No Credit for Protein

Selection of high-protein foods like meat and eggs
Photo by yuliyafurman on Freepik.

Protein is an essential macronutrient that must be included in the diet at an adequate amount for good health. Due to their high protein content, foods made from meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds are considered part of the Protein Foods Group. According to USDA’s MyPlate, protein foods should make up ¼ of our plates. However, these foods contain a lot more than protein and nutrient density varies because of it. In this edition of Surprising Stars, we will explain why Guiding Stars does not consider protein level as it evaluates the nutrient density of food.

Protein deficiency is uncommon in the U.S.

People in the U.S. generally overconsume protein, mostly through animal-based sources, thus protein deficiency is extremely rare. To be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Amerians and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling policy, nutrients are only included in the Guiding Stars algorithm if a significant scientific consensus regarding health promotion and/or an association with reduced risk of chronic disease has been documented, and when recommendations or authoritative statements have been established by a key scientific body.

The next time you review the Nutrition Facts label of a product, look for the % Daily Value of protein. No Daily Value is required for protein if a product is intended for the general population (4 years of age and older) and no content claim is made, such as “high protein.” The FDA reports that protein intake in the U.S. is not a public health concern, so the Daily Value declaration is not warranted.

The source of protein is more important.

Protein is not a focus of the authoritative scientific bodies nor is it included in any of their dietary recommendations (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, MyPlate, etc.). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans do not include specific recommendations for protein. Current scientific consensus suggests that the source of protein in diets is more important than the amount of protein for health. The risk for several diseases and premature death can be reduced by eating healthy protein sources like beans, fish, nuts, or poultry instead of processed meat and red meat. It’s important to remember that when you add protein foods to your plate, you are adding all their nutrients: fats, sodium, fiber, sugars and more.

Steak is a great source of protein, but it also contains saturated fat that the Dietary Guidelines recommends limiting. Ham provides plenty of protein, a moderate amount of saturated fat, but is loaded with sodium that most Americans eat too much of. Salmon is high in protein, low in saturated fat and low sodium. It’s a fatty fish, but is considered heart-healthy because it mostly contains unsaturated fats and is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. That’s why the Dietary Guidelines recommend eating seafood twice a week. Lentils are rich in protein and fiber, which most American diets could use more of, and have really no saturated and sodium. As you can see, measuring a food’s nutrient density requires evaluating its composition of key nutrients to encourage and limit in a healthy diet.

Read our White Paper to learn more about the Guiding Stars algorithm.

Not all foods are protein-rich.

Protein is found in negligible or trace amounts in many foods, including nutritious foods like produce. This is another reason why Guiding Stars believes it makes more sense to consider protein as a component of the total diet, rather than as a percentage of individual foods. Finally, there is no long term data on the safety and health effects of increased protein intake as recommended by many recent fad diets.