Physiological limitations of protein foods ounce equivalents and the underappreciated role of essential amino acid density in healthy dietary patterns

Document Type


Publication Date



Health Sciences

Publication Title

Journal of Nutrition


Protein quality is an important component of protein intake to support growth, development, and maintenance of essential body tissues and functions. Therefore, protein quality should be emphasized as a key characteristic during protein food selection within the larger context of healthy dietary patterns, especially when considering the wide variance of protein quality across animal- and plant-based foods. However, the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) do not address specific protein quality recommendations within their protein foods ounce equivalents guidance or as a component of Healthy U.S. Style, Healthy Vegetarian, and Healthy Mediterranean Style dietary patterns. In addition, the protein foods ounce equivalents within the DGA are not established on any obvious metabolic equivalency characteristic [i.e., energy, protein, or essential amino acid (EAA) content], which creates misleading messaging of equivalent functional and metabolic benefit across protein foods. EAA content is a key characteristic of protein quality and can be a practical focal point for protein intake recommendations and achieving healthy dietary patterns. This review discusses the importance of protein quality, the state of messaging within DGA recommendations, and proposes EAA density (i.e., EAA content relative to total energy) as one practical approach to improve current dietary recommendations. Two recent publications that evaluated the DGA protein foods ounce equivalents based on metabolic effect and their application within DGA recommended dietary patterns are discussed. J Nutr 2021;151:3276 3283.

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