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How much protein do you need each day? Probably more than you think.

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

A recurring question among my clients, friends, and family is about the importance of protein in their diet. They wonder why protein is important, or are confused by all the conflicting information they see and hear. I'll break down the most recent research and thinking around protein consumption in this post.

Protein a key element in building muscle, and it is also important in the proper functioning of our bodies. It is a major structural component of muscles, the nervous system, brain, blood, skin, and hair and is used by the body as a transport mechanism for vitamins, minerals, oxygen, and fats. Protein consumption is linked to improved bone mineral density, reduced risk of fractures, and enhanced bone health overall. Due to its role in the muscle-building process, emphasizing adequate protein consumption in combination with resistance training during our second half of life becomes extremely important. Recent research has shown that low protein intake is associated with decreased muscle tissue (sarcopenia).

Building and maintaining muscle is essential not just for performance but also for health and longevity. Lower muscle mass is associated with increases in metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, and muscle mass is inversely related to death by any cause, meaning more muscle helps us live longer, and better. It also helps keep us independent as we age.

man using TRX in park

To build skeletal muscle it’s essential to eat enough protein, which provides the amino acids we need and prompts our bodies to increase muscle protein synthesis or the process of repairing muscle tissue and building new muscle.

Daily protein intake recommendations

There has been a lot of debate about how much protein is adequate. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight; however, the RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet the bare minimum nutritional requirements -- if you are a young, sedentary male. If you are active, older, female, or any combination of these, you need more protein. Why? Because when you are active, your body needs more protein to help repair muscle and tissues. As we get older, research has shown that we need more protein to maintain muscle function. And, if you are a female whose hormones have dropped off a cliff during perimenopause/menopause, you need more protein to make up for the lack of estrogen and testosterone that helped us build and maintain muscle during our earlier years.

So how much protein do you need?

An easy rule of thumb is to aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Overweight individuals can substitute their goal weight for their current body weight in this calculation.

Research has shown that protein absorption is most efficient when consumed uniformly throughout the day, meaning consuming some protein with every meal. Our bodies can't store protein like it can store carbohydrates and it can only synthesize so much at one time, so we really need to spread protein intake throughout the day. The goal is to have 25 to 30 grams of protein three or four times a day coupled with strength training to help maintain muscle.

When I tell people how much protein they need, they are incredulous and then ask how they can possibly eat that much protein in a day. The key is to prioritize protein at every meal (including snacks). During your meals, eat the protein first, rather than (for example) the chips or bread. This ensures that you have room for the protein-rich foods, which are actually more satiating than other foods like carbohydrates. If you eat animal-based protein, chicken, beef, or pork provide about 30 grams per 4-ounce serving. One cup of 2 percent cottage cheese is also about 30 grams, as is one 3.5-ounce can of tuna. Low-fat Greek yogurt contains about 20 grams per cup; adding nuts and seeds brings you to about 30 grams.

If you are plant-based, you can meet your protein needs with soy foods like tempeh, edamame, seitan, nuts and seeds (and nut and seed butters) and beans and legumes. You can create delicious high protein smoothies. For example, blend 4 ounces of tofu with nut butter, and flax, hemp and chia seeds (add fruit, spinach, etc. according to taste) to get a completely vegan 30-gram protein hit. While it is preferable to get your protein from whole foods, protein powders may be necessary to help meet your daily protein needs if you are plant-based. Consulting a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian can provide personalized recommendations based on individual health conditions and needs.

As we age, it becomes increasingly important to prioritize our nutritional needs to maintain optimal health and well-being. Protein takes center stage, playing a crucial role in supporting various bodily functions and preserving muscle mass. By recognizing the significance of protein and making it a dietary priority, you can enhance your well-being, promote healthy aging, and continue to lead an active and fulfilling life.

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Great suggestion about eating the protein first in a meal. Ensures you'll get that before you become too full to eat the rest if the meal! Thanks!

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