Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Tale of Too Much Protein

This month my daughter is a vegetarian. It’s hard for me to write that with a straight face because she has never really eaten much meat, unless you count hot dogs. And even hot dogs are mostly just a spoon with which to eat ketchup. Impressed by her Catholic friends who were giving up something for lent, she announced at the beginning of the month that she was giving up meat for the month of April. (“Not for lent Mom, for April!”) I bit my tongue and did not say what I was really thinking which was “how convenient – giving up something you already don’t want to eat! And why does April demand this kind of sacrifice?” I didn’t launch in to a lecture on the meaning of Lenten sacrifice. I just said, “Hmm,” which caused her to glare at me and march out of the kitchen.

As the month progressed, she sat smugly at dinner passing the steak, chicken, or pork and reminding us, “remember, I don’t eat meat.” We stressed to her that she still needed to take in enough protein and worried that her sullen mood was caused not by her impending hormones, but by her lack of protein.

Somewhere along the line I’ve become as brainwashed as the rest of America in to believing that meat = protein. The meat industry has worked hard to hammer home that thought. In fact, bring up the American Meat Institute’s nutrition site and the first words that greet you (surrounded by pictures of happy, healthy people and deliciously luscious meats) are: “Protein. Fuel for the body and mind.” Which doesn’t come close to the “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” But I’m sure it’ll grow on us.

As Mark Bittman points out in his book Food Matters (great book – informative, entertaining, and even has 75 recipes!), “per calorie, cooked spinach has more than twice as much protein as a cheeseburger.” Meat is not the only, or necessarily the best, form of protein. He goes on to say, what quickly becomes apparent when you read the stats on protein (see below) that Americans eat way more meat than they need. “If the American high protein diet were the ideal, you might expect us to live longer than countries where meat consumption is more moderate. We’re the second-to-last in longevity among industrialized nations.”

So is my daughter getting enough protein? Here’s the math on the body’s protein requirement for children (and the rest of us):

Ages 1-3: 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Ages 4-6: 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Ages 7-14: 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Boys ages 15-18: 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Girls over 15 and boys over 18: 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

How does that play out for my daughter? She is 11 years old and weighs about 75 pounds (soaking wet), so she needs somewhere in the neighborhood of 34 grams of protein a day. She can get that from any of the following non-meat sources:
1 oz cheese = 7 grams protein

1 cup milk = 8 grams protein

1 egg = 6 grams protein

2T peanut butter = 8 grams of protein

Throw in some whole grain breads and cereals (2-4 grams) and a few veggies (1-3grams) and there’s every reason to believe that my daughter is doing just fine on her protein intake despite her meat protest.

And what about the rest of us? I need about 55 grams of protein. Am I getting enough or too much? Well, the typical 8 oz steak serving has 50 grams of protein and the yogurt I eat each morning for breakfast has about 18 grams. Throw in the ridiculous amount of vegetable matter I consume and my fondness for cheese and I’d say I’m getting more than my fair share most days.

And what happens when you eat too much protein? According to protein expert, Gail Butterfield, PHd, RD, and nutrition lecturer at Stanford University, too much protein can lead to a build up of ketones in your system which will put your kidneys in to overdrive trying to flush them. This not only stresses out your kidneys, it can also lead to dehydration, bad breath, and weakness. Lovely. I would guess it can also lead to weight gain and cholesterol issues. Apparently excess protein can’t be stored so we either break it down and burn it as energy or we store it as fat. I like to run, but even my long runs couldn’t possibly require the amount of protein I’m taking in. Other researchers believe that eating too much protein can lead to calcium loss and to the immune malfunction that causes food allergies.

So what’s a person or a parent to do? Pay attention. Reduce the portion sizes of the meat you eat which will save you money and calories. Plan more meat free meals. Try to break the strangle hold that meat has on our understanding of a healthy meal. We don’t need to eat it every meal, let alone every day. Just reducing your family’s meat intake slightly will have a substantial impact on your health and your budget. And teach your children that protein can be found in many other sources beyond meat.

Even Janet Riley, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for the American Meat Institute, agrees in her response to the new 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans, “I think we can all agree that Americans need to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption, but they can continue to eat meat and poultry at the same rate they’re eating it – 5-7oz a day…” I guess she’s assuming you won’t eat any other protein sources because 7 oz of meat a day is just about the protein limit for most of us.

My daughter does plan to go back to eating meat in May. I’m not really sure what that means. I’m guessing it means she’ll go back to eating hot dogs and nibbling around the edges of a small piece of chicken on occasion. Like I said, giving up meat wasn’t a huge sacrifice. I’m glad she did it though; it gave me a chance to educate myself about our need for protein. I’m convinced we don’t need to eat meat at every meal – our bodies don’t need it. But growing up an American, it will take some re-wiring to change my habits. How about yours?


  1. My 19 month old has shunned meat from the beginning. I always think," is she getting enough meat?" what I should be asking though, " is she getting enough protein?" The answer to my question is yes and I always know that it is because she eats such a variety of other whole foods daily. She does not eat pocessed foods, or those graduate meal things... I guess that I am just programmed to think she is suffering because of her lack of meat consumption. Reading your blog post put such a smile on my face because I don't feel like I am the only silly mother worrying about meat when I truly know that she will be okay.

  2. I absolutely agree in the overrating meat gets. The problem I see with many veggies is that they substitute grain for meat. That's a health problem... but filling up on eggs, quinoa, lentils, beans, deep greens, nuts - much healthier.
    My two year old and I are both pescatarians - eat salmon a couple of times a week, then just veggie options. Deep greens are so good for us - we have daily kale smoothies in the morning. Hardly ever wheat - that is key I think.