The 5 Most Common Myths About Protein

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Photos: Christine Han | Photo Illustration & Graphic Design: Susanna Hopler)

Just five protein myths? We could call this “500 Protein Myths,” as there are countless myths about protein. But we don’t have all day, so let’s focus on the five most common in American culture.

Protein is a complicated topic but the basics are quite simple. Understanding the true answers to five of the most common myths out there will not only set you up for success when it comes to consuming a wholesome diet, but it will also impress your friends — and teach them something too.

Protein 101

Our series on the basics of nutrition kicked off with the essentials of protein. Read it here: Protein 101: What Is Protein and What Does It Do for Our Bodies?

Myth 1: Protein only comes from meat, eggs, and dairy.

Poached chicken breasts morning, noon, and night, right? No, not exactly. Sure chicken breasts, along with all other meat and fish are great sources of protein — so are eggs, yogurt, milk, and cheese — but they aren’t your only choices.

Nearly every food on earth contains protein, to a varying extent. What’s most important to understand when it comes to protein sources, is that they can be divided into two categories: complete and incomplete.

Complete protein, like the items above, along with other foods like soy and quinoa, contain the nine essential amino acids that the body needs to remain healthy and fully functioning. Incomplete proteins contain some, but not all of the essential nine. Beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables, and to a lesser extent, fruit, are incomplete proteins.

Myth 2: You’re not getting enough protein, especially if you’re vegan or vegetarian.

So let’s talk about these incomplete proteins, shall we? For vegetarians and vegans, these are the main sources of protein. Some say only eating incomplete proteins aren’t enough, as they don’t have all nine essential amino acids.

Again, not true. If you eat a balanced diet, even if it’s a plant-based one, you’ll take in enough incomplete proteins to be combined and used as complete protein, which means your body will get its nine essential amino acids.

It’s also a common myth that you must eat incomplete proteins together at a meal to make them a complete protein and get their nutritional benefit. Yes, rice and beans are make for a satisfying meal, but as long as enough incomplete protein is consumed through the day (the body doesn’t actually store amino acids for much longer than a day), they can be combined and used as complete protein.

More on complete protein, vegan-style: The Vegan Protein Boost Your Breakfast Porridge is Missing

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Myth 3: The more protein you eat, the better.

For an average 2,000 calorie diet, the recommended daily amount of protein is about 50 grams. If you’re eating a well-balanced diet, you actually could easily be consuming up to double that amount.

While you may think that’s a good thing, it’s not necessarily. You’re body can really only take in and utilize about 25 to 30 grams of protein at one time, which is a little more than the amount of protein in one chicken thigh. So eating a super high-protein meal doesn’t actually mean your body is going to use all of that protein.

Myth 4: You need extra protein to build muscle.

Athletes are told this constantly. There’s the mentality that in order to build and sustain muscle size, a large amount of protein in the diet is needed. Yes, individuals who are very active have higher protein requirements than the average person, but that’s mostly because they require more calories for energy, as they burn them off quicker, and to keep the body healthy and functioning.

Also, if you’re boosting your calories with a balanced diet to meet these higher requirements, you’re automatically meeting your higher protein needs.

Myth 5: A high-protein diet alone will help you lose weight.

While protein can help you feel full for longer after a meal, because it digests more slowly than carbohydrate, it’s not a magic weight loss tool. Protein, like carbohydrate and fat, contains calories, and it’s the amount of calories you consume, no matter where they come from, that determines whether you lose, maintain, or gain weight. So if you eat lots and lots of protein, that could equal excess calories, which could actually cause you to gain weight, depending on your own personal calorie needs.

The healthiest way to lose weight is to continue to eat a balanced diet — neither high or low in any particular nutrient.

Do you have other questions about protein? Other myths you’re curious about? Leave a comment — we’d love to hear from you.

Who I Am (and Why I’m Writing to You)

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

As a food editor who is also a Registered Dietitian, I know the confusion of our fractured landscape of diet information. But if you strip away the study-of-the-day and fad diets, there is solid information we can all learn about basic nutritional building blocks.

We’re offering these unsexy yet useful tools to empower cooks to make decisions that suit them with solid, science-driven resources.

This especially applies to protein, the first topic in our new Nutrition 101 series. We want to give you the tools for confident eating and a more wholesome diet — something we can all get behind.