Protein, one of three types of macronutrients, helps our bodies repair the muscles, bones, and cells vital to keeping our bodies structurally intact. In fact, we are made up of roughly 10,000 various proteins that help us function. Protein is made up of chains of amino acids, and because the nine essential amino acids are not made by the body, we must get protein from food.
But how much protein do we actually need every day? Ideal protein intake varies by age, activity level, and weight. It also depends on the nutrients consumed alongside a protein source, so it may be more complex than merely packing in a sirloin steak or a load of lunch meat and calling it a day.
How much protein is enough?
The general recommendation is that most healthy adults need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. You can also multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36 to calculate the rounded ideal number of grams. For example, a person who weighs 170 pounds would need around 62 grams of protein per day or about 69 grams for someone who weighs 190 pounds.
Anywhere from 10% to 35% of your daily caloric intake should be protein, according to the National Academy of Medicine: a wide range that underscores how protein intake varies greatly depending on the individual.
Rather than getting caught up in complicated calculations, some experts say to just focus on eating protein-rich foods throughout the day, such as seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products. Incorporating protein throughout your day, along with a balance of fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy may be an easier to way think about it.
Additionally, the recommended daily allowance of protein is not a “one size fits all” approach, Siera Holley, a registered dietician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Fortune. Factors such as pregnancy, amount of exercise, and age all may play a factor in how much protein people should aim for, she says.
How much protein do you need as you age?
Muscle mass begins to reduce starting in your thirties. Known as sarcopenia, it’s “the age-associated loss of muscle mass and function,” says Roger Fielding, senior scientist in nutrition, exercise physiology, and sarcopenia at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. The general recommendation may not account for the fact that older adults need more protein to counter this muscle loss. Studies have shown a correlation between increased protein intake for older adults and improved cognitive function and physical health.
Roughly 50% of women and 30% of men 71 and older don’t get enough protein, according to the 2020–2025 dietary guidelines. As you age and muscle mass begins to shrink, some experts recommend increasing protein intake to 1–1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight beginning at age 40.
How much protein do you need if you exercise regularly?
Activity level can also alter how much protein you need to build and repair muscles. If you’re active and do strength training, consuming more protein post workout makes sense, Fielding says.
For those regularly active, consider upping protein intake to 1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight. This protein should be spaced out during the day, with a prioritization of carbohydrates and protein following exercise.
What’s the best type of protein?
Don’t just think about eating more meat. Consider proteins that are not high in saturated fats and not highly processed, which can strip them of core nutrients.
Legumes provide protein and are rich in fiber, so they are digested slower and make you feel more satisfied and full, for example. This is why the protein “package” matters—the host of qualities within a protein that determines how healthy it is. Consider lean meats, plant-based meats, and seafood as well.
- Salmon: 27 grams of protein for a 5-oz. salmon
- Lean chicken breast: 54 grams of protein for a 6-oz. lean chicken breast
- Whitefish: 38 grams of protein for one filet of whitefish
- Turkey breast: 29 grams of protein for 3½ oz of turkey breast
Vegetarian protein-rich foods:
- Lentils: 12 grams of protein for ½ cup of lentils
- Greek yogurt: 15-20 grams of protein for a 6-oz. cup of yogurt
- Eggs: 6-8 grams of protein in one egg
- Chickpeas (garbanzo beans): 14.5 grams of protein for one cup of chickpeas
When’s the best time to have protein?
Protein can help decrease hunger because it metabolizes slowly. Therefore, spreading protein intake throughout the day is beneficial.
“Studies have shown that most people consume the bulk of their dietary protein at the evening meal, with far less being consumed at breakfast and lunch,” Fielding says. “There is evidence that the distribution of protein intake throughout the day may be better for maintenance of muscle mass than consuming the majority of protein at one meal.”
Is there such a thing as too much protein?
It is indeed possible to eat too much protein. Excess protein can lead to bad breath, heart disease, and kidney disease. For those with kidney disease already, or at higher risk for the disease, too much protein can be harmful, so you should talk to your doctor to understand your protein needs.
While there isn’t a specific limit, it’s important to spread protein throughout the day and choose lean sources that are not high in saturated fats. A diet rich in red meats can raise your risk of heart disease and colon cancer.
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