I get this question A LOT, especially from clients who are trying to exercise more... "am I eating enough protein?" Unless you are a vegetarian, vegan or just don't like meat, my answer is almost always "yes"!
So why has a protein-centric culture made us believe we need to maximize our daily dietary intake with protein powders, shakes and bars? Well, it's likely because we tend to associate protein intake with muscle mass and the pursuit of physical ideals is a profitable market. Although there is some truth to the protein and muscle association (we DO need protein in order to make muscle), eating more protein doesn't always equate to more muscle, and what most of us eat in a day is more than sufficient to cover our needs. Here's the science...
Protein, especially from animal sources (meat, fish, eggs, dairy), contains the building blocks for muscle (we call them amino acids). Our body digests food proteins down to amino acids, which it uses to build our own cells and tissues. The limitation is that we can only process/digest so much protein at one time, so piling on the protein isn't necessarily beneficial. Imagine adding more and more gasoline to your car until the tank is overflowing in the hopes that it will make your car perform better... it doesn't work that way, right? If we overload on protein two things happen in our body:
The body stores excess protein as fat - energy to be used/processed another time.
Added stress is put on the kidneys, since they process the waste products of protein digestion.
So how do we know how much protein is enough? Well, for perspective, the average 150lb person with a sedentary or lightly active lifestyle only needs 55 grams of protein in a day. This sounds like a lot until you take into account that a 3 ounce chicken breast (the size of your palm) is 26 grams of protein, or that a single serving of Greek yogurt or two eggs includes 12 grams of protein. That could be almost 75% of the 55 gram protein needs for the day just between breakfast and lunch... not to mention the smaller bits of protein we ingest throughout the day from whole grain breads, cereals, rice, beans, nuts and seeds (yes, plants have protein too!) It's easy to see how quickly protein can add up just from the things we eat.
Of course if you are a very active person or someone who participates in a lot of strength/resistance training activities, your protein needs may be higher to account for more muscle building and maintenance. Alternatively, if you have a medical condition that may affect your kidneys, you may need less protein. This is why it's so important to work with a Registered Dietitian to determine your specific nutrition needs!
If you do choose to use protein supplements (powders, bars, shakes, etc.) be mindful of the ingredients. Not all proteins are created equal and some may be better than others based on your needs. Many of these products also contain artificial colors, sugars, flavors and preservatives which may contribute to undesirable health effects such as headaches, allergies and even cancer. It's important to note that dietary supplements are not regulated in the United States, so it's a good idea to make sure the products you're using have been verified/tested by a third party for content - otherwise you could be spending a lot of money for sugar powder.
So in summary, we need protein, but not as much as we have been led to believe. It is completely possible to get our daily protein needs through the whole foods that we eat without resorting to processed supplements. If you are still concerned about your protein intake, do a food journal for a couple of days and take note of what and how much you are eating - the results may surprise you!