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How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

It varies a lot based on your gender, age and diet goals.

When it comes to nutrition, fat and carbs seem to get all the hype, but people tend to forget about protein. Protein is the workhorse of your diet—your body uses it to build bones, muscles, blood cells, nerves, hair and nails and even components of your immune system.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men get about 16 percent of their total daily calories from protein; women get slightly less. That’s probably enough, though US dietary guidelines suggest getting 10 to 35 percent of calories from protein.

The exact amount of protein you need is measured in grams (g) per day and based on your age, sex, health status and level of activity. The minimum recommended dietary allowance is 0.8 grams per kilogram (kg) of body weight.

You’ll have to convert your weight to kilograms—1 pound is about 0.45 kg—then multiply that number by 0.8 for your starting point.

For example, a 130-pound woman weighs about 59 kg. That comes out to about 47g per day of protein. Simple enough, but that’s not quite the whole story.

Protein sources
Where you get your protein matters almost as much as how much you get. There are two basic types of protein sources: animal protein and vegetable protein. The difference is important, but you first need to understand what makes a protein.

Protein molecules are built with smaller molecules called amino acids. If protein is a house, then amino acids are the bricks, concrete, wood and drywall that make up the structure. Your body can make some amino acids but not others, and the ones you can’t make are called essential amino acids.

Animal proteins, including eggs and dairy, generally have all the essential amino acids, but most plant-based proteins lack at least one. Notable exceptions include quinoa and soy, which have them all. Different veggies deliver different amino acids, so it’s very important that vegetarians mix up their protein sources to get all the amino acids they need.

What protein to eat
There are nine essential amino acids your body can’t produce on its own. Here’s how much protein you’re eating per serving from animal sources, which will give you all the amino acids you need.

  • Ground beef, 4 oz—20g
  • Beef tenderloin, 3 oz—26g
  • Chicken breast, 3 oz—26g
  • Salmon, 5 oz—34g
  • Extra large egg—7g
  • Pork chop, 3 oz—16g
  • Milk, 2%, 1 cup—8g
  • Plain Greek yogurt, 6 oz—17g

The following are some high-protein plant-based foods. Just be sure to mix them up in order to get all your essential amino acids.

  • Quinoa, 1 cup—8g of protein (complete)
  • Edamame, 1 cup—18g (complete)
  • Black beans, 1 cup—14g
  • Chickpeas, 1 cup—15g
  • Lentils, 1 cup—18g
  • Peanut butter, 2 tbsp—7g
  • Almonds, 1 oz—6g
  • Peas, 1 cup—5g

Beware of protein from red meat
Even though some protein sources provide the daily recommended amount in one serving or have all nine essential amino acids, it doesn’t always mean they are the best choice. A diet heavy in red meat and processed meats can raise blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s also associated with increased risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Keep your steak, burgers and bacon as an occasional indulgence and stick to lean sources of protein instead. Some great options include skinless chicken, low fat dairy, nuts, legumes, eggs and tofu. If you can’t imagine life without red meat, try ground beef that is 90% lean.

Other considerations
Chances are you’re getting enough protein from whole foods in your diet. However if you want to increase the amount you consume, consider supplementing with protein powder. Just keep in mind that it’s possible to overdo it on protein. A 2013 review suggests that a long-term high protein diet may put you at increased risk for bone disorders, kidney and liver disease, cancer and coronary artery disease.

There’s some evidence that older people may need more than 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight, since their bodies don’t use it as efficiently as the bodies of younger people. Older people who don’t get enough protein are more at risk for falls and fractures, and may have more trouble with day-to-day activities. For them, a higher protein diet can help stave off age-related muscle loss; it’s also good for healing bedsores.

When it comes to how much protein you need each day, there may not be a simple answer. Focus on healthy sources, supplement if you need and enjoy the occasional high protein treat.

If you want to start tracking your diet, download the Sharecare app. It's available for iOS and Android. The app includes a meal tracker that allows you to input the size and quality of your meal to ensure you're meeting your daily nutritional needs.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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