In my previous post, I illustrated that the optimal intake of protein for a healthy person on a 2,000 diet is about 100 grams or so, which is nearly double the RDA. Keeping with the theme of “Are We Really Eating Too Much Meat?” I’m going to look now at how protein Americans are eating, then I’ll look at how much meat Americans are eating from a few different data sources.
1. How Much Protein Are We Actually Eating?
Answer: Not enough.
According to NHANES, which uses 24 hour dietary recall surveys, the average woman eats 1825 calories a day, with 16% from protein, 49% from carbs, and 34% from fat. Men eat 2477 calories, with 16% from protein, 47% from carbs and 34% from fat. (note: these numbers are lower than other estimates, probably because people like to lie in dietary surveys.) This self reported data says on average, men are eating 2477 calories a day, and women are eating 1825 calories per day. Men and women are eating about 16% of calories from protein, at the low end of the ADMR range of 10% – 35%. This source (coincidentally, written by Robert Wolfe) also puts protein about 15% and also criticizes the RDA for protein for being too low.
If you read my previous post about human protein needs, I explain the recommendations for protein vary greatly, but in general, at least 20% of calories from protein is a good goal. Protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients, and intakes of 15% – 30% of caloric intake can be quite helpful in regulating appetite by increasing leptin sensitivity and inducing weight loss and increasing blood sugar control. In this meta-analysis, high protein diets of 25% – 32% of calories compared to the control groups of 15% – 20% (which is still higher than the RDA), showed beneficial effects on weight loss, HbA1C levels and blood pressure in patients with type 2 diabetes. Also, I do think there’s something to the protein leverage hypothesis – increase the percentage of protein in the diet and total caloric intake actually goes down – especially when you pull out the soda and other junk food. This post highlights two studies looking at relatively high protein diets, showing them successful regardless of carbohydrate or fat intake.
The amount of PROTEIN we’re eating is too low. Now, let’s look at meat, specifically.
2. How Much Meat Are We Actually Eating?
Answer: It depends on what data you’re looking at, and what you consider “meat.”
Some of the information out there only counts “red meat” as “meat,” leaving out chicken, seafood, eggs and milk. Other data may include chicken but leaves out seafood. Some numbers are based on meat “availability,” meaning ALL THE MEAT PRODUCED (including non-edible parts), while other numbers factor in “loss” (what’s trimmed off at the slaughterhouse, loss in the grocery stores, loss in homes.) So, as you can see, the real number is quite difficult to obtain.
Meat as % of Calories, Based on Food Balance Sheets
National Geographic developed a series of great interactive charts that show caloric consumption by country and broken out by category and food type. Their data is from the FAO, which uses “Food Balance Sheets,” to estimate food consumed, also based on availability and adjusted for loss, however the FAO admits that this is not a completely accurate picture of actual consumption. According to their charts, the average American eats a daily total of 3641 calories, (or, at least has access to 3641 calories) which is a much higher number than the NHANES number of 2141 average daily calories per American.
I personally have a hard time with the large discrepancy between the FAO (food availability) and NHANES (self reported) caloric intake numbers. The FAO total number of calories (3641) seems much higher to me than what people are actually eating. The charts here also show 373 calories from milk, that would be 4 cups of milk per day, equaling about 30 grams of protein. Also, at 469 calories of meat, this would mean we’re getting about 120 grams of protein per person, which I doubt. Add in the milk, and this increases our total protein intake to 150 grams a day. I’m just not convinced we’re actually eating this much in total calories, or this much in protein, and question the accuracy of their loss adjustment – it doesn’t seem realistic.
However, looking at this data, it shows our total meat intake is 13% of our total caloric intake, and the dairy & egg category is 14%. By percentage, this number could be more realistic — Although the FAO says they adjust for loss, and their meat doesn’t include livestock feed, it does include things like pet food, which includes a lot of meat, so I’m not buying these numbers as fact.
What does seem to make sense is the meat availability by tons (meaning total production) to give a sense of how our production has shifted. When looking at total tons available, over the 50-year span, chicken availability has increased 421% in the United States. Worldwide, chicken production has increased over 1,033%, while worldwide beef production has remained flat, 0%.
USDA Meat Availability Charts
Similar to the FAO, the USDA looks at meat availability. There is one big number that many meat-phobic folks like to use for per person meat consumption: 250 pounds per year. I’ve even seen many “real food” folks cite this number in an argument that we need “less meat, better meat.” This gigantic number comes from the USDA meat availability chart, which in the case of red meat, includes the whole carcass (bones, kidney, attached internal fat,) and for chickens, includes skin, fat, liver, gizzard and neck. This sounds like we’re eating 11 ounces of meat a day, but this is based on what’s available, not what’s actually consumed.
The USDA has a different set of numbers when adjusted for loss (what’s removed at the processor, loss at the grocery store, loss in homes), to estimate what actually is consumed.
This data shows only 27 pounds of chicken per person in 1970 compared to almost 60 pounds per person, per year in 2014. Not only are we eating more chicken, but we’re eating more sweeteners, grains and a lot more oils today. When you add total red meat plus poultry and seafood, the number is 134 pounds per year, only 0.36 pound per day. That’s 5.76 ounces of meat. This is exactly the recommendation of the US Dietary Guidelines “My Plate.” I think 0.36 pounds of animal protein (not eggs or milk) per day is much more realistic for what Americans are actually eating, on average. This would be about 45 grams of protein from meat per day.
We’re Eating Too Little Protein; Not “Too Much” Meat
To summarize, we’re eating a very low amount of protein, about 16% of total calories. It should be at least 20% of caloric intake, which means at least 100 grams of protein on a 2,000 calorie diet. When looking at meat consumption, it’s important to account for loss; from “availability” (carcass weight, pet food, other non-edible outputs from meat processing) to what actually makes it home to the consumer and into our bodies. There seems to be no incredibly accurate ways to tell exactly how much meat we’re eating, but the number is likely between 5 and 6 ounces per day, which is consistent with what the US Dietary Guidelines recommends, and is too low compared to the ADMR. Americans (and the rest of the world) are eating a lot more chicken than ever before. We’re also eating more grains, sweeteners, and vegetable oils.
We’re getting sicker and more overweight each year in America. We need to eat better food, and less of it in total. In order to reduce obesity, increasing protein and reducing grains, sugars, and vegetable oils (this means reducing intake of processed foods) is the right way to go. When choosing the right sources of protein, I argue that beef (and other herbivores like lamb, goats and bison) are better choices from an environmental and animal welfare perspective than other sources of animal protein. Animal protein is also a much more efficient source of protein from a caloric perspective than consuming protein from vegetarian sources, which I will dive into in my next post. We’re not eating too much protein, nor “too much” meat. We need less food, better food. Next, you’ll learn what proteins are optimal for human health, animal welfare, and the environment.
In my next installments in this series, I’ll cover:
What are the best vegetarian sources of protein?
Why don’t women eat more red meat?
And in case you missed it, read my previous posts: