Protein is essential to good health. The very origin of the word — from the Greek protos, meaning “first” — reflects protein’s top-shelf status in human nutrition. You need it to put meat on your bones and to make hair, blood, connective tissue, antibodies, enzymes, and more. It’s common for athletes and bodybuilders to wolf down extra protein to bulk up. But the message the rest of us often get is that we’re eating too much protein. The conclusion from a “Protein Summit” held in Washington, D.C., is that Americans may eat too little protein, not too much. The potential benefits of higher protein intake include preserving muscle strength despite aging and maintaining a lean, fat-burning physique. Based on the totality of the research presented at the summit, getting 15% to 25% of total daily calories from protein is a good target, although it could be above or below this range depending on your age, sex, and activity level. Healthful sources of protein — like fish, poultry, nuts, beans, and whole grains — are best when adding protein to the diet.
A new study that linked eating more protein to lower risk of stroke isn’t the last word on the subject. But that doesn’t make dietary protein any less vital, especially in older adults who are at greater risk for malnutrition and illness. How much protein is enough? Current guidelines for adults of any age recommend 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Do older people need more protein than younger ones? That’s still an open question.
Adding more protein to the diet and cutting back on carbohydrates, especially highly processed carbs, is an eating strategy adopted by a growing number of people. A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that 43% of women surveyed are using the practice of eating more protein to prevent weight gain, and this strategy was associated with weight loss. It isn’t necessary to eliminate all carbohydrates and focus only on protein. Such an eating strategy may have a short-term payoff for weight loss, but it may also come with some long-term risks. Tips for getting a healthful mix of nutrients include adding the healthful trio of fat, fiber, and protein to each meal; avoiding highly processed foods; and choosing the most healthful sources of protein, such as fish, poultry, eggs, beans, legumes, nuts, tofu, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products.