Understanding & Communicating Protein Recommendations

Through the years, the media has widely communicated that “Americans eat more than enough protein” – and to some degree, they’re right.

Though protein deficiency is rare in the U.S., it is important to recognize that some people may benefit from higher protein meal plans. That was the message nutrition experts delivered at the 2013 Protein Summit in published proceedings this spring. A growing body of scientific evidence documents the benefits of eating higher protein amounts approximately twice the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), but well within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR), as part of a healthy diet for weight management and preservation of lean body mass and functional ability with age. As a reminder the RDA is an estimate of adequate consumption, but additional protein consumption may be recommended for some individuals in order to promote optimal health.

The quality of protein is as important as protein quantity. High-quality protein provides all the essential amino acids your body can’t make on its own. Animal protein sources like meat, eggs and dairy foods are good examples of high quality protein. Since most plant proteins do not provide significant amounts of all of the essential amino acids the body needs, a variety of them are often needed.

Health and wellness professionals can help combat misperceptions and facilitate the effective communication and application of dietary guidance regarding protein. You can use both the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) and the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) to help clients optimize their protein consumption to meet their health goals.

This article by Nancy Rodriguez and Sharon Miller may help you understand how to use and communicate the concepts of adequate and optimal protein in your practice. But first, let’s review current dietary guidance on protein:

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)  for protein is 0.80 g/kg/day for adults age 19-50 and is the average level needed to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy people. That translates to 56 gm of protein/day for a man weighing 154 pounds and 46 gm of protein/day for a woman weighing 125 pounds. The RDA is not meant to maximize protein utilization in people with various physiological needs or disease states.

The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) sets upper and lower bounds for the percentage of calories provided from protein, carbohydrate and fat in an eating pattern – providing a range of potential amounts to meet energy and health outcome goals. The AMDR for protein is 10-35 percent of calories for adults – or about 50 to 175 gm/day for people consuming 2,000 kcals per day. The AMDR provides a framework to optimize protein consumption for individuals at various stages of life and health.

In a nutshell, the AMDR expresses protein consumption as a percentage of calories, while the RDA estimates minimum protein needs based on an absolute amount of protein calculated relative to body weight. As a handout summarizing the Protein Summit findings explains, the RDA is useful for setting a baseline for an individual’s minimum protein needs – while calculations based on a percentage of calories (AMDR) offers flexibility for determining protein targets and customizing meal plans to meet specific health goals.

For example, weight loss eating plans that cut calories and are higher in protein, providing 1.2 to 1.6 gm of protein/kg/day, have been shown to help reduce body weight and body fat, and help preserve lean body mass. Eating a moderate amount of high-quality protein, 1.0 to 1.5 gm/kg/day, evenly distributed at each meal, combined with physical activity, is a suggested strategy to help slow the loss of muscle mass with age.

You can help people meet their health goals by teaching them how much protein they need and guide them in choosing high quality sources of protein, such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs and low-fat and fat-free milk, yogurt, and cheese. Check out our recipes for delicious ways to use dairy foods in meals and snacks to increase protein consumption.