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Tara Dunker

Tara Dunker

Are you getting enough protein? The quick answer is it depends, but probably.

For most healthy adults, the typical American eating pattern meets their daily protein needs. And it does this in the best way possible—through whole foods that naturally contain protein, rather than bars, shakes, pills and powders. 

Protein is an essential part of life, and in your body, it goes well beyond building strong muscles. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, proteins do most of the work in cells and are required for the structure, function and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.

Take our body’s essential need for protein, add some clever and ubiquitous marketing, and it’s no wonder people are concerned about getting enough. But is this concern really warranted? Not likely.

As children, many of us come to understand that certain animal products, like beef, chicken, eggs and dairy are good sources of protein. This is absolutely true.

But if we take the fact that proteins do most of the work in cells and apply that to all once-living and growing things, it stands to reason that fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and other whole grains would contain protein. While some only have trace amounts, others pack quite the protein punch.

Take, for example, breakfast. Let’s say every morning you make yourself a cup of cooked oatmeal topped with a small handful of almonds, and you wash it down with a cup of milk (or soy milk). You’ve already eaten roughly 20 grams of protein before you even start your busy day.

The oatmeal supplied you with six grams, the almonds another seven grams, and the milk rounded out your meal with seven more grams of high-quality protein.

While 20 grams may not sound like much, unless you’re an endurance athlete or bodybuilder, recovering from a serious injury or infection, or over 65 years old, the current daily protein recommendation ranges from 40-80 grams per day.

This recommended range depends on body size and represents the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the protein requirements of nearly all (97-98 percent) healthy people.

With studies showing the average American adult consumes about 100 grams of protein each day without much thought or effort, all the concern about getting enough protein may be misplaced.

To give you a little more perspective, if when lunch rolls around you heat up a plate of leftover chicken, rice and vegetables, you’re getting roughly 35 grams of protein.

Breakfast and lunch alone have gotten you within the 40 to 80 grams recommended daily. And this is all assuming your portion sizes match what’s recommended for good health and weight maintenance.

Was your chicken breast no larger than the palm of your hand? Did you stick to a cup or less of rice in favor of making half your plate vegetables?

If not, you likely netted even more than the 35 estimated grams of protein with that one plate of leftovers.

So, before you decide that increasing your protein intake is the answer, I would encourage you to take a close look at how many grams of protein you’re already getting in an average day from all food sources.

If your calculations show you’re in that 100 grams per day range, then congratulations, you’re already in the high protein club.

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If you have any further questions, please contact Tara Dunker at 402-223-1384, tara.dunker@unl.edu, or visit the Gage County Extension website at www.gage.unl.edu.

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