Brotein – What The Dietary Guidelines for Americans Say About Protein

Executive Summary

This post explores the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and its recommendations for protein intake. If further examines the odd phenomenon of protein obsession and how Big Food is feeding the flame.

Brotein Background

During a recent trip to New Jersey, my older son and I took the opportunity to instruct Mrs. H on a common syndrome among twenty-something males of that state. The syndrome is known as “bro.”

A syndrome is a group of symptoms that consistently occur together without necessarily being associated with a specific disease or cause. Diabetes and pneumonia are diseases. Contrast these to Asperger’s or metabolic syndromes.

With its distinct group of behavioral and physical symptoms, Bro-ness qualifies as a syndrome. It gets its name from the term of endearment bros use when referring to other bros. That term is, “bro.” Typical manifestations include unusually loud and demonstrative behavior in public places and the propensity to insert the syllable “bro” in as many words as possible.  An example would be calling one’s compatriot “Broseph” when his name is “Joseph.” Or saying the word “bropensity” when they mean “propensity” (you’d be surprised how often the word “propensity” comes up in the typical bro dialogue). Yes, bros have their own brocabulary.

The relevant symptom in this post are the bros’ greater-than-normal obsession with fitness and their overt-yet-superficial techniques to attain said fitness.

We found the subjects of our study in a local sports bars where between fist bumps they consumed copious amounts of high-protein, low-carb chicken wings doused in butter and hot sauce. Carbs were being saved for their bro-skis (a.k.a. brewskis). Bros eat in this misguided manner to reconcile their correct observation that protein gets you “jacked” with their deep-seeded cravings for crap.

In a subtle nod to this particular aspect of the bro phenomenon, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans make an uncharacteristically direct recommendation that might make it’s target audience bristle.

This post talks about that recommendation and is the next in a series about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The series began in response to readers’ requests, for my take on this important document. I started with this post on the guidelines overall. Then I posted this slippery discussion about the guidelines recommendations for eating fat. The post you’re now reading focuses on protein and what the guidelines recommend. Usually, the guidelines give sound advice in the most indirect and confusing way possible. Protein suggestions are no exception, with one twist.

Recommendations Around Protein

In previous posts about the guidelines, I distinguished between the recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and the Dietary Guidelines themselves. The former is created by a group of nutrition experts who pour through the latest research and present a set of proposals for what should be said when the guidelines are published. The latter is what results when congress removes anything that they fear may be offensive to lobbyists and other donors from Big Food.

When it comes to offending the meat industry, the committee is well trained. They already know that any recommendations that explicitly call for reducing consumption of red and processed meat will be stricken from the record. They were also positioning to “choose their battle” against the meat industry but we’ll discuss that in the post about the guidelines and sustainability.  In the meantime, the committee makes this more subtle remark about protein:

“Shift to increase variety in protein foods choices and to make more nutrient-dense choices: Average intake of total protein foods is close to recommendations, while average seafood intake is below recommendations for all age-sex groups. Shifts are needed within the protein foods group to increase seafood intake, but the foods to be replaced depend on the individual’s current intake from the other protein subgroups. Strategies to increase the variety of protein foods include incorporating seafood as the protein foods choice in meals twice per week in place of meat, poultry, or eggs, and using legumes or nuts and seeds in mixed dishes instead of some meat or poultry.”

That was so long winded, you’d think I wrote it. The above is essentially what ends up in the final guidelines. What they’re trying to say is:

You eat enough protein, but too much of it comes from red and processed meat. Cut it out. Eat more fish and plant-based protein instead.

Surprisingly, the guidelines actually sing a different tune for one specific demographic (this tune sung to the sound of Semisonic’s Closing Time, a favorite song of the bros).

“Some individuals, especially teen boys and adult men, also need to reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs and increasing amounts of vegetables or other underconsumed food groups.”

Bros, the time has come to eat some of that celery that comes with your wings.

The interesting thing is this is one of the few times the guidelines say reduce meat consumption even though they say it under the guise of “protein.”

What Gives?

Not that we’re ever good at remembering this but, politics rarely align in discrete ways. Oh, we try to categorize things as right-or-left, red-or-blue, sane-or-batshit but the truth of the matter is that any attempt to label a position is just lazy thinking. It could be that our bros in Washington want to do the right thing but their hands are tied. It could also be more sinister.

Tied Hands

The two branches of government that are involved in food policy are mostly aligned, not in a good way.

The executive branch, specifically the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) manage the Dietary Guidelines. But they clearly say the following:

“The main purpose of the Dietary Guidelines is to inform the development of Federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs. The primary audiences are policymakers, as well as nutrition and health professionals, not the general public.” (bolding added by me)

And never forget that a big part of the USDA’s mission is to help rural America thrive. While the term “rural America” may bring up images of bucolic family farms, today it actually means something more like this:


Ahh, I love the smell of a freshly mulched office park and cafeteria coffee in the morning.

And our legislative branch? They play right along. A recent John Oliver segment focused on how much time members of Congress spend raising money. They can shortcut all that effort through giant donations from the Big Food segment of the Healthcare Industrial Complex.

But what about the statement requesting that young males eat less protein and eat more “underconsumed food groups?” Do the bros have a champion in Congress?


Or is something more insidious going on?

Something More Insidious.

I like to believe I’m not a member of the conspiracy theory crowd. This, despite posts like this one about the K-Files in which I talk about Big Food’s new obsession with pushing protein as a feature to sell more product. I mean high protein Cracker Jack? Really someone asked for that?

My theory is, that with guidelines saying we should consider protein sources beyond red and processed meat and with their further assertion that bros should eat underconsumed food groups, the food industry is responding with high protein versions of foods not typically associated with protein. Examples:

  1. High-protein chocolate – A new chocolate that brags that it has 30% more protein than regular milk chocolate. Instead of a measly 1.5 grams of protein per ounce (28 grams) there’s almost 2 grams per ounce. This clearly moves milk chocolate from being a poor source of protein to a mediocre source. But chocolate won’t satisfy the bros. What they really want is…
  2. High-protein beer (or brotein bro-skis) – Barbell Brew contains a kickass 22 grams of protein per bottle. Fuhgeddabout your post-workout smoothie bro! Lift a few of these barbells instead. If the 1986 Mets had access to tools like these they wouldn’t have needed “the jar.”

And with this, all masters are served:

  • Well meaning nutrition experts gently request we get our protein from sources beyond red and processed meat.
  • The government honors this request in a way that offends no constituency other than our collective intelligence.
  • Big food gets free advertising for a totally new and untapped product sector.

Everyone wins, except the bros.

We Got Your Back, Bros

The Karma Sensible Revolutionaries are on your side. We already said what you need to know:

You eat enough protein, but too much of it comes from red and processed meat. Cut it out. Eat more fish and plant-based protein instead.

Throwing in some more vegetables would be good too.

If you want more advice (I smell a shameless plug coming), The Karma Sense Eating Plan, available here, provides all the practical advice you need to enjoy protein in a healthful way. Mantra #3, Eat Protein in Every Meal gives this specific advice:

  1. If you’re a woman, aim for 1 serving of protein per meal. If you’re a man aim for 2 servings per meal. A serving is about the size of your palm. Alternatively, aim for 20-30 grams per meal for women and 40-60 grams for men.
  2. Target daily consumption is 0.75 grams to 1.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
  3. If you have kidney issues, consult with your physician before changing your protein intake.
  4. Protein consumption at the level recommended by the Karma Sense Eating Plan is safe and supports optimal health for people with healthy kidneys.

The book also provides simple tips for getting the most out of the protein you buy, cook, and eat. And it does all this in a way that appeals to the geeks, spazzes and dorks among us (present company proudly included) as well as you bros.

What The Karma Sense Eating Plan doesn’t talk about in great detail is salt and sodium. But the Dietary Guidelines for Americans discusses the subject extensively and we’ll examine that in the next post in this series.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.