Am I getting enough? Nutrition professionals hear this question often. Rarely do clients ask in the context of calories. Caloric adequacy is generally more obvious, and the bathroom scale serves as a reliable and readily available gauge.
Unfortunately, other nutrients aren’t as clear. Needs vary from person-to-person, signs of insufficiency — such as headache, fatigue, poor concentration, dry skin, and constipation — are easily mistaken for day-to-day body changes or symptoms of other health concerns. And blood testing – considered the standard method for diagnosing deficiency – isn’t something we do regularly.
To complicate matters further, we’re flooded with mixed messages from the media regarding the optimal amounts we should consume daily. Scientific research impacts public opinion, too. When a study suggests a nutrient’s potential benefits, certain ingredients become instant favourites. When experimental results reveal possible drawbacks, that same nutrient quickly falls out of fashion.
Food manufacturers capitalise on these dynamics. They formulate products strategically — adding ingredients and adjusting recipes in tune with the latest trends. They steer consumers’ focus by promoting products based on the presence or relative levels of a nutrient. By using label language like, “now with more __,” they intill the belief, “I need extra.” and beg the question, “Am I getting enough?” With such inconsistency and marketing manipulation, consumers develop understandable uncertainty about their ‘real’ requirements and the sufficiency of their usual food choices.
Protein is a prime example…
Alongside carbohydrates and fats, it’s considered one of the macro-nutrients. This trio contributes most to daily calories and, as a result, garners the greatest public attention.
Each of the macronutrients is valuable to human physiology. However, in recent decades, the public’s infatuation with protein has increased. As a key player in bone and muscle growth, cell and tissue repair, and immunity, protein’s role within the body is attractive. However, growing concerns for the other two macronutrients elevated protein to the leader of the pack.
In the mid-1900’s, dietary fat was associated with bodily fat. Likewise, health organizations universally recommended fat avoidance to reduce heart disease risk. At the time, it wasn’t known that fats – in moderation – can support weight loss by prolonging satiety after a meal (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) nor that higher-in-fat regimes (like the Mediterranean diet) offer cardiovascular benefits. On the other hand, carbohydrates were shunned by popular weight loss diets and considered worrisome for their connection with diabetes. It wasn’t widely recognized that some carbohydrate-based foods curb cravings (7, 8, 9) and stabilize blood sugar levels (10, 11, 12).
Nonetheless, protein eventually emerged as the only macronutrient left with an unblemished reputation — one that consumers could eat safely and freely. By default, protein consumption rose. Yet — thanks to the food industry’s downplaying of carbohydrate and fat and over-emphasis on protein’s importance — the public continued to wonder, “Am I getting enough?”
The answer to this question is hotly debated. For example, the World Health Organization and the United States FDA assert minimum requirements sit between 0.8- 1 grams protein per kilogram (0.36-0.45 grams per pound) of bodyweight for healthy persons (13, 14, 15). Baseline needs increase for certain people, such as athletes or pregnant and breast-feeding women (14). Some sources suggest it’s safe to eat up to 2 grams per kilogram (0.91grams per pound) of body weight. While others argue that excesses are inefficiently processed — burdening the kidneys and compromising bone health (16).
So, are you getting enough? If you’re reading this now, chances are good that you are. Collectively, the world’s peoples consume about 30% more than the aforementioned average adult daily requirement. But the distribution of protein intake differs geographically. While protein malnutrition remains a genuine concern for underdeveloped populations, most wealthy nations eat ample. Some – especially those where meat consumption is prevalent – total nearly twice estimated baseline needs (18, 19, 20).
Yet, narrowing focus on any one macronutrient has nutritional implications: it displaces the other two. If we keep calories consistent, ramping up protein intake – by default – dials down carbohydrates and fats. As a consequence, essential vitamins, minerals, and compounds found in carb- or fat predominant foods come up short, too. Similarly, to boost protein totals, food manufacturers rely heavily on isolates, concentrates and texturates – additives made by extracting plants’ proteins but discarding their other useful constituents.
Such is the case with fibre…
Fibres are found exclusively in carbohydrate-containing foods – like whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Given fibres’ abundance in the natural food supply, one would assume the average person consumes plenty. Yet, studies suggest the opposite.
How much fibre do we need? Guidance for optimal daily intake differs by gender, caloric intake and age. However, on the whole, most advice sits between 25 to 30 grams of fibre per day (19,20, 21, 22). Most individuals worldwide consume fewer than 20 grams per day.
What’s to blame for the disparity between recommendations and reality? A number of factors. Preoccupation with protein surely contributes to the reduction in total carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrate-restricted, high-protein or high-fat regimens – like Atkins, South Beach, Keto, or Paleo – pose a challenge for many dieters. The rise in Type II diabetes also weighs in, as carbohydrate-controlled meal plans are often mainstays in disease management (25, 26).
The type of carbohydrates consumers routinely choose plays a part, too. Due to concerns surrounding gluten, many avoid all wheat, rye, barley and triticale, and consequently, eat fewer grains (28). Likewise, the world has become increasingly dependent on highly processed foods – which account for up to 60% of daily intake in some nations (27). To produce global dietary staples like white rice and white-flour breads, cereals and noodles, grains are ‘refined’, stripping away their natural fibres.
Furthermore, until lately, fibre’s nutritional significance was wildly underestimated. Long considered a calorie-free, non-nutrient, people paid less attention to it. For years, fibres were described as ‘undigested roughage’ tasked with escorting food through the GI tract. So, while proteins appreciate appealing associations to muscle, growth, and immunity – we connect fibre with the toilet. It’s no surprise fibre might fall off the public radar.
However, in the last two decades, our understanding of fibre has grown. Scientists have identified multiple types of fibres, each with unique bodily functions. Despite its humble beginnings, recent research reveals that fibre’s value to human health extends well beyond waste removal (29).
- Nourish our gut microbiota – the beneficial microbes living in the GI tract linked with anti-inflammatory, digestive, brain, immune and cardiovascular benefits (30, 31, 32, 33).
- Slow and even reduce the movement of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, improving blood sugar stability (34, 35).
- Prevent the absorption of dietary cholesterol, thereby lowering cholesterol levels in the bloodstream (34, 38).
- Prolong feelings of fullness after eating, aiding with long-term weight control. (36, 37).
- Diets higher in fibre are associated with lower risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease — and a 15-30% decrease in all-cause mortality (39).
Yet, for dieticians and nutritional counsellors, fibre adequacy enquiries are comparatively few and far between. Unlike protein, most clients don’t actively seek high-fibre foods – let alone mind total daily intakes. And many are quick to correct suboptimal intake with supplements or fortified items – which usually offer but one fibre type – rather than whole-plant foods – which provide a blend of many.
Ironically, overall, we seem to question whether we are “getting enough” of the foods we over-consume but overlook dietary components we lack. Perhaps this protein-fibre aradox is a call to zoom out… To look candidly at out-dated but lingering nutrient misperceptions. To filter out food fads, unbalanced diet trends, and clever label claims and hone in on our own real-time needs. To identify and fill in dietary gaps with whole, nature-made ingredients – rather than processed products. And to adopt a balanced, big-picture approach to our eating habits – one that nourishes comprehensively and tows the line between too much and not enough.