by Marion Nestle
Jan 4 2012

Peevish about “protein”

Reading the New York Times dining section this morning kicked up my annoyance at use of the term “protein” to refer to meat.  A story about what to do with holiday leftovers says “…repurposing top-quality proteins into dinner is easier than it seems.”

Another on Simon Doonan’s new book, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, quotes him as pointing out that “straight food…tends to be leaden, full of protein, thick with fat.” Now you know.

But protein is a nutrientFoods are sources of nutrients.

Nutritionists like me consider protein a “macronutrient,” meaning that foods contain many grams of protein and also that protein is a source of calories (4 per gram as opposed to 9 for fat and 4 or so for carbohydrate).

Diets contain about 15% of calories from protein on average, an amount much greater than most people need—about twice the minimum required for maintenance and growth.

“Protein” is most definitely not a synonym for meat or even tofu (see table).  I’ve listed the plant sources of protein in Italics.


Poultry 17
Dairy 16
Refined grains 15
Beef 11
Seafood  7
Pork  6
Vegetables  6
Whole grains  4
Eggs  4
Fruit  2
Nuts and seeds  2
Sweets  2
Legumes (beans, peas)  1

Source: J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 February ; 110(2): 291–295.

Grains, vegetables, and fruits are not the biggest sources, but they are important contributors.  Vegans, who consume no animal products at all, do not lack for protein.

And while proteins from meat resemble our own proteins more than do proteins from vegetables, their constituent amino acids are the same in all foods.  Varying food intake and eating enough food takes care of amino acid balance.

Hence, my peevishness at the use of “Protein” as a separate category in USDA’s MyPlate (see previous post).

Grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are important sources of protein in American diets.

Why protein?  USDA used to call the group “meat” even though it contained beans, poultry, and fish.  The meat industry ought to be happy about “protein.”  Meat producers have spent years trying to convince Americans to equate meat with protein.

A plea: let’s keep terms clear and talk about nutrients when we mean nutrients and foods when we mean foods.  Protein is not food.

NOTE: More about protein tomorrow when I discuss the new JAMA study on whether high-protein diets help you lose weight (spoiler alert: they don’t).

  • Marion,

    Great post. I’m in the process of reducing my animal “protein” intake and this is helpful!


  • Jes

    You are my hero 🙂

    Great post. I had a friend tell me this morning that they weren’t getting protein from fruit and veggies, so that chart was a perfect tool for reference.

  • Brandon

    Wow people really do like their refined grains!

  • i feel the same way about carbohydrates. people always say, “oh ya, you don’t eat carbs”. then i have to educate them that carbs are not a food. i avoid most grains but do eat potatoes and fruits. all those contain carbohydrates. macronutrients are not things we eat. we eat foods. our inept government even got that wrong as you pointed out so it is reasonable to expect most people to get it wrong too. btw, i doubt meat producers are happy with the “protein” portion on their food plate.

  • Henrik

    I’m curious about the other direction—proteins are often touted by fitness experts as essential to gaining muscles and strength. But I’ve read counterarguments that weight lifters are probably eating way more protein than they need for little or no benefit. Are there studies examining this question?

  • kb

    I was going to comment on the carbs = bread problem too! It drives me insane when people say they’ve cut out carbs while they’re sitting there eating fruits and vegetables.

  • re: whether high protein diets help you lose more weight, I don’t know what the JAMA study has to add to that topic, seeing as the goal of that particular study was to make people GAIN weight.

  • nd

    Just to point out a small error. “Refined Grains” should be in italics. Otherwise, a nice post.

  • Jon

    While I can completely understand annoyance at the use of “protein” to refer specifically to animal meats (and more specifically mammals), I think it’s a little silly to get annoyed at the Dining section of the NYT. Like it or not, and accurate or not, “protein” is used ubiquitously in cookbooks, cooking shows, and I would guess the restaurant world (no insider experience there) to refer to mammalian muscles.

    Technically, the use of the word is incorrect and connotes a false idea (as emphasized by other comments). But I don’t think that makes it worthy of getting annoyed, especially when it is being used in a “specialty language” sort of way. People who read the NYT article know exactly what “protein” refers to in this particular instance, even if their biochemistry sucks…

  • Anne

    @Henrik —

    There’s quite a lot of good data on the importance of protein intake for fitness/exercise, particularly protein immediately after a workout. Here are some recent references (if the spam filter allows links):

    – Muscle-building effects of protein right after exercise
    – However, benefits cap out at about 30g per meal
    – Post workout protein: milk sources better than soy

    Specifically on the weight loss/protein angle, check out:

    – Increased Protein during Diet- and Exercise-Induced Weight Loss Promotes Fat Mass Loss and Lean Mass Gain
    – Higher-protein diet (25% of total calories) helps regulate appetite

  • Suzanne

    Just to point out another absurdity in the way this study is being reported here and in other venues: the message being pushed is almost uniformly “only calories are what matters” when if anything, this study proves the exact opposite! Body composition varied greatly across groups even though calories were held equal. How can anyone argue with a straight face that a calorie is a calorie when on an equal number of calories one group gained muscle and another lost muscle? When people speak of “losing weight” they are talking about losing fat, not losing mass in general. even a weight loss study; It is a weight gain study! Yet the title clearly makes a strong claim about weight loss. If anything, its a study relevant for body builders, not dieters.

  • Elaine W

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Conflating “‘protein” with “meat” has been driving me crazy for several years. I’m vegetarian (ovo-lacto rather than vegan), and the first time I came across this was in a restaurant a few years ago which served salads and sandwiches with a choice of ingredients. One option was called “protein” but it included several different kinds of meat, cheese, and garbanzo beans. Why not call the category “meat, cheese, and beans” because that’s what it was? Sometimes I think the meat industry doesn’t want to acknowledge any non-meat sources of protein, but unfortunately, the rest of the food service industry goes along with this.

  • Emma

    Exactly! I’m constantly annoyed when people exclaim the need to “put some protein on that salad” or whatever, as though that makes any sense. Do we ever say, “That’s nice enough but it really needs some Vitamin D?”

    Also, I’ve been a vegetarian for 20+ years, and I’m extra annoyed with the conflation of meat with protein. If I weren’t getting the nutrients I need, particularly macronutrients, I would have keeled over ages ago.

    Which… yeah, that’s pretty much what you just said, but rather less elegant. Pardon me, I need a hot cup of caffeine with some fat and calcium to re-start the ol’ brain.

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