On Nutrition

Protein. It’s an essential component of your muscles and pretty much every other part of your body. While there’s a lot of confusion about whether we should eat or avoid fats or carbohydrates (hint: quality, not quantity, matter most), most people are on board with the idea that we do need to eat protein. Consider it the Switzerland of macronutrients. That said, I still get a lot of questions about protein, many reflecting enduring myths and misinformation. Let’s look at a few.

What’s considered “a source of protein”?

“Sources of protein” primarily means meat, poultry, fish and seafood, dairy (milk, yogurt, kefir, cheese), eggs, soy (soy milk, tofu, tempeh, edamame), pulses (beans, lentils and chickpeas), nuts, and seeds. Some other types of food — such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits — contain smaller amounts of protein, so they contribute to your daily total, but by themselves are not considered a “protein source.”

Is animal protein higher quality than plant protein?

It’s a common concern that plant proteins, unlike animal proteins, are not “complete,” meaning that they don’t contain all nine of the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). While that’s true of most plant foods, we now know we don’t need to get all nine essential amino acids from the same food or even from the same meal. Eating a variety of protein-rich plant foods in the course of a day covers the bases.

Do vegetarians and vegans get enough protein?

Including a variety of soy foods, pulses, nuts and seeds, whole grains, vegetables and fruits makes it relatively easy for people to meet protein needs on a vegan diet — which excludes all foods of animal origin. Vegetarians who include eggs or dairy foods have an even easier time. Play it safe and include a solid source of protein at each meal. For example, a tofu scramble or stir-fry, a hearty bean-and-vegetable soup or chili, or whole-grain toast with peanut butter.


Don’t most Americans get too much protein?

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, while almost 60% of Americans get more than the recommended amount of protein, more than 40% don’t get enough. One statement I often hear: “I read that women only need 46 grams of protein per day, and men need 56 grams.” Well, that’s true — if you’re a 126-pound woman or a 154-pound man. Unlike vitamins and minerals, protein needs are not determined by age and gender — body weight matters. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (one kilogram is 2.2 pounds). That’s the amount required to offset protein deficiency in 98% of people, but research suggests that amount may do little to help maintain or build muscle. A better range may be 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram per day — or about .5 grams per pound of body weight.

Is soy a safe source of protein?

The origins of the “soy isn’t safe” myth — that it causes breast cancer in women and interferes with hormones in men and children — comes from isoflavones, compounds in soy that are also phytoestrogens — in other words, they weakly mimic the effect of the hormone estrogen (emphasis on “weakly”). While this once raised concerns that eating soy might increase risk of breast cancer, the American Cancer Society says the current evidence shows soy foods are safe and possibly beneficial. When eaten regularly, isoflavones have been linked to lower risk of breast and prostate cancer, as well as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Soy foods are good sources of protein that also offer a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Isn’t too much protein bad for the bones and kidneys?

Theories from the 1920s about excess protein leaching calcium from bones have been disproved. While it’s true that we lose more calcium when we eat more protein, we also absorb more calcium, balancing out the losses. Plus, our bone is partially made from protein, so we need protein for bone health. A 2017 research review from the National Osteoporosis Foundation concluded that current evidence shows no adverse effects of higher protein intake. As for protein and kidney health, the National Kidney Foundation says protein is not “hard” on normal kidneys.

Is it OK to eat eggs?

It’s natural to be confused about eggs — headlines about egg research are certainly enough to produce nutritional whiplash. Here’s my main takeaway from examining past and present egg research — the studies that raise alarm bells are generally observational studies. In other words, they observe trends in egg consumption and how they track with rates of certain diseases. This type of research can’t prove cause and effect. The bottom line: Eggs are good sources of protein and other essential nutrients. While some individuals might have specific reasons for avoiding eggs (that can be true of many other foods, too), for the majority of people, eggs are just fine.

Deviled Egg and Chickpea Salad

One 15-ounce can chickpeas

3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

3 green onions, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, destemmed, seeded and diced

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of ½ lemon

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Optional: Chives and/or flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped

  • Combine first 5 ingredients (chickpeas through capers) in bowl, gently toss to combine.
  • Combine next 6 ingredients (olive oil through black pepper) in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk to combine.
  • Pour dressing over salad ingredients, sprinkle with parsley (if using). Gently toss to combine. Let rest a few minutes for flavors to meld, then serve, over salad greens if desired.