Few nutrients are as important as protein. If you don’t get enough through your diet, your health and body composition suffer.
However, there are vastly different opinions on how much protein people actually need.
Most official nutrition organizations recommend a fairly modest protein intake. The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per lb.
This amounts to:
56 grams per day for the average sedentary man.
46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman.
Though this meagre amount may be enough to prevent downright deficiency, studies show that it’s far from sufficient to ensure optimal health and body composition. It turns out that the right amount of protein for any one individual depends on many factors, including their activity level, age, muscle mass, physique goals and current state of health.
This article takes a look at optimal amounts of protein and how lifestyle factors like weight loss, muscle building and activity levels factor in.
Protein — What Is It and Why Should You Care?
How Much Protein Per Day?
Proteins are the main building blocks of your body, used to make muscles, tendons, organs and skin, as well as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and various tiny molecules that serve many important functions.
Without protein, life as you know it would not be possible
Proteins are made out of smaller molecules called amino acids, which are linked together like beads on a string. These linked amino acids form long protein chains, which are then folded into complex shapes.
Some of these amino acids can be produced by your body, while you must get others through your diet. The latter are called essential amino acids.
Protein is not just about quantity but also quality Generally speaking, animal protein provides all essential amino acids in the right ratio for you to make full use of them — which makes sense, as animal tissues are similar to your own tissues.
If you’re eating animal products like meat, fish, eggs, or dairy every day, you’re likely doing pretty well protein-wise already.
However, if you don’t eat animal foods, getting all the protein and essential amino acids your body needs is a bit more challenging. In this case, you may be interested in this article on the 17 best protein sources for vegans.
Few people really need protein supplements, but they can be useful for athletes and bodybuilders.
Protein is a structural molecule assembled out of amino acids, many of which your body can’t produce on its own. Animal foods are usually high in protein, providing all essential amino acids.
Can Aid Weight Loss and Prevent Weight Gain Protein is incredibly important when it comes to losing weight.
As you know, you need to take in fewer calories than you burn to lose weight.
It’s well supported by science that eating protein can increase the number of calories you burn by boosting your metabolic rate, whilst cutting down your cravings to eat.
Protein at around 25 – 30% of total daily calories has been shown to boost metabolism by up to 80 – 100 calories per day, compared to lower protein diets.
Yet, probably the most important contribution of protein to weight loss is its ability to reduce appetite and cause a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake. Protein keeps you feeling full much better than both healthy fat and carbohydrates.
One study in obese men showed that protein at 25% of calories increased feelings of fullness, reduced the desire for late-night snacking by half and reduced obsessive thoughts about food by 60%
In another study, women who increased their protein intake to 30% of calories ended up eating 441 fewer calories per day and lost 11 pounds in 12 weeks — simply by adding more protein to their diet.
Protein not only helps you lose weight, it can also prevent you from gaining weight in the first place.
In one study, a modest increase in protein from 15% to 18% of calories reduced the amount of fat people regained after weight loss by 50% (9).
A high protein intake also helps you build and preserve muscle mass, which burns a small number of calories around the clock.
Eating more protein makes it much easier to stick to any weight loss diet — be it high-carb, low-carb or something in between.
According to these studies, a protein intake of around 30% of calories may be optimal for weight loss. This amounts to 150 grams per day for someone on a 2000-calorie diet.
Can help you gain muscle and strength as muscles are largely made of protein.
As with most tissues in your body, muscles are dynamic and constantly being broken down and rebuilt.
To gain muscle, your body must synthesize more muscle protein than it breaks down. In other words, there needs to be a net positive protein balance in your body — often called nitrogen balance, as protein is high in nitrogen.
For this reason, people who want a lot of muscle need to eat a greater amount of protein and lift weights. It’s well documented that a higher protein intake helps build muscle and strength.
People who want to hold on to muscle they’ve already built may need to increase their protein intake when losing body fat, as a high protein intake can help prevent muscle loss that usually occurs when dieting.
When it comes to muscle mass, studies usually don’t look at the percentage of calories but rather daily grams of protein per kilograms or pounds of body weight.
A common recommendation for gaining muscle is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, or 2.2 grams of protein per kg.
Other scientists have estimated the protein needs to be a minimum of 0.7 grams per lb, (1.6 grams per kg).
Numerous studies have tried to determine the optimal amount of protein for muscle gain but many reach different conclusions.
Some studies show that more than 0.8 grams per pound (1.8 grams per kg) have no benefit, while others indicate that intakes slightly higher than 1 gram of protein per lb (2.2 grams per kg) is best.
Though it’s hard to give exact figures due to conflicting study results, about 0.7 – 1 gram per lb (1.6 – 2.2 grams per kg) of body weight seems to be a reasonable estimate.
If you’re carrying a lot of body fat, using either your lean mass or your goal weight, instead of your total body weight, is a good idea, as it’s mostly your lean mass that determines the amount of protein you need.
It’s important to eat enough protein if you want to gain or maintain muscle.
Most studies suggest that 0.7 –1 gram per lb of lean mass (1.6 – 2.2 grams per kg) are sufficient.
Other Circumstances That Can Increase Protein Needs
Disregarding muscle mass and physique goals, people who are physically active do need more protein than people who are sedentary.
If your job is physically demanding, you walk a lot, run, swim or do any sort of exercise, you need to eat more protein.
Endurance athletes also need significant amounts of protein, about (0.5 – 0.65) grams per pound, or 1.2 – 1.4 grams per kg.
Older adults have significantly increased protein needs as well — up to 50% higher than the DRI, or about 0.45 – 0.6 grams per pound (1–1.3 grams per kg) of body weight.
This can help prevent osteoporosis and sarcopenia (reduction in muscle mass), both significant problems in the elderly. People recovering from injuries may also need more protein.
The best sources of protein are meats, fish, eggs and dairy products, as they have all the essential amino acids that your body needs. Some plants are fairly high in protein as well, such as quinoa, legumes and nuts. However, most people generally don’t need to track their protein intake.
If you’re a healthy person trying to stay healthy, then simply eating quality protein with most of your meals, along with nutritious plant foods should bring your intake to an optimal range.
What “Grams of Protein” Really Means?
This is a very common misunderstanding.
In nutrition science, “grams of protein” refers to grams of the macronutrient protein, not grams of a protein-containing food like meat or eggs.
An 8-ounce serving of beef weighs 226 grams but only contains 61 grams of actual protein. Similarly, a large egg weighs 46 grams but only packs 6 grams of protein.
What About the Average Person?
If you’re at a healthy weight, don’t lift weights and don’t exercise much, then aiming for 0.36–0.6 grams per lb, (0.8–1.3 gram per kg) is a reasonable estimate.
This amounts to:
56–91 grams per day for the average male.
46–75 grams per day for the average female.
But given that there is no evidence of harm and a significant evidence of benefit, it’s likely better for most people to err on the side of more protein rather than less. The optimum amount of protein per meal for muscle building — about 30 grams, according to one study — is sometimes quoted as the maximum amount you can absorb, but the two are not related. In one study, researchers found that a meal containing 30 grams of protein boosted muscle-building activity by about 50%.
It turned out, however, that increasing the amount of protein in the meal didn’t create a bigger boost in muscle synthesis. On average, subjects who ate 90 grams of protein at a meal got exactly the same benefit as subjects who ate 30 grams.
It is evident to see that there are many reasons why it is important to have the sufficient amount of protein in your diet. Whether your goal is weight loss, maintaining, or building muscle mass, we all need to ensure that protein is the no:1 macro nutrient on our daily diet.