Nutrition & Health   > How much protein do we really need, anyway?


Bob LeRoy, RD -- North American Vegetarian Society -- (518) 568-7970


Few food nutrients have been persistent "household words" in the 20th century, but protein is certainly one. Schools and government agencies which are usually inept at making nutrition education messages "stick" in people's minds, have been fabulously successful in instilling lifelong fears of not getting enough protein… but at the same time the researchers the world over have become increasingly clear, year by year, that human protein needs are vastly less than had previously been claimed.


In fact, if there were as much international consensus about political and economical matters as there is about protein requirements, then world peace would be at hand. Policy-makers at the United Nations and at national nutrition boards throughout the globe have for years agreed that people need to derive about 8 percent of their food calories from protein in normal life. This is the simple, reliable conclusion that never seems to "trickle down" to the U.S. general public, which rather is pushed to pile up arbitrary numbers of "grams" of protein, and is warned that animal-derived foods are supposedly crucial to protein nutrition. Results? People cannot comprehend the unwieldy "protein-gram" concept, and end up consuming great protein excesses. The U.S. population has in recent generations taken in 12 to 14 percent of its calories from protein, an inflated share due to sizable meat, fish, poultry, dairy and egg use. Because animal-product industries comprise the largest part of the food economy, and because maximizing protein intake at all costs has long been one of their key marketing messages, it is unlikely that Americans will soon hear news about actually needing only 8 percent of calories from protein.


It is now universally acknowledged that protein deficiency disease is basically nonexistent in the world except where calories are deficient (where people simply don't have enough food). For the most part, the exercise physiology profession now accepts that complex carbohydrates are the body's prime and ideal fuel for athletics, and that training regimens do not call for a greater share of protein in the diet (as calories get added, protein just increases proportionately). The medical profession now even accepts that therapeutic diets for the various types of diabetes should draw most calories from complex carbohydrates, and the previously recommended ultra-high-protein diets have been abandoned. As soon as these secrets leak out, we will leave the era of "protein paranoia."


Protein-calorie-percents for fish range from 30 to 78 percent; those for chicken, eggs, beef, lamb and pork average 43 percent, 33 percent, 29 percent, 21 percent and 11 percent respectively; those for skim and whole cow's milk average 43 and 23 percent. These foods obviously promote a protein glut in the diet, helping increase risk of osteoporosis and other degenerative diseases. Since all their remaining calories are from animal fat, their protein even carries with it other baggage highly undesirable for human health.


It is noteworthy that human milk contains only about 7.5 percent of its calories from protein, about one-third the content of cow's milk and close to the overall recommended 8 percent. As the chart below suggests, you can effortlessly take in at least 8 percent of your diet's calories from protein without using any animal product at all; any random, varied assortment of whole vegan foods will easily provide this. In fact, people who emphasize specialized foods such as soy products at the expense of greater diversity, may find they too consume large excesses of protein though avoiding animal foods.




Compiled from data published in Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Handbook of Amino Acid Content of Food and Biological Data on Protein.


61.2 Tofu 11.1 Cashews
39.4 Soyabeans, whole 11.0 Pistachio nuts
36.0 Cauliflower 10.9 Sesame seeds
33.7 Peas, fresh 9.6 Almonds
28.4 Broccoli 7.9 Brazil nuts
25.6 Spinach 7.5 Strawberries
24.4 Lettuce 7.3 Corn
24.3 Mung beans 6.1 Oranges
20.0 Lima beans 5.7 Peaches
19.5 Chickpeas 5.2 Apricots
17.7 Green cabbage 4.3 Bananas
16.3 Peanuts 4.2 Papayas
14.2 Okra 3.9 Coconuts
13.4 Tomatoes 3.9 Avocadoes
13.1 Wheat, whole grains 3.5 Grapes
13.0 Cucumbers 3.4 Mangoes
12.7 Eggplants 3.1 Dates
11.8 Barley, whole 2.3 Apples