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Protein hasn't always been a controversial macronutrient. Before about 1960, there was general agreement that protein was something that most people just didn't get enough of.
When my own mother was growing up in the United States in the 1930's, her family consumed meat or fish once a week, each of nine children getting a 1-ounce (approximately 30 gram) serving. There would also be a 4-oz (120 ml) glass of milk every Sunday morning. My mother's experience was far from unique. Many Americans, especially city dwellers, simply didn't have enough money to buy meat, fish, dairy, or cheese. They didn't usually suffer protein malnutrition because they got their needed amino acids from grains, beans, and legumes.
When I was growing up in the United States in the 1960's, protein had become much more available. We had meat every day, once a day, maybe twice. Maybe once a week we would have an egg for breakfast. Our family of four could eat a pound (450 grams) of cheese in a week. Still, protein foods were most special foods. Nobody ate protein all the time.
In 2016, it's not unusual for people to consume two eggs and ham, bacon, and/or sausage for breakfast, often in a fast-food breakfast sandwich. That's followed by 8 ounces (225 grams) or meat or fish for lunch, cheese or yogurt snacks, and more meat and fish for dinner. While protein isn't really poisonous, it's certainly possible to eat too much, and the reason so many North Americans eat excessive protein foods is the promotion of a mythology of protein by weight loss experts since the famous Dr. Robert Atkins.
Let's take a look at protein mythology and corresponding facts.
PROTEIN MYTH: The only way to get enough protein is by eating animal-based foods, meat, dairy, eggs, and fish.
PROTEIN FACT: The easiest way to get enough protein is by eating animal-based foods, but it's possible to get complete protein from plant foods. Our bodies break down proteins into foods into amino acids, and then reassemble those amino acids into our own proteins. (You aren't what you eat.) You have to have all the different kinds of amino acids your body needs to make a protein, or it can't make the protein at all. There are some essential amino acids that our bodies can't make, but we get from any animal food. With very few exceptions (such as spirulina), individual plant foods don't contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need. We have to eat a combination of plant foods to get the same group of amino acids, but we can eat those foods at any time in the same 24-hour period. It's not necessary to eat complementary plant foods at the same meal.
PROTEIN MYTH: Our bodies can't store protein, so we need to eat protein constantly.
PROTEIN FACT: Our bodies can buffer proteins for 24 to 48 hours. Even the three-hour diet gurus don't suggest you get up in the middle of the night to eat.
PROTEIN MYTH: Protein helps you lose weight. Or gain weight, depending on who's selling the protein food.
PROTEIN FACT: Like so many other facts about nutrition, the reality is a lot more complicated than that. Let's take a closer look.