By Annell St. Charles, PhD, R.D., L.D.N.
Protein supplements and powders have become all the rage over the last few years, particularly for people trying to build muscle. However, most Americans already get all the protein they need from their diet, and some may even be getting too much.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the key component of muscles and play many important roles in body maintenance. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes (dry beans or peas such as lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans) are good sources of protein, and most Americans consume 12 to 18 percent of their calories as protein. Dr. Van S. Hubbard, director of the NIH Division of Nutrition Research Coordination, says that most Americans do not need to worry about getting enough protein. “Unless they have some other medical problem, most people are meeting or exceeding their protein requirements,” he says. “Since protein is such a common component of most foods that you eat, if you’re eating a relatively varied diet, you’re getting enough protein.” However, some populations, like vegetarians and older people, need to be aware of the protein in their diets. Vegetarians can get the protein they need from rice, beans, eggs, peanut butter, dairy products, and bread. Vegans need to be particularly careful, as they do not consume either eggs or dairy products.
A recent National Institutes of Health study of men and women age 70 years and older found that those who ate the least protein lost significantly more muscle than those who ate the most protein. Older adults who lose muscle in their legs and hips are more likely to fall and have injuries like broken hips. They may also have trouble doing basic things like getting up from a chair, walking upstairs, or taking a stroll due to loss of muscle strength. For elderly people who cannot eat enough protein or who have diseases that leave them malnourished, a protein supplement can be one way to help get enough protein.
Nevertheless, the majority of Americans derive little benefit from increasing their protein intake. Long-term studies found that high-protein diets that result in weight loss usually work as a result of the amount of calories rather than the amount of protein being consumed.
Recent weight loss, muscle fatigue, or a drop in muscle strength may be signs of protein deficiency, but these symptoms could also be due to other health conditions.