Powerful protein - vital, but how much do we need?
by Ian Craig
in Blogs

Protein is a word derived from the Greek language, meaning ‘first importance’. Yet, in this era of carb phobia and/or fat phobia, the role of protein in our diet tends to be neglected, meaning that based on dietary ‘fadishness’, some individuals under-eat it (predominantly vegans and vegetarians), while others totally over-eat it (predominantly bodybuilders, ‘banters’ and actually your stereotypical South Africa meat eater)!

Obtaining sufficient dietary quantities of protein is essential to health. For example, did you know that protein is required to make: several hormones in our bodies; cell membranes; muscle and all connective tissue; a large chunk of our immune system; our gut lining; neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), detoxification chemicals and energy? Essential means that we will eventually die without it. Carbohydrates don’t actually carry that status. However, considering that a large number of carbs are wrapped up within fruit and vegetables and their wide array of nutrient contributions, we would be extremely unwise to try and exclude them.

Let’s then focus our discussion on how much protein we actually need in our diet. Dietary reference values (DRVs) suggests that a woman requires 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day (g/kg/day), whereas a man requires 0.94g/kg/day. These government recommendations are quite old, though, so many modern thinkers disagree with the quantities; more recent estimates range from 1.2 to 1.8g/kg/day for active people and 1.0 to 1.2g/kg/day for inactive people. It has been the trend within the field of sports nutrition to gradually increase the estimated requirements of protein for athletes. This, of course, makes sense given that increased levels of exercise increases the turnover of protein as an energy source, plus pretty much all of the jobs of protein that I listed above, increase in demand.

However, let’s shift focus away from our randomised placebo controlled trials to more of an epidemiological evidence source. Epidemio….what, I hear you say! Epidemiology is the study of large population numbers, looking for certain health trends. Here we bring in the well known T. Colin Campbell, who wrote the best seller The China Study. Campbell studied thousands of Chinese people and showed very convincingly that protein levels in the diet (especially from animal sources) is directly related to the incidence of modern diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. He suggested that the amount of protein that we consume should be within 10 per cent of our total caloric intake, and that we should be mostly vegetarian and vegan in our dietary preferences. Although measured in a different way, this 10 per cent figure would in most cases strongly undercut the conservative dietary reference values that I shared with you above.

The advise of Campbell is diametrically opposed to the modern low-carb era that we live in. Interestingly, and pointed out by Tom Sheehy from Natural Health 21 in 12 Steps to Wholesome Nutrition, in the exact same year that Professor Noakes’s book The Real Meal Revolution was published, Campbell published one entitled The Low-Carb Fraud: interesting times….

Looking at this quandary from an entirely health perspective, I’m actually inclined to side ever so slightly more with Dr Campbell because when you start looking at what the rural populations are doing in the world, they’re not eating large quantities of meat, that’s for sure. For example, The Blue Zones is a National Geographic study, looking at lifestyle commonalities among five rural hot spots that result in unusually large number of people living to 100 years of age with good physical and mental function. This observation is also shared by a recent BBC News report on indigenous people living in the Bolivian rain forest. These people consume wild rodents, fish from the Amazon, farmed plantain, rice, maize, a vegetable similar to sweet potato, plus foraged nuts and fruits. Scientists revealed that their diet consisted of around 15 per cent protein, 15 per cent fat and 70 per cent carbohydrates. Despite apparently ignoring our low-carb modern ‘knowledge’, the pictures of these people revealed not one ounce of fat on any of them. Are we just maybe missing the point of heath here in the Western world?

Have my rural observations served to make you more confused…?! Good… it’s time you really started to think about what you’re putting into your mouth and not just following dietary trends. This subject is not cut and dry and I would certainly defer you back to thinking about genetics before you can fully personalise your intakes. For example, I certainly wouldn’t feed rural Eskimo populations the rural Bolivian diet - they would require much more animal produce. But most of us are somewhere in-between these extremes. We need a moderate amount of quality protein (some from animal sources) for physiological functioning, with a bit more if you are extremely active.

But, if I am to summarise my thoughts on protein quantities, I would say that we need; not too little and not too much…

To personalise this discussion more for yourself, take a look at Chapter 5 of Wholesome Nutrition and Step 5 of our 12 Steps to Wholesome Nutrition course.