How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
While protein is an important part of any diet, more isn’t always better. Here's what to know about eating protein as part of a healthy diet.
While protein is an important part of any diet, more isn’t always better. As it turns out, most folks are already eating adequate amounts of this muscle-building nutrient. So how much protein do you really need in a day —and how do you get it? Here's what you need to know about eating protein as part of a healthy diet.
Why is Protein Important?
The protein you get from foods provides precious amino acids that help regulate metabolism, build and maintain muscle, and play a role in how your immune system functions. Unlike the carbohydrates and fat that come from foods, protein isn't as efficient as a source of energy, which is why you don’t want to eat only protein — you’ll run out of gas! Also, unlike carbs and fat, your body isn't able to store protein for later use. Our systems use available aminos acids for wherever in the body there is a demand and any extra gets shipped on out as waste.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Minimum average needs for protein for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram (aka 0.36 grams per pound) body weight, but for many this may be too low. For the average adult, protein should make up about 15% to 20% of his or her daily calories (growing children and serious athletes need more). This comes out to 75 to 100 grams per day in a basic 2,000 calorie diet.
Protein Supplements vs. Food
And don't let those high-protein, Keto-style diets or drugstore shelves packaged with supplements, protein bars and shakes fool you into thinking you need supplements to meet your needs. Many products offer up 50 to 60 grams per serving which is way more than most people need in one dose. Plus, because protein takes time to digest, large amounts of can lead to stomach discomfort.
It is very possible to get your daily need from protein-rich foods: meat, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts and soy products. Whole grains also provide a few extra grams of protein. Since many of these foods are plant-based, vegetarians can easily meet their needs, too.
What Else to Know About Protein
According to research, most Americans eat enough grams of protein a day. The USDA guidelines encourage folks to seek out leaner cuts of meat and poultry in order to consumer protein without going overboard on saturated fats.
What is also commonly overlooked is the kind of proteins being eaten and when protein is consumed. Ideally protein intake should be spread throughout the entire day — remember, you can’t store and tap into it later — this way, amino acids are always available.
How to Eat Protein Throughout the Day
Here’s a sample menu for a balanced day with plenty of protein. Aim to have a small amount of protein with each meal and you’re covered — no need for protein mega-doses. This day comes out to 1,650 calories, but many people require more, so scale up accordingly.
2-egg omelet with 2 tablespoons shredded cheese
1 slice whole grain toast
Apple with 1 tablespoon peanut butter
3 ounces grilled chicken breast on 2 slices whole-wheat bread with lettuce, tomato and 2 tablespoons hummus
6 ounces non-fat yogurt
1 granola bar
Tofu and Broccoli Stir Fry with 1 cup cooked brown rice
Daily Total: 1,650 calories; 87 grams protein (21% of calories)
Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.