July, 2013: This is a question that gets asked all the time, and the answer is: it depends on how grounded you need to be! So, sadly (perhaps, if you were looking for the one and final answer), this means that there really is not a universal dietary recommendation for everyone! This is a truth which gets reinforced in the medical practice all the time. And what is even more interesting, is that the correct amount may change for an individual person over the course of different life stages. Why? Because animal protein makes you more focused, more “earthy” and at some stages that feels very good, and at others it is way too much.
Infants (less than a year) get all of the protein they need through breast milk, in a form which is very easy to digest and assimilate. There is actually not a lot of protein in breast milk (as a percentage of total calories, only about 6%). This makes sense because a small child is only very gradually coming into life, and this model of a lower protein diet can be extended for children up to about age three. There are of course some children who already from a small age crave more animal protein (and will grab a breakfast sausage off a plate) but in general a lacto-vegetarian diet is appropriate for most children to age three. After three, most children will settle into a more individual craving for meat and eggs. In adolescence, the craving may shift again, as much more developmental energy is going into created greater muscle mass. Many teenagers need a lot of protein, and as long as it is (hopefully) good quality protein, that should be respected.
As an adult, this may shift again. Hard physical labor, pregnancy, as well as work that demands us to be present, active, and “on point” may all benefit from a higher protein intake. Blood sugar can even out with more protein–think of the Atkin's diet, Paleo diet, or Westin Price recommendations–as some people definitely feel better when they eat meat and more in themselves. On the other hand, many different spiritual practices recommend a vegetarian diet, as it helps lighten our consciousness, and most older adults find that they have less need for meat and appreciate a simpler diet overall. What is important is to eat according to what your body needs and appreciates.
- Not sure what your body really likes? Then try going lighter and see how you feel. The average American diet is way too heavy in animal protein. Meat should be a small side-dish, not the main part of a meal.
- Know that you need, and benefit from protein?–Then try eating it mostly at breakfast and midday, when you naturally should be most grounded and earthy in your activity.
The best overall advice is probably to try to lighten and enliven your diet enough that your body can really respond, and tell you what it needs. And when that happens, you may find that your needs and patterns are flexible enough that they may adjust a little every day.