Getting too much protein? Yes and No.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

December 2007

Ah, the confusion! We eat too much protein. We eat too little protein. We eat the wrong kind of protein.

The younger half of our population usually gets plenty of protein, thanks to fast food meals that are top-heavy with cheeseburgers and milkshakes. The senior half is more likely to eat less protein than they should for a variety of reasons that include illness, solitary living and lower income.

We need protein for building material, not fuel, unless we starve ourselves. The absolute minimum for survival for a 150-pound person is about 30 grams per day (roughly 4 ounces of red meat, 4 ½ ounces of chicken, 6 ounces of fish or 5 eggs). The optimum is probably about twice that much but aiming for protein precision is pointless. Your requirements increase with greater muscle mass and physical activity. A growing teen athlete needs more than double the amount of protein as a middle-aged sofa-sitter does who weighs the same.

Stone-Agers took in a lot more protein than we do but they needed it. They were bigger and more muscular than all but the most athletic among us. Before they invented spears and smart hunting methods they ate insects and other small critters. Those poor early humans had no pastry, pasta or potatoes! Their fruits and vegetables weren't big and starchy like ours and they were better sources of protein.

Meat, dairy products, eggs and some vegetables provide complete protein because they have all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that our body requires. Many vegetables, including grains and certain legumes, yield incomplete protein because they lack at least one of these essential amino acids. A vegetarian diet has adequate protein as long as there is a variety of foods that complement each other's amino acid content.

Most of us can't balance a checkbook, let alone a menu, so here's how you can be sure of getting enough protein for your particular needs. Think in terms of palm-sized portions. Big people have bigger palms and will need bigger portions of protein. Aim for at least one palm's worth of lean meat, chicken or fish per day. Supplement that with a couple of glasses of low-fat milk or soy beverage. Five servings of vegetables, including beans, will add fiber as well as protein. Throw in a little cheese, a handful of nuts, an egg or two a few days a week. If you exercise consistently and strenuously you'll need more of everything, of course. Between meal snacks are fine, but avoid the sweets and baked goods. A small protein shake or half of a protein bar will get you to the next meal without cravings and without a sugar let-down.

Don't worry about the potential loss of calcium and the threat of osteoporosis that some sources claim about protein. That's only a problem when we consume large amounts of a single type of protein, especially from animal sources. Those five servings of vegetables will keep your body chemistry in the right balance.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.