Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Jan

Dear Mark: Pondering Protein

Protein Never Looked So Tasty. Dear Mark,

I hear conflicting advice on the percentage of protein in a healthy diet. How much protein should I be getting?

The subject of protein intake is, as you’ve noticed, a contentious issue. It’s gotten a lot of attention (and scrutiny) since the Atkins and derivative diet plans became all the rage several years ago. Let me first say that, while I can tell you my perspective on protein, it’s not a stand-in for your physician’s advice. Individual health history is crucial to determining appropriate protein intake, and your doctor will be able to look at the full picture with you.

That said, I think high protein diets get a bad rap for a number of reasons. Too many people approach a high protein diet as a free pass to eat whatever meats they crave, and that too often means fatty, cured, conventional meat. They also don’t balance their diet appropriately.

Protein should be lean and clean, as I always say: low in fat and free (or as free as possible) from the toxins of our modern food supply: pollutants (like dioxin in dairy), nitrites, growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides from feed, and chemical sanitizers or irradiation used in processing. A healthy diet, by definition, means plenty of vegetables, fruits and varied protein sources such as eggs, fish, and a variety meats. Dairy products also contain protein, but I suggest limiting dairy and focusing on the above foods as the staples of a healthy diet.

First, let’s look at what conventional recommendations are. The current U.S. RDA for protein is 63 grams a day for the average sized male, or for your individual RDA, 0.80 g/kg/day (grams of protein per kilogram of your weight per day). Many nutritionists suggest that athletes and very active people can maintain their muscle mass at 1.0 g/kg/day. Most nutritionists say protein should constitute no more than 20% of your calories each day.

Now I’ll give you my perspective.

Based on latest research findings and in the context of the Primal eating strategy I talk about on the site, men and women can and do thrive on higher than conventional protein diets. Humans evolved with a high protein diet. Experts from the Medical Research Council at the University of College London estimate that, while the typical Western diet today is composed of 49% carbs, 35% fats and 16% protein, the diet of traditional hunter-gatherer populations included twice the protein intake.

Current study of tribal populations that maintain traditional diets shows that high protein, fruit and vegetable rich (virtually no carb and few unhealthy fats) “hunter gatherer” diets seem to protect against the “diseases of wealth” we experience in the developed world (i.e. many forms of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, etc.).

In keeping with this research, I don’t believe people need to limit their protein intake to 20% of their daily calories. The upper limit of protein recommendations is hotly contested in all circles. I, myself, try to get at least 1 gram per pound of body weight per day (165). I can survive on less, but I’m all about maintaining my lean mass. You can only do that with protein, and I don’t believe the current RDA allows for that, especially in active individuals.

One of the most common critiques links higher protein diets to impaired kidney function. Recent research suggests, however, that people without prior or developing kidney or liver impairment do not experience any kidney or liver issues with a higher protein intake (1.3 g/kg/day). People most at risk for this kind of kidney stress include those who have a personal or family history of kidney or liver problems or those who have high blood pressure or diabetes. (Because developing kidney and liver problems don’t always have obvious symptoms, it’s important for your doctor to know your protein intake exceeds conventional recommendations.) People with liver or kidney problems, doctors warn, are less able to process and excrete the waste products (mostly nitrogen left over from amino acid breakdown) that are produced when the body metabolizes protein.

I would repeat here that it’s important that you feed your body the “cleanest” protein you can. Animal products, meat and fish in particular, are the most protein-rich options, and they contain vital omega-3s. However, they also can carry the heaviest “toxic” burden of our modern food supply. These toxins are powerful and plentiful enough over time to put a strain on anyone’s body – including liver and kidneys. Choose organic, grass-fed meat and poultry whenever possible, and go for wild instead of farmed fish.

You might also hear that high protein diets can put you at risk for osteoporosis. This outdated claim simplifies the picture and doesn’t hold up well under detailed scrutiny. Most new research, including USDA studies, suggests bone density improves with added protein intake in most deficient or borderline people when they also have adequate Vitamin D. These findings are particularly important for older men and women, for whom the loss of bone density and muscle mass is of vital concern.

Other factors important for maintaining bone density include: salt consumption, magnesium to calcium ratio, sunlight exposure and Vitamin D deficiency, ph dietary balance, and physical activity levels. To protect your bone density, reduce salt (and salt derivatives) as much as possible, get plenty of sunlight, do regular weight bearing exercise and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to balance both the acidity of many protein sources and to boost magnesium levels in your diet.

Lindsey Spirit Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

What I Eat in a Day

Avoid These Meats Like the Plague

Art De Vany: Does Muscle Attract Women?

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I may be riding the retarded train to a slow and certain end but I think a high protein being a sort of gateway to osteoporosis is counterintuitive. I would think the more protein the better, right?
    Question: Can you get to much protein in your diet??

    Paul Krause wrote on January 14th, 2008
  2. This is the first time of heard the ‘1g of protein per pound of body weight’ and I love it! I always assumed more protein was better (i.e. less hungry for longer periods) but I had no idea what I should be shooting for. Thanks!

    Gordon wrote on January 14th, 2008
  3. Back when I was an omnivore, I followed Tom Venuto’s advice about protein (to eat 1 – 1.5g per pound of bodyweight) and often exceeded that. I didn’t have any problems with osteoporosis or kidney function etc. I was a healthy weight with a relatively low bodyfat % (about 18-20). But I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life for moral and ethical reasons and after a few years eating meat, reverted back to being a veg. The result? I weigh a few pounds less than I did as a meat eater and my bodyfat % is now 16-18%. So did eating A LOT of meat harm me (well, besides my conscience;))? No. Did going back to veg. hurt either? No and I actually seem to be healthier. It seems to me our bodies are pretty adaptable. I’ve yet to see anyone suffer a “protein overdose” nor have I seen anyone (besides my anorexic friends) suffer from a lack of protein. Our bodies are pretty cool, no??

    charlotte wrote on January 14th, 2008
  4. Paul,

    The protein-osteoporosis argumant was based on an assumption that excess protein made your blood acidic and that, in order to acheive pH homeostasis, your body was forced to pull calcium from your bones to rebalance itself. That may be what’s happening, but it turns out the calcium “reservoir” is sufficient that the bones will readily readmit the calcium, so there is no net loss of calcium and, hence, no loss of bone density. Of course, all that assumes you are exercising (causing the bones to need calcium) and that you are not over stressed (cortisol prevents uptake of calcium by bones).

    Mark Sisson wrote on January 14th, 2008
  5. can’t see why you seem to think that Paleolithic man ate lean meats (certainly not on purpose anyway)

    many anthropologists and ethnobiologists since the turn of the century noted traditional societies actively sought out the fat – Aborigines come to mind. Never mind the Samburu and Masai herdsmen or the North American Indians or Eskimo (the latter did not all eat fish).

    Are you influenced by Cordain?

    His views on animal fats and hunter gatherers is less about evidence and more about keeping his reputation amongst modern nutritionists – who are ignorant of the health benefits of animal fat.

    The cholesterol hypothesis has in fact been falsified, but Cordain lost his argument about animal fats in this debate:

    Here is a quote from Colo on Cordain:
    “Cordain claims in his writings that the wild game available to our ancestors was leaner than the domesticated animals we eat today, and on the allegedly rare occasion when our ancestors did get naughty and eat high fat animals, the saturated fatty acid content of these wild animals was proportionately lower than it is today.
    Cordain obviously knows little of rhinos, hippos, mammoths, etc, all hunted enthusiastically by many Paleo populations and all carrying a hefty load of body fat (an adult hippo, for eg, carries 90kg of adipose tissue). Cordain must also be unfamiliar with east African nomad populations such as the Masai and Samburu tribespeople, that have been observed to eat very large amounts of animal fat year round and yet exhibit outstanding cardiovascular health.

    As for the claim that the fat from wild game is proportionately lower in saturated fat than domesticated meats, a quick check on the USDA database shows otherwise. The fat from wild bison, for example, has a similar percentage of saturated fatty acid content to beef fat. Animals like antelope, buffalo, caribou, wild boar, elk, and so on contain 30-38% saturated fat–the fat from domesticated pork, by comparison, contains 37% saturated fat.
    Cordain also harps on about how the individual saturated fatty acid profile differs in modern-day meat, which I think is really getting pedantic. If it bothers you, just eat grass-fed meat for crying out loud, which will have the fatty acid profile nature intended!”

    Keep it coming


    markus wrote on January 15th, 2008
  6. A question and a comment.

    The question: if you’re attempting to lose weight, should that be 1 g per pound of desired body weight, or 1 g per pound of current body weight? And, given that men and women have different proportions of muscle mass to fat, is the recommendation different for men and women? I currently weigh 144 lbs, and am female, and I can’t imagine eating 144 g of protein. 100 g, maybe, but 144 g is a lot. That’s, like, 2 dozen eggs, isn’t it?

    A comment: I don’t know about Loren Cordain, but I have heard that the bias toward lean meat among proponents of the Paleo diet came from the misunderstanding that hunter gatherers, like us, preferred muscle meats, which would’ve been leaner in game than in farmed animals. But many hunter gatherers prefer organ meats, which are much higher in fat than even farmed muscle meats. Of course, on the other side, if you are eating mostly conventionally raised meat, you may want to avoid the fat because that’s where the toxins (hormones, organophosphate pesticides, etc.) accumulate.

    Migraineur wrote on January 15th, 2008
    • Your math is off a little bit, here’s how it breaks down.
      1 pound = 453.59237 grams. 144 grams divided by 453.59237 equals 0.31746565754622371624108227393684 pounds, or roughly 1/3 of a pound.
      In the US, eggs are sorted according to size grades which are defined by the weight of a dozen eggs, i.e.
      Jumbo eggs equal 30 ounces per dozen,
      Extra Large 27 ounces
      Large 24 ounces
      Medium 21 ounces
      Small 18 ounces
      Peewee 15 ounces, almost exactly 1 pound of eggs.
      Your 144 pounds of body weight as grams of protein would only be 1/3 of a pound of protein, so even if you ate 1/3 of a pound of the peewee eggs you would only be eating around 4 eggs, or
      3.5 small eggs,
      3 medium eggs,
      2.6 large eggs,
      2.36 extra large eggs, or
      2.1 jumbo eggs.
      Personally I believe the 1 gram of protein rule is low & may lead to nutrient deficiencies based on the following:
      “A 150 lb. person requires a full pound of protein per day for normal
      bodily processes. References: Basic Medical Biochemistry: A Clinical
      Approach, page 648. Dawn B. Marks, Allan D. Marks, Colleen M.
      Smith, Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, August, 1996, ISBN: 068305595.”
      1 pound of protein for a 150 pound person equates to 3.026 grams per pound of body weight. If the above is biochemically true, then people eating 1 gram per pound are only getting 1/3 of the nutrients the body requires.
      “We need plenty of protein because most of it is “burned up” in its own digestion as the medical textbook states, if anyone would care to look it up. “Following the ingestion of a high protein meal, the gut and liver utilize most of the absorbed amino acids… The
      liver takes up 60-70% of the amino acids in the portal vein, only 30%-40% is left for body structure — like muscles — and system function — like enzyme production. These amino acids, for the most part, are converted to glucose but doesn’t enter the main bloodstream and raise insulin levels.” Protein’s own digestion is self generated. This is why we require lots of dietary protein! (Basic Medical Biochemistry–A Clinical Approach, page 660

      andyinla wrote on December 4th, 2010
      • on the contrary, i believe your math is off. No food is 100% protein by weight, especially not eggs.

        Erik wrote on February 19th, 2011
        • Where did you get your math? Migraineur was correct at 144 grams. That’s what 1g per 1 lb means. Not sure why you’re dividing anything and getting all calculousy.

          Robert wrote on July 10th, 2012
  7. I used to know someone named Paul Krause! Paul, if you’re still following this thread – did you go to a small liberal arts school in Maryland?

    Migraineur wrote on January 15th, 2008
  8. Markus,

    I am definitely a “high-fat” guy and I am starting to think we may have to alter the bias we show on this site towards “lean meats.”

    Because 99% of the meat consumed in this country is grain-fed, most of the fat content in our meats is very high in Omega6 fats. Since I also harp on the fact that inflammation is a serious factor in disease (and a high 6:3 ratio increases inflammation), I have a bit of a dilemma in giving diet advice. My recommendations of “lean” presupposes that most of my readers do not have access to grassfed grass-finished meats (which are lower in Omega6 and higher in Omega3 and whose fat reserves do not act as repositories for all the chemical shortcuts factory farmers take – as migraineur points out). Therefore, getting protein from those readily available lean cuts of meat and then “supplementing” fat from fish, fish oils and vegetable sources has been my standard recommendation for people interested maxing protein and limiting Omega6.

    I do agree that Primal man probably ate mostly high-fat organ meats. Thus, I am not really a follower of Cordain (who, I agree probably also had to “temper” his advice to hold onto his nutritionist buddies.) Furthermore, I personally never met a saturated fat I didn’t like.

    As a result of all this I’ll contemplate backing off the “lean meats” recommendations now, since most of my readers “get it”.

    Thanks for the input Markus – and all of you. This blog/newsletter is always a work-in-progress and I reserve the right to change my mind now and again. Your comments here help me further refine what I believe to be an already well-designed theory of diet, exercise and living. Keep writing to us.

    Mark Sisson wrote on January 15th, 2008
  9. Mark

    you are very generous in your reply. i am humbled.

    i believe you when you say that the fatty acid profile of grass fed meat is probably better than grain fed.

    But in the context of offering a generalised food advice to poor and rich, i think that giving the message that high fat low carb is the best is more important in combatting the disease promoting western diet (and its ugly little sister the Standard American DIet). those of us who can afford grass fed meats and dairy and unpasteurised milk may have a little better quality of diet but the benefits are probably marginal in my humble opinion. the disbenefits of low fat and high carb are so great that all else pales by comparison. not that we should not promote best practice, not least for the sake of those poor battery chickens.

    However, in this day and age in the West, i think that most people could afford to spend more on decently sourced food, especially when the western definition of poverty includes “lack of a TV” for god’s sake.

    all the best Mark

    markus wrote on January 16th, 2008
  10. I’ve always believed in the high-protein diet for active people, specifically as someone trying to add muscle mass. I guess that’s why even as a meatless eater, I don’t find it difficult at all to consume 150-200g of protein a day. 7-8 meals, 20-30g of protein per meal.

    Migraineur, ever have a 12-egg-white omelette?

    PS Is it possible that the liver damage can occur whilst using supplements for protein like powders and amino capsules rather than the naturally-occuring protein in real food?

    Brian A wrote on January 25th, 2008
  11. Bryan – I think you’re probably right – real food is probably the key – one of the keys, anyway. And I think “real food” generally means “whole food.”

    I’m not a fan of the several meals a day approach, partly because I find it impractical to drop everything several times a day to eat, and partly because 20 to 30 g of protein leaves me sated for several hours. But I don’t know of any scientific reason why someone should avoid this approach if it works for them. It just doesn’t work for me.

    What would be the advantage of consuming 12 egg whites instead of the equivalent amount of whole eggs? The yolk contains protein, too, almost as much as the white (3.6 grams in the white and 2.7 grams in the yolk of a large egg), and it also contains most of the other nutrients of the egg, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K, choline, and lutein, plus a little bit of folate (3 egg yolks give about 18% of the daily recommendation). It also contains all of the cholesterol, which is nature’s tissue repair compound par excellence.

    I eat a lot of eggs (compared to most Americans) – 2 or three nearly every day. And I have eaten egg whites by themselves, usually when the yolk went into some other recipe. I wouldn’t just eat the white and throw the yolk out, though.

    Migraineur wrote on January 25th, 2008
  12. I do eat whole eggs, but if I’m having them as a primary source of protein the meal, I just use the whites. It’s a matter of calorie math – 8oz of egg whites is 117 calories with 26g of protein; 8oz of whole eggs is 3 times as many calories. I prefer then to get the remaining calories in my breakfast from veggies and olive oil. Remember, I have 6 more meals that day, I don’t want to ‘blow’ 700 calories on the first one!

    As for the wasting the yolks, I switched to egg whites in a carton which isn’t that much more cost for the time and mess it saves…

    Brian A wrote on January 25th, 2008
  13. Mark: I want to know, how much fat, sat. fat, protein and carbs are there in egg whites? Please help me out if possible.

    Thank you

    Stacey wrote on March 11th, 2008
  14. Stacey,

    Insignificant carbs in eggs. Forget the fat/sat fat…they are both good for you. Fat is our friend.

    Mark Sisson wrote on March 11th, 2008
  15. Hey Mark:

    I haven’t gotten around to trying your product, but it is something I want to do. Just don’t have the funds to do it, yet, without worrying about other stuff. But soon…

    Since we are on the topic of protein, I wanted to know your thoughts on bison meat, grass-fed, of course, as opposed to cattle. Also, do you know what makes grass-fed, or otherwise “organic” products so expensive?

    God bless!

    Sunday wrote on April 7th, 2008
  16. Actually protein is probably single most important nutrient needed in a healthy body besides water. It allows all your bodies functions to perform more efficiently. .75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is sufficient for the average person.

    I agree with your sources of protein, very good choices.

    marc white wrote on May 7th, 2008
  17. Listen to Brian Peskin lecture on carbs like youhave never heard before. Proteins and Fats feed the structure of the body and do not turn into fat. Carbs turn to sugar in your blood, then into fat that stores IN and On your body. IN means that fat stores in your organs and arteries. Also go to the website and read his articles like this one:

    Also know that all he says is based on SCIENCE N O T Opinion

    Darlene Brehm wrote on May 21st, 2009
  18. Late to posting…but I have a few things to add.

    I’ve long believed in the power of protein, partly because of my nursing background. Recently I saw an article about people going into an ICU (Intensive Care Unit) and they found that those that had the highest blood albumin levels were more likely to survive and recovered faster. This held true regardless of the reason for being there, accident or illness. Eating protein is the only way to raise your blood albumin levels….except getting it via and IV of course!

    RE: Protein shakes. I use them as a convenience, but not on a daily basis. In the past protein shakes and high protein diets were found to be dangerous….but these diets were also extremely low in fat! Some of us remember the high protein diets of the past…the diets were pretty much nothing but the shakes, although some did include vegetables. But essentially they were very high protein, low fat and low carb. You must include fat in your diet and too high a protein intake without fat can be dangerous.

    As for the gent that discards the egg yolks and uses olive oil instead? Not me….olive oil is more unstable as it’s a polyunsaturate, while the yolks contain much more stable monos and sat fats! Also….think of all those other good things in the yolk!

    Alcinda wrote on August 8th, 2009
  19. What are the drawbacks of eating more than 1gram/lbs of lean body mass a day. I used to chart myself for a week and noticed that I eat about 240g of protein a day but have a lean body mass of 180. I read in your book that this protein can be converted to glucose. Should I consider these extra 60g to be glucose and therefore cut back on my carb intake?

    Ben wrote on January 22nd, 2010
    • Ben, yes, most of the extra protein will convert to glucose, so there’s no need to exceed the 1/lb.

      Mark Sisson wrote on January 22nd, 2010
  20. would it be more reasonable to calculate 1 gr protein per pound of lean body mass?If I am 200 lbs and 20% bodyfat,but get in better shape and lose 10%,your standard would drop my protein requirement from 200 gr to 180 gr,even though I would be more fit,active,and with a better metabolic profile

    john wells wrote on February 6th, 2010
  21. Hi! I am new to the Primal Diet (1 week) and FitDay says my ratio has been Fat 38%, Carbs 30%, Protein 30%. I was told to increase the fat and decrease the carbs to start losing weight (always hungry in the first week). I am recovering from an injury and cannot workout right now, can anyone please tell me if even without strenuous exercise, do we still need to keep within the .7-1 gram protein per pound of body weight a day? Or do we need less protein without exercise? Thank you!

    Cat wrote on January 9th, 2011
  22. I’m just starting the transition from my carb/grain-loaded diet to the primal diet. So This is all new to me and I’m really trying to wrap my head around it.
    I’m weighing in at 195lbs right now, so am I supposed to be eating 195+g of protein? If so, how? I can eat 3 eggs for breakfast and not be hungry again until 2 in the afternoon. If I try to eat that much protein, I’m going to be eating when I’m not hungry.
    Can you all help me figure this out?

    Shelly wrote on May 17th, 2011
    • @Shelly, the general rule of thumb is 1 gram per pound of lean body mass for active/athletic people. In your case, trying to lose weight, you will want to stay around 100-120 grams a day max. Also, there’s no reason to eat when you are not hungry while you are trying to burn off stored fat. If you can have 3 eggs for breakfast and not be hungry again until 2, you are well on your way to success, as your body will look to its fat stores for fuel.

      Mark Sisson wrote on May 17th, 2011

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