A walk through the grocery store used to include many packages touting the sought-after term “low fat.” Years later, it was replaced by “low carb” which looked appealing claim. Today, “high protein” is a benefit you’ll see touted on many products, whether it’s protein powder, bone broth, salty snacks or anything else. But people are more confused than ever about how much protein they should be eating.
How much protein do you need? We spoke to an expert who explained its importance, why it’s not a one-size-fits-all nutrient and how to know what your body needs.
Why You Need Protein
It’s a pretty simple situation: Protein is good for us, and we should eat some every day. What is most important to remember is that our body really needs what protein provides.
“Most people think of eating protein solely to maintain or help increase muscle size, but it does so much more in our bodies,” said Michael J. Ormsbee, a Florida State University professor in the department of nutrition and integrative physiology and director in the Institute of Sports Science and Medicine. “Proteins function as enzymes, hormones, receptors, signaling molecules and more.”
Because protein is not something stored in our body, like body fat, it is a daily requirement, he explained Floris Wardenaar, an assistant professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. “Protein provides essential amino acids, which we need to take as part of our daily diet,” he said. “That’s because the body is constantly breaking down proteins to create building blocks for new proteins, resulting in losses that need to be replaced with food.”
If you find you feel fuller after a protein-rich meal, you’ve discovered another benefit of protein. “It keeps us satisfied and fuller for longer,” he said Jane Burrellan associate teaching professor at Syracuse University.
What is a Magic Number?
How much protein is enough to realize all these benefits? As a basic guideline, the Food and Drug Administration recommends that adults take 50 grams of protein per day as part of a 2,000 calorie diet. But other experts take a more nuanced approach.
“Adequate protein intake is not a number or target to reach, but rather a range that depends on your age, gender, overall health and lean body mass,” says the registered dietitian. Jaclyn London.
“A generally healthy person who is not very active should consume 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day as a minimum,” he advises. (That’s about 68 grams of protein for someone who weighs 150 pounds.)
“Someone who is very active with things like running, cycling or training for an endurance event will need more, about 1.2-1.7g/kg per day,” which is from 82 to 116 grams of protein for a 150-pound person, he continued. “When I work with active and generally healthy individuals, I usually recommend something closer to 1.2g/kg per day to 1.5g/kg per day.”
Best Source of Protein
“Protein can not only be found in animal-based foods, but also in plants,” says board-certified naturopathic physician Dr. Kellyann Petrucci. “In fact, some studies have shown that getting protein from non-meat sources can actually be better for your health. Think low-fat dairy products, fish, beans and soy. This food is delicious, and it can even help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”
Pay attention to the fat content, which can go hand in hand with high protein foods. “Not all proteins are created equal,” says Petrucci. “Bacon, sausage or processed meats may be high in protein, but they’re also high in saturated fat, which can harm your heart.”
Ultimately, food is always better than supplements or powders, London says. “Protein powder is everywhere these days, and because it’s considered a food supplement, it’s not overseen by the FDA,” he says. “When it comes to meeting your nutritional needs, nutritional supplements are intended to be used only to fill the gaps of what may be missing in your diet, not to replace attempts to meet nutrient needs through food sources.”
High Protein Foods
Protein content in foods (one-ounce portions unless otherwise noted), according to Johns Hopkins Medicine:
- Beef or turkey jerky: 10 to 15 grams of protein
- 5 ounces of Greek yogurt: 12 to 18 grams of protein
- Grilled edamame: 13 grams of protein
- 3/4 to 1 1/3 cups of high-protein cereal: 7 to 15 grams of protein
- Meat or fish: 7 grams of protein
- 1/3 cup hummus: 7 grams of protein
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter: 7 grams of protein
- 1 Egg: 6 grams of protein
Spread Your Protein Intake
How much protein you eat is important, but so is it when you eat “I encourage people to aim for 15 to 25 grams of protein every time they eat,” says Burrell. “If you eat that amount of protein only at lunch and dinner, but not at other times of the day, you may feel unsatisfied or hungry.”
You need to get enough calories overall to give the protein what it needs to be most effective, he adds. “I work with college students, and many will go on a high-protein diet, but they’re not eating enough calories overall,” Burrell says. “For protein to be used to build new proteins, first you need enough calories. Otherwise, your body will just use this extra protein for energy. And if the carbohydrate intake is low, your body will break down the functional proteins and use some of those amino acids to make glucose to maintain blood glucose.
Popular Myths About Protein
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about protein, experts say. Here’s an example: “We still hear that protein causes kidney damage,” says Ormsbee. “The data does not support this.”
By itself, protein can’t make you bulk up, either, they agree. “One misconception about protein is that eating it means you’ll get big muscles,” Petrucci said. “In fact, muscle growth is a complex process that takes into account protein consumption, exercise and hormones. Athletes may have higher protein needs than their peers, but eating this way does not mean they will gain bigger muscles.”
In fact, smart protein choices are an important part of a nutritious diet. “It’s an absolutely essential component of meals and snacks, especially for those who want to adopt small but impactful strategies or habits that can result in weight loss or weight management over time,” says London.