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Protein Intake and Human Health: Implications of Units of Protein Intake


Understanding the health effects of protein intake is bedeviled by a number of factors, including protein quality and source. In addition, different units, including grams, grams per kilogram body weight (g/kg BW), and percent energy, may contribute to confusion about protein’s effects on health, especially BW-based units in increasingly obese populations. We aimed to review the literature and to conduct a modeling demonstration of various units of protein intake in relation to markers of cardiometabolic health. Data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring (n = 1847; 60.3 y; 62.5% women) and Third Generation (n = 2548; 46.2 y; 55.3% women) cohorts and the NHANES 2003–04 (n = 1625; 46.2 y; 49.7% women) and 2005–06 (n = 1347; 43.7 y; 49.5% women) cycles were used to model cross-sectional associations between 7 protein units (grams, percent energy, g/kg ideal BW, g/kg actual BW, BW-adjusted g/kg actual BW, g/kg lean BW, and g/kg fat-free BW) and 9 cardiometabolic outcomes (fasting glucose, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, total and HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, BMI, waist circumference, and estimated glomerular filtration rate). The literature review indicated the use of myriad units of protein intake, with differential results on cardiometabolic outcomes. The modeling demonstration showed units expressed in BW were confounded by BW, irrespective of outcome. Units expressed in grams, percent energy, and ideal BW showed similar results, with or without adjustment for body size. After adjusting for BW, results of units expressed in BW aligned with results of grams, percent energy, and ideal BW. In conclusion, protein intake in cardiometabolic health appears to depend on protein’s unit of expression. Authors should be specific about the use of WHO (g/kg ideal BW) compared with US (g/kg actual BW) units, and ideally use gram or percent energy in observational studies. In populations where overweight/obesity are prevalent, intake based on actual BW should be reevaluated.

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This work was supported by the ILSI North America Protein Committee.