How much protein do I need?
In the world of nutrition, there is a large debate about the effectiveness of low-carbohydrate vs. high-carbohydrate diets, as well as low-fat vs. high-fat diets.
That being said, the one macronutrient that most people believe is always good to get in larger quantities is PROTEIN.
Especially in the world of diabetes, protein is king. Doctors, nurses, and nutrition professionals often recommend eating more protein to “stabilize” blood glucose.
You may have asked yourself these questions:
Researchers at the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California investigated these exact questions, and published a ground-breaking research paper in 2014 that described the benefits and drawbacks of increasing protein intake (1).
Using data from the NHANES II Study, researchers investigated the link between protein intake and mortality in men and women age 50 and over. There was a total of 6,381 adults in the study, with a follow-up period of 18 years.
Specifically, the researchers investigated how low, medium, and high protein intake affected diabetes mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and cancer risk.
Participants were separated into three groups based on how much protein they consumed in a day:
According to the study:
Let’s break those numbers down in more detail.
In comparison to those eating less than 10% of calories from protein, those who ate between 10-19% of daily calories from protein were 23 times more likely to die from diabetes.
For those eating more than 20% of daily calories from protein, the risk of dying from diabetes was 73 times higher.
These numbers are large. Very large.
To put things into perspective, high blood pressure increases your risk of developing diabetes by 60% (2). This study showed that eating a high-protein diet increases your risk of developing diabetes by 73-fold, or 7300%.
But it wasn’t just diabetes that was affected by a medium or high protein intake. For those age 50-65, eating a moderate or high protein diet increased both cancer mortality as well as all-cause mortality (premature death from any cause).
Animal protein made up the majority of the protein consumed by people in this study, and the study authors theorized that this plays a major role in the extent to which high protein intake increases your risk for premature death.
They concluded that:
Around age 65, the ideal amount of dietary protein changes.
For those age 65 and over, eating more protein decreased both cancer mortality and all-cause mortality for those eating a moderate protein or high protein diet.
Interestingly, the effect of protein intake on diabetes mortality stayed the same. The more protein study participants ate, the more their risk of dying from diabetes increased, as shown in the images below:
Beyond the age of 65, the human body loses muscle mass up to six times faster than those aged less than 65 (3).
Given that falling is a leading cause of death for seniors, it is important to maintain muscle mass and protect against sarcopenia (muscle loss).
Researchers speculated that a higher protein intake may protect against muscle loss after the age of 65.
However, a much more effective way to preserve muscle mass is by performing resistance training or basic strength training exercise. The phrase “use it or lose it” is an increasingly important statement with age.
But if you increase your protein intake as you age, are you increasing your risk for diabetes mortality?
Not so fast.
Some studies indicate the increasing vegetable consumption can prevent loss of muscle mass (4). One study in particular found that eating the recommended 5 daily servings of vegetables cuts your risk of losing muscle essentially in half (by 48%) (5).
We know, you’re still wondering, “How much protein do I need?"
It turns out that the most important aspect of your protein intake may not be the amount of protein, but the type of protein you consume.
As we discussed above, animal protein was responsible for the majority of the increased risk for diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular, and all-cause mortality presented in the study.
What this means is simple – for optimal metabolic health, focus on eating protein from plant sources rather than from animal products.
The authors conclude that:
Other studies have also shown a strong link between the consumption of animal products and the development of insulin resistance and diabetes, and some researchers believe that eating meat should be considered a risk factor for diabetes (6).
We certainly believe so.
This is not the first study to suggest that eating a high protein diet can be dangerous for long-term health.
Decades of research confirm that eating a high protein diet, especially when the protein comes primarily or exclusively from animal products, leads to an and puts you at risk for developing heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and obesity (7-13).
Thankfully, there is another option for minimizing your risk for diabetes mortality, and has myriad other health benefits such as increased insulin sensitivity, sustained weight loss, lower risk for all chronic diseases, and greater longevity (14-19).
This option is a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet. This lifestyle is naturally lower in protein, yet still easily meets and often exceeds the recommended daily amount (20-22).
All yes, ALL plant foods contain protein, and as long as you eat enough calories from whole foods, you will meet or exceed your daily protein needs.
So, to finally answer your question, “How much protein do I need?” here’s what we conclude based on the best evidence currently available:
1. Levine ME, Suarez JA, Brandhorst S, Balasubramanian P, Cheng C-W, Madia F, et al. Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer, and overall mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell Metab. 2014 Mar 4;19(3):407–17.
2. Emdin CA, Anderson SG, Woodward M, Rahimi K. Usual Blood Pressure and Risk of New-Onset Diabetes. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015 Oct 6;66(14):1552–62.
3. Paddon-Jones D, Leidy H. Dietary protein and muscle in older persons. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2014 Jan;17(1):5–11.
4. Semba RD, Lauretani F, Ferrucci L. Carotenoids as protection against sarcopenia in older adults. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2007 Feb 15;458(2):141–5.
5. Kim J, Lee Y, Kye S, Chung Y-S, Kim K-M. Association between healthy diet and exercise and greater muscle mass in older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2015 May;63(5):886–92.
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7. Smith GI, Yoshino J, Kelly SC, Reeds DN, Okunade A, Patterson BW, et al. High-Protein Intake during Weight Loss Therapy Eliminates the Weight-Loss-Induced Improvement in Insulin Action in Obese Postmenopausal Women. Cell Rep. 2016 Oct 11;17(3):849–61.
8. Vang A, Singh PN, Lee JW, Haddad EH, Brinegar CH. Meats, Processed Meats, Obesity, Weight Gain and Occurrence of Diabetes among Adults: Findings from Adventist Health Studies. Ann Nutr Metab. 2008;52(2):96–104.
9. Berkemeyer S. Acid-base balance and weight gain: are there crucial links via protein and organic acids in understanding obesity? Med Hypotheses. 2009 Sep;73(3):347–56.
10. Wang X, Lin X, Ouyang YY, Liu J, Zhao G, Pan A, et al. Red and processed meat consumption and mortality: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Public Health Nutr. 2016 Apr;19(5):893–905.
11. Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, Manson JE, Willett WC, Hu FB. Changes in red meat consumption and subsequent risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus: three cohorts of US men and women. JAMA Intern Med. 2013 Jul 22;173(14):1328–35.
12. Lagiou P, Sandin S, Weiderpass E, Lagiou A, Mucci L, Trichopoulos D, et al. Low carbohydrate-high protein diet and mortality in a cohort of Swedish women. J Intern Med. 2007 Apr;261(4):366–74.
13. Fung TT, van Dam RM, Hankinson SE, Stampfer M, Willett WC, Hu FB. Low-carbohydrate diets and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: Two cohort Studies. Ann Intern Med. 2010 Sep 7;153(5):289–98.
14. Singh PN, Sabaté J, Fraser GE. Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans? Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep 1;78(3):526S–532S.
15. Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Doody RS, Kesten D, McLanahan SM, Brown SE, et al. Effects of stress management training and dietary changes in treating ischemic heart disease. JAMA. 1983 Jan 7;249(1):54–9.
16. Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, Armstrong WT, Ports TA, et al. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial. Lancet Lond Engl. 1990 Jul 21;336(8708):129–33.
17. Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, Epel E, Kemp C, Weidner G, et al. Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2013 Oct;14(11):1112–20.
18. Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJA, Turner-McGrievy G, Gloede L, Jaster B, et al. A Low-Fat Vegan Diet Improves Glycemic Control and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in a Randomized Clinical Trial in Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2006 Aug 1;29(8):1777–83.
19. Barnard ND, Katcher HI, Jenkins DJA, Cohen J, Turner-McGrievy G. Vegetarian and vegan diets in type 2 diabetes management. Nutr Rev. 2009 May;67(5):255–63.
20. Craig WJ, Mangels AR, American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Jul;109(7):1266–82.
21. Young VR, Pellett PL. Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 1994 May;59(5 Suppl):1203S–1212S.
22. Rizzo NS, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Sabate J, Fraser GE. Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013 Dec;113(12):1610–9.
This article is a collaboration between Cyrus Khambatta, PhD and Tara Kemp. Cyrus Khambatta earned a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from UC Berkeley after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in his senior year of college at Stanford University in 2002. He is an internationally recognized nutrition and fitness coach for people living with type 1, type 1.5, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, and has helped hundreds of people around the world achieve exceptional insulin sensitivity by adopting low-fat, plant-based whole foods nutrition. Tara Kemp is the Director of Nutrition Education for Mastering Diabetes. She has been active in the field of health and nutrition for many years, including working with Forks Over Knives, Engine 2, and Dr. Neal Barnard and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Tara has a bachelor's degree in Education from Bucknell University, a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell, and is a Certified Food For Life Instructor through the Physicians Committee.
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