.[9] which favors plant-based protein. By now you probably see how confusing this can be. To complicate the issue, there are numerous studies that show conflicting information for almost everything I’ve said so far. Many of those have clear conflicts of interest between the science and the funding sources, but even that is getting harder to spot. So, we try some things, test the body again, adjust, test again, adjust, etc. I hate to say this but it’s almost more an art than a science.

[1] “The Essentials – Part One”, R Oliveira, UC Davis Integrative Medicine, Feb 4, 2016

[2] “Introduction to Protein Summit 2.0: continued exploration of the impact of high-quality protein on optimal health”, N. Rodriguez, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 101, Issue 6, June 2015

[3] “Protein Complementation”, ASN staff, American Society of Nutrition,

[4] “The China Study”, T Campbell, Cornell University, ISBN-13: 978-1942952831, BenBella Books, Dec 12, 2017

[5] www.cleanlabelproject.org/protein-powder/

[6] “The Clean Label Project Is Using Bad Science To Scare Us About Our children’s Food”, K Senapathy, Forbes Online, Oct 31, 2017

[7] “Aging of skeletal muscle: a 12-year longitudinal study”, W Frontera, et.al., Journal of Applied Physiology 88:2000

[8] “Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Caner, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but  Not Older Population”, M Levine, Cell Metabolism 19, 407-417, March 4, 2014

[9] “Alkaline diets favor lean tissue mass in older adults”, B Dawson-Hughes, et.al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2008;87:662-5