Are You Eating Enough Protein?

Are You Eating Enough Protein?

If you’re older than a certain age, there’s a good chance the answer is no.

Perhaps you’ve seen the headlines: Americans eat too much protein. But the truth is more complicated than that. The amount you need depends on many factors including your age, gender, and weight. And contrary to those headlines, some people may not be getting enough.

Current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that average-sized men age 19 and older eat 56 grams (g) of protein each day, while women should aim for 46g. (This is based on the recommended daily dietary allowance of 0.36g of protein per pound of body weight.) Conventional wisdom is right about young and middle-aged men: most do eat more protein than is recommended. Meanwhile, most women in these age groups are right on target. But this tends to change over time.

Once men and women reach their 70s, getting enough protein can become a struggle for many people. And that’s a problem, because according to many experts, you actually need more protein as you age.

Why protein needs change over time
An April 2019 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that anywhere from one-third to one-half of Americans older than 50 did not eat the recommended amount of protein each day.

The researchers suggested that this could be the result of a variety of issues. The older people involved in the study reported skipping meals, which affected their overall daily protein intake. The study’s authors also noted that as people age, their appetite and energy requirements tend to decline. Financial, physical and mental limitations, dental issues and problems swallowing could also play a role.

Inadequate protein intake could take a toll on people’s health in several ways:

  • In the study, those who weren’t getting enough protein were also more likely to have lower intakes of more than a dozen other nutrients.
  • When consumption of protein and other essential nutrients declines, the risks for osteoporosis, hip fractures, and even death increases.
  • Inadequate protein intake also contributes to sarcopenia—an age-related loss of muscle mass, strength and function, which can make even walking down the street more difficult.

Although government guidelines don’t specify a higher daily intake for people older than 65, numerous studies have found that 0.36g per pound doesn’t cut it. 

In 2013, an international team of researchers suggested that older people actually need 0.45 to 0.54g of protein per pound each day instead, along with two to three days of resistance-training exercise (the kind that strengthens muscles) each week, and about 30 minutes of daily aerobic activity.

Their recommendations, which were published in JAMDA, are based on the idea that older people need to consume more protein to maintain their strength and mobility, recovery from illness, and offset age-related changes in protein metabolism. For a person weighing 150 pounds, that works out to 68 to 81g of protein a day. The researchers noted, however, that people with severe kidney disease are an exception and should limit their protein intake as directed by their doctor.

More isn’t necessarily better
The muscle loss that leads to sarcopenia starts years earlier. After age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3 to 5 percent per decade. Strength training can help slow and protect against sarcopenia but age-related muscle loss is another good reason to be mindful of your protein intake over time.

Keep in mind, however, that eating more than is recommended isn’t necessarily better.

“There’s no benefit for anyone who’s generally healthy to eat excessive protein,” says Mark Jakubicki, MS, RD, chief dietitian at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, New Jersey. “I’ll see someone in a restaurant eating a 20-ounce steak. Nobody needs that.” As delicious as it may be, a jumbo portion of steak provides more than twice the amount of protein most of us need in an entire day.

Some endurance athletes may be an exception to this rule. Those who train regularly and intensely (think marathon runners) may have higher protein needs. While training, these athletes should aim to get 0.54 to 0.64g of daily protein per pound of body weight. If you’re a bodybuilder, you may need even more: 0.54 to 0.77g per pound. It’s important to talk to your doctor about what level of protein intake is safe and appropriate for you.

How you get protein also matters
Some people may automatically associate protein with ribs and burgers on the grill. But eating excessive amounts of animal protein does bring some dangers. That’s bad news for men in particular, who tend to eat more meat, poultry, and eggs than the dietary guidelines recommend.

For middle-aged people, in particular, excessive animal protein intake is associated with increased risk of cancer and diabetes. Red meat, for example, is higher in artery-clogging saturated fats than lean protein sources, like fish or poultry. Red and processed meats have also been shown to increase the odds of developing heart disease. So, save the marbled steak for special occasions and go for the salmon if you can. If you must have meat, go for a petite filet.

Choosing plant proteins like soy, nuts, and legumes over red and processed meat, could help lower your risk of several diseases and early death. Plant-based protein sources provide other valuable nutrients, such as fiber, which offers myriad health benefits.

How to improve your protein balance
If red meat and other animal proteins are a regular part of your current diet, consider these tips to help you incorporate more plant-based proteins:

  • Until you get used to eating less meat, write down when and how much you’re eating. It will make it easy to spot patterns and opportunities for small shifts.
  • Think of restaurant dining as a chance to try new things. Order a stir-fry dish with tofu instead of meat next time you go for Chinese food, for example. Once you find something you like, add it to your repertoire at home.
  • Big fan of chili? Instead of going with an all-beef version, replace half of the meat with canned kidney, pinto, or black beans.
  • Top your salad with beans or nuts rather than meat.
  • Opt for a handful of nuts as a snack.
  • Swap protein-filled quinoa for white rice.
  • Have peanut butter on whole-wheat toast for breakfast instead of bacon.

Does taking specific steps like that feel daunting? You can always embrace an eating plan that encourages less animal protein. “I’m a big advocate of the Mediterranean diet,” says Jakubicki. “Seafood twice a week, plenty of beans and nuts, and red meat only once or twice a month. Try to treat meat like a condiment, not the main course.”

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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