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The Perception Problem with Protein

Updated June 14, 2019

Jeff Novick, MS, RDN



Protein is one of the most misunderstood nutrients in our diets today. While it receives an incredible amount of attention, there is little justification for this level of attention and concern. Yet protein, specifically animal protein (meat, chicken and/or fish), remains the main center of the plate at home and in restaurants.

People seem so concerned about making sure they’re getting enough protein that you would think protein deficiency is a common problem. However, true protein deficiency, in the absence of inadequate calories or a junk-food diet which has more serious problems than a lack of protein, is virtually non-existent — even in athletes and those who are active and exercise regularly. In fact, in over 25 years of work in both clinical and public health, I have never seen one case of true protein deficiency.

When people express their concerns over getting in enough protein, I always ask them two questions:

  1. How much protein do you actually need?
  2. How much protein are you actually getting?

Rarely has anyone been able to answer either, let alone both, of these questions. Doesn’t that seem strange? Many people believe they are not getting in enough protein, but no one knows how much they need or how much they are getting. After all, without knowing this information, how can anyone know a diet isn’t providing “enough”?

A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition highlighted some of the discrepancies between our perceived protein needs and our actual protein needs (1). If anyone should know their protein needs, it should be athletes, especially collegiate strength-trained athletes. So, let’s see how they did.

In this study, forty-two strength-trained collegiate male athletes were surveyed to find out their perception about their protein needs in specific quantitative terms. Their responses were compared to the RDI of protein, which is 0.8 g/kg/day. The results showed that 67% of the athletes surveyed did not know the protein recommendations for athletes and were unable to express them in any quantitative way. The remaining 33% of the athletes (who said they did know the amount recommended) indicated that the average recommended protein intake for athletes was 21.5 g/kg/d.

This is 26x the RDI!

One subject reported the mean recommended protein intake as 200 g/kg/d, which is 250x the RDI! When this subject was excluded from the results, the average recommended protein intake reported was still 8.7 g/kg/.

This is almost 11x the RDI!

Clearly, we have some perception problems with regard to protein. Even these strength-trained athletes were unaware of what the current recommendations are for protein intake and perceived their own protein needs to be much greater than the current recommendations.

Yet, nature has made sure we are protected against a protein deficiency, as all whole, natural foods are abundant in protein. Whole grains, starchy vegetables, vegetables, and legumes are all excellent sources of high-quality protein. Legumes may be one of the best sources of protein as they are not only rich in fiber and nutrients and are very filling, they are also very low in saturated fat and have no cholesterol. Based on most national health recommendations, which encourage us to eat a more plant-based diet and cut back on cholesterol and saturated fat, they sound like the perfect fit.

Let’s put protein in its proper perspective. It is very easy to get in enough protein and virtually impossible not to if you follow these three simple guidelines:

  1. Make sure you consume enough calories to maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Eat a variety of minimally processed whole, natural foods, including plenty of vegetables, starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas and lentils.
  3. Greatly limit or eliminate junk foods.

If you do, you will easily surpass the amount of protein you need, even if you are an athlete — even if you include no animal protein.

However, if you still want to focus on protein, focus on legumes and getting in 1-3 servings per day (a serving is 1/2 cup of cooked beans). Simply put, getting in enough protein is not a concern or a health issue for most of us.

So, let’s focus our attention on where it is really needed and not on issues that are not a concern or a health issue. Let’s focus on the real health issue of increasing our consumption of fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, whole grains and legumes. In doing so, not only will we get in enough protein, but we will also get in enough fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. This way, we can help reduce both our personal risks and the national epidemics of obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many cancers.

In Health,

1) Fox EA, McDaniel JL, Breitbach AP, Weiss EP. Perceived protein needs and measured protein intake in collegiate male athletes: an observational study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011;8:9. Published 2011 Jun 21. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-8-9