How Much Protein Do I Really Need

photo of eggs, nuts and other foods

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

For most adults, the Institute of Medicine recommends 10-35% of daily calories from protein. If you follow a 2000-calorie diet, aim for 60-175 grams of protein daily. 

On average, Americans get about 15% of their calories from protein, meeting the minimum requirement but sitting on the lower end of the optimal range. 

Higher protein intake (25%-35% of daily calories) can be beneficial, especially for seniors, athletes, regular exercisers, and those aiming for weight loss.

Let’s consider these groups individually.

Seniors

As we age, protein intake tends to decrease. Unfortunately, 50% of women and 30% of men over 65 don’t meet the minimum protein requirement. This is concerning because aging often brings muscle loss (sarcopenia). The good news is, studies show that sufficient high-quality protein, combined with resistance training, can combat sarcopenia, potentially enhancing independence and quality of life.

Athletes and Regular Exercisers

For athletes and regular exercisers, protein requirements are higher. Aim for 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound) per day, as recommended by the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition and the American College of Sports Medicine. This supports muscle repair, synthesis, and enhances recovery and performance. Some athletes find benefits in consuming protein within the range of 25%-35% of their daily calories.

Weight Loss

As calorie intake drops, the proportion of calories from protein should increase. This preserves muscle mass and offers other benefits. High protein diets, containing 25% or more protein, can help maintain lean muscle, stabilize blood glucose levels, and control hunger signals. Protein enhances satiety, reducing the desire for between-meal snacks.

Food Sources

High-quality protein sources are abundant in the American diet. Animal-based options include lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. For plant-based choices, consider quinoa, soybeans, chia, flax seeds, beans, peas, tofu, nuts, seeds, and peanut butter.

Protein Powder Supplements

While amino acid supplements are popular among athletes and regular exercisers, evidence supporting their use is inconsistent, and their safety is not well-established. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a food first approach, prioritizing protein from high-quality food sources.

Third-party Testing

If you choose to use a protein supplement, opt for products that undergo third-party testing for purity and safety. Reputable third-party testing organizations include NSF Certified for Sport and USP although these products may be pricier due to the testing costs. If you’re on a budget, consider checking out ConsumerLab, a website dedicated to reviewing the purity and label claims of various nutritional supplements, including a list of the best protein powders.

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 5.3 oz carton of Two Good Greek yogurt provides 12 grams of protein with zero added sugar! 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 are all good protein sources.

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

  • Sprinkle nuts or seeds over cereal, fruit, yogurt, or oatmeal.
  • Add Greek yogurt to cereal or fruit. If you’re looking for a low-sugar Greek yogurt, the Two Good brand is excellent.
  • Incorporate beans or tofu into salads.
  • Enhance salads with sliced hard-boiled eggs.
  • Mix leftover meat, poultry, or fish into soups or pasta sauce.
  • Whisk an egg or egg whites into chicken soup.
  • Enjoy your latte or chai with milk or soymilk.

Discover this Resource…

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

Sara is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Nutrition Specialist for the YMCA. In 2018, Sara was inspired by the YMCA community to go back to school and pursue her dream of becoming a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN).  Her monthly blog posts feature evidence-based nutrition information, healthy recipes, and member Q&As. 

Want to level up your nutrition?  Register for a One-On-One Performance Nutrition Workshop with Sara. In this 60-minute session, Sara will provide evidence-based guidelines for pre- and post-workout nutrition specific to your goals, healthy recipes, and practical tips for incorporating real foods into your diet to support optimal performance and recovery. Click here to register today! 

Have a question? Drop Sara a line at [email protected].

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