Protein is everyone’s favorite macronutrient these days, and with good reason: High protein foods not only build and repair muscle, they also helps us feel fuller, longer, and may even spike our metabolism a little bit. I’m not complaining about the huge push for protein ; it’s a really progressive departure from the 90s low-fat diet craze. Okay, I ate tons of bagels and fat-free cream cheese during that time too, just like you probably did! Thankfully those days are over and we’re so much smarter now, right?
Even though protein is definitely an important part of a healthy diet, there are a few protein myths that I think far too many of you are letting yourselves believe. Lucky for you, SELF’s resident nutrition myth debunker is on the job! Here are seven protein myths you need to stop believing and why:
1. Calories from protein don’t count.
I wish! Just because it’s protein doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have calories. I’ve had plenty of clients justify huge protein portions “because it’s protein!” Fair enough, but no. Just because high protein diets extoll the virtues of eating steak and eggs for breakfast doesn’t make it fair game to consume as much protein as you can.
The good news though is that you do burn more calories breaking down high protein foods after eating them than you do with any other macronutrient. Even though those calories may be more difficult for the body to metabolize than fat or carbohydrate, they still count. Protein isn’t a “free” food, so please don’t treat it as though it is.
2. The ideal protein intake per meal is 0.8 grams per kilogram, like the USDA says.
When I was in nutrition school, we all learned the same thing: that protein requirements are 0.8 to 1.0 grams per kilogram for healthy people, and not a bit more.
What we didn’t learn is that these numbers are the minimum protein requirements for healthy—and sedentary—people. For active people, 1.4 to 2 grams per kilogram per day appears to be ideal. So if you’re working out regularly and are healthy, you may want to check to see that you’re eating enough protein.
It’s also important that you distribute your protein throughout the day. Eating a huge chicken breast for dinner and no other protein for the rest of the day doesn’t cut it. Most people typically eat a big chunk of their daily protein at dinner, but spreading out your protein into even chunks at each meal can help you stay satiated and may even fire up your muscle-building anabolic state.
3. Too much protein harms your kidneys.
Yeah, I learned this one in nutrition school too. Fortunately, it has been debunked for healthy people. If you don’t have kidney issues and are generally healthy, you should be able to eat a higher protein diet (i.e., higher than 0.8 to 1.0 grams per kilogram) without harming your kidneys. But you’ll want to increase your protein intake slowly on a higher protein diet: After all, the work of filtering the byproducts of protein metabolism falls on the kidneys. Too much, too fast—especially if you’re predisposed to kidney problems— may cause issues . If you have questions or concerns, always check with your doctor, because everyone is different.
4. You can only get enough protein from meat and other animal sources.
Only animal proteins are “ complete ,” meaning they contain all 20 amino acids your body requires. However, plant-based sources can do the job if you eat a wide variety of them. Plant-based proteins are “incomplete,” which means they lack at least one or more amino acids.
This is why pairing incomplete, but “complementary” proteins—such as beans and rice, for example—used to be encouraged. We now know that as long as you eat a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day, there’s no reason to actually eat complementary proteins together. Your body will store the amino acids from one meal to the next, adding to them and linking them up as it needs them.
5. Quinoa is a good source of protein.
I get a lot of clients telling me that they use quinoa as their protein source at meals, but it’s really not that high in protein compared to other vegetarian sources.
Quinoa contains 8 grams of protein per cup. Rice contains 5 grams per cup. One cup of cooked oats has 10 grams. So you can see that quinoa is sort of comparable to other starch sources .
In comparison to tofu, which has 10 grams per 1/2 cup, eggs, which have 6 grams each, and chickpeas, which have 20 grams per 1/2 cup, quinoa isn’t looking like such a high-quality protein source after all.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with quinoa , but try to use it as an adjunct to other proteins instead of as the sole source at meals.
6. You should be drinking a protein shake after a workout.
Not really, unless you’re not expecting to eat a meal within two hours or so of your workout. Many people seem to believe that protein shakes are required to build muscle after workouts, but in reality, if you’re drinking the shake and then eating a meal soon after, you’re probably consuming too many calories.
You may have heard that you only have about 30 minutes to an hour after a workout to consume protein for muscle synthesis. But in fact, you have around a two to four-hour window post-exercise. If you’re going to go ahead and have dinner shortly after your workout, for example, you may not need that protein shake.
I caution you against consuming a protein-heavy meal right before working out, since you may experience stomach cramps as the digesting food in your stomach competes for blood flow with your muscles. Before a workout, I recommend a carbohydrate-rich snack balanced with protein, for example, an apple with peanut butter or some cheese and crackers.
7. Bone broth contains proteins that can make your hair and nails stronger.
There’s this persistent myth that says that since your hair and nails are naturally full of collagen, then consuming collagen-rich bone broth or collagen supplements must strengthen hair and nails. Not true. Collagen is broken down in your body just like any other protein —into individual amino acids. You can’t dictate where in your body those amino acids are going to be utilized. Those amino acids are sent by your body to wherever they’re needed, which may or may not be your hair and nails.
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