How Much Protein Do I Really Need?

Sara Dow is a ACE Certified Weight Management and Fitness Nutrition Specialist. She is also a ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Small Group Trainer at the Y. Twice a month, her blog posts will feature nutrition education, a healthy recipe she has tried and loves, and tips to help you achieve your health goals, as well as answers centered around a nutrition question from a Y member.

A question I am frequently asked is, how much protein do I really need?  As with most nutrition questions, the answer is — it depends!

The Institute of Medicine recommends 10-35% of total daily calories from protein to support optimum nutrition for a typical adult.  If you consume a 2000-calorie diet, this is 200-700 calories from protein or 60-175 grams per day.

Most Americans consume about 15% of their daily calories from protein.

This meets the minimum requirement but falls on the lower end of the optimum protein range. Protein intake at the higher end of the spectrum (25%-35% of total daily calories) may benefit some groups, including seniors, athletes, regular exercisers, and those with weight loss goals.

Seniors: Protein intake often declines with age, and 50% of women and 30% of men over the age of 65 falls short of the minimum protein recommendation. Protein is essential in this stage of life due to the progressive loss of skeletal muscle that occurs with age (sarcopenia). Research suggests adequate levels of high-quality protein, together with resistance training, can slow or even reverse the debilitating effects of sarcopenia and help maintain independence and quality of life.

Athletes: (including regular exercisers): The Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition and the American College of Sports Medicine suggest that regular exercisers and athletes have higher protein needs and advise 1.2 to 2.0g/kg (0.5 to 0.9g/lb) of protein per day.  This supports muscle tissue repair and synthesis and improves recovery and performance.  Athletes and regular exercisers may benefit from protein intake at the higher end of the range (25%-35% of total daily calories).

Weight loss:  As calorie intake decreases, the percentage of calories you need from protein increases. This helps to preserve muscle mass during weight loss.  Research suggests a high protein diet (defined as 25% protein or more) can help maintain lean muscle, steady blood glucose levels, and control brain signals for hunger.  Protein helps keep hunger at bay by enhancing satiety, or feeling full, and reducing the urge to snack between meals.

Food Sources: High-quality protein sources are widely available in the American diet.  Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy foods are excellent animal-based sources of high-quality protein. Quinoa, soybean, chia, and flax seed are excellent plant-based high-quality protein sources.  Beans, peas, tofu, nuts, seeds, and peanut butter are excellent protein sources.

Supplements: Amino acid supplements are popular among athletes and regular exercisers.  Evidence to support protein supplementation is inconsistent, and little is known about the safety of these products.  For these reasons, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises against individual amino acid and protein supplements. Do your best to prioritize protein from high-quality food sources – it tastes better and costs less! 

Timing: When you consume protein matters. Spreading your protein intake out over the day rather than consuming it all at one meal helps enhance muscle growth, repair bones, tendons, and ligaments, and support immune function.  It may also support weight management by helping control appetite and food cravings.  Aim for 20-30g of protein at each meal and a protein-rich snack or two throughout the day.

Here are some examples of what 20-30g protein might look like.

Breakfast: A carton of Greek yogurt with ½ oz almonds provides 16 grams of protein.   Add a cup of milk or soymilk for another 8 grams.  Starting your day with a protein boost can provide sustained satiety and lead to less snacking.

Lunch:  2 oz sliced turkey or roast beef with a slice of cheese on a whole grain wrap provides about 25 grams of protein.  Pair with a 2 oz cup of hummus and raw veggies for another 5 grams.

Dinner: Enjoy 3 oz of lean meat or poultry with a salad and baked potato for 28 grams of protein.  Sprinkle the salad with 1oz of nuts or seeds and top the potato with Greek yogurt for another 8 grams of protein.

Snacks: Hummus, peanuts, dry roasted edamame, string cheese, and nut butter with apple or pear slices are all good protein sources. 

Some additional tips to boost your protein intake throughout the day include:

  • Sprinkle chopped nuts or seeds over breakfast cereal, fruit, ice cream, oatmeal, or yogurt.
  • Add a dollop of Greek yogurt to cereal or fruit.
  • Toss canned beans (rinsed and drained) or chopped tofu with a garden salad.
  • Add sliced hard-boiled eggs to your salad.
  • Mix leftover chopped meat, poultry, or fish into veggie soup or pasta sauce.
  • Whisk an egg or egg whites into simmering chicken soup.
  • Enjoy a latte or chai with milk (or soymilk).

For more examples of protein-rich meals, check out this article by a registered dietitian with the American Council on Exercise (ACE). 

A high-protein diet is not for everyone.  Individuals with kidney disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, or liver disease should consult their physician or a registered dietitian to determine the optimal amount of protein to support their needs.

If you have a question about protein or anything else nutrition related, drop me a line at [email protected].   My inbox is always open!

About Sara Dow

Hi, I’m Sara and I am passionate about helping people improve their quality of life through the knowledge and practice of good nutrition.  

In 2018, I was inspired by the YMCA community to go back to school and pursue my dream of becoming a registered dietitian. I am now in my senior year, double majoring in Nutrition and Dietetics at Kansas State University.  I am excited to share with you what I am learning.