science of us

Everyone Is Probably Getting Enough Protein

Photo: Steve Cohen/Getty Images

The first time I went on a low-carb diet, I’d been fully persuaded by a website promising a solution to my skin problems. I don’t remember the site (although I vaguely recall a ripped, shirtless man looking aggressively chipper, also this was back in 2003), but it encouraged me to eat mostly protein and vegetables and to avoid all non-vegetable carbs.

I was 20 and it was the first time I’d thought a new way of eating would transform my life — I so believed in this diet, it was almost like having a first love or something. Anyway, I remember shopping at one point with my mom at Trader Joe’s, where I discovered low-carb protein bars. They seemed like a perfect solution: Protein! In just a bar! Amazing; I’d never need to prepare food again. She said she didn’t want to buy something so processed, and I thought, Well, she doesn’t understand about nutrition like the internet and I do, but I’ll leave this battle aside for now.

Today NPR released a short investigation into the average American’s protein consumption, and the good news is that we’re all probably getting plenty of it — including the official recommended daily amount (50–60 grams a day), often “before [we] even get to dinner,” according to a Johns Hopkins dietician. Meaning the average person can ignore all the “now with more protein” labeling on foods — on Cheerios, even — and that, in general, protein supplementation is likely “a waste of money.” Another reason to avoid supplementation is that it’s not always clear what else is in the supplements: the FDA doesn’t regulate protein supplements the same way it does food and drugs, and apparently some brands contain hidden caffeine, sugars, and steroids.

Some people who do actually need additional protein, however, include “extreme athletes,” which turns out to be a fairly generous category and includes on one end marathoners and bodybuilders, but also, technically, anyone doing more than 2.5 hours of “moderate” exercise a week (am I an extreme athlete?). Other exceptions include people recovering from surgery and injury, and people over 60. (I like that NPR says to ask yourself: “Are you are an extreme athlete; are you recovering from injury or surgery; or are you are 60 years or older?”)

I also liked the bit about how fruits and vegetables contain more protein than I’d thought — apparently an orange has almost a third as much protein as an egg does. (Two grams to an egg’s seven.) Leaving aside meat (as we should all do), a serving of nuts and cheese coffee, for instance, would supply you with almost a quarter of your daily needs. And then there’s also cricket protein.

Everyone Is Probably Getting Enough Protein