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Your Quick Guide to Protein Intake

Your Quick Guide to Protein Intake

Here’s all you need to know about protein, including how to get the right amount for your body.

Lately, the world seems obsessed with protein in the diet: protein waters and beverages, the protein-heavy Paleo, Keto and Atkins diets, and protein-boosted packaged foods from pancake mix to chips. But what exactly does protein do for you? What sources are the healthiest? How much do you need?

Protein basics
Proteins are molecules made up of 20-plus building blocks called amino acids—nine of them you must get from food in order for your body to make the protein it needs to function. These are “essential amino acids”: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. They’re found in foods such as soy, black beans, nuts, whole grains, fish and poultry.

What protein does
Protein that your body makes from amino acids is required for many important processes:

  • It is a building block of muscle, bone, skin, hair—and almost every other part of your body.
  • It’s used to produce enzymes that power all kinds of chemical reactions, such as what goes on when you digest proteins, fats and carbs so they can be absorbed through your gut and used by your body.
  • Some help to turn certain genes on or off, so you can change your family history going forward.
  • Some help provide fuel (energy) to your body for stamina during physical activity.
  • It helps create hormones, such as insulin, which is needed for regulation of blood sugar levels.
  • It helps build antibodies that allow your immune system to fight off disease.

But, if you have more protein than you need, it becomes a building block of fat cells. One study found a long-term, high-protein diet was associated with weight gain when swapped out for healthful carbohydrates, but not when it replaced fat.

Sources of healthy protein
When you consume fresh foods, the amino acids/protein you take in come along with fats and/or carbs, micronutrients, minerals and phytonutrients. Choose the right protein package and you’ll get a health-boosting bounty. The wrong one? Heart disease, some cancers, diabetes and sexual dysfunction. Ouch!

  • A serving (4 ounces) of sockeye salmon serves up 30 g protein, about 1 g saturated fat and a good dose of omega-3s, an anti-inflammatory, heart-friendly fat. A cup of lentils has 18 g protein and 15 g of artery-clearing fiber, with no saturated fat.
  • On the other hand, one 12-ounce ribeye from a national chain steakhouse will give you 65 g of protein along with 890 calories, 68 g of fat (28 g is sat fat) and many grams of amino acids that make the bacteria inside your intestines produce inflammatory and very harmful substances!

So here’s our list of some great high-protein, healthy-package foods:

  • Legumes such as lentils, beans, peas and peanuts
  • Nuts and seeds, including almonds, walnuts and flax seeds
  • Whole grains—wheat, millet, oats, teff, barley, etc.
  • Veggies such as broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and artichokes
  • All fish, but the best are frozen salmon and sea trout
  • Lean, skinless poultry

What you need
There’s a debate about how much protein your body needs or can use. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is just 0.8 g protein per kilogram of body weight or around 7 g for every 20 pounds. If you weigh 140 pounds, that equals 50 g/day; 200 pounds = 70 g/day. 

But some research indicates “the current RDAs substantially underestimate minimum protein requirements.” And say the scientists in a 2015 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, “1.5 to 2.2 g/(kg·day) of high-quality protein constitutes a reasonable recommendation for adults as part of a complete diet.” Furthermore, the PROT-AGE Study Group suggested that physically active people over age 65 get at least 1.2 g of protein/kg of body weight—that’s about 105 g a day for a 150-pound person.

So we’re pro protein for sure, but aim for the healthiest packages of proteins and combine them with a regular routine of physical activity 60 minutes a day, five days a week, along with two 30-minute strength-building sessions weekly. (You can track your physical activity with the Sharecare app for iOS and Android.)

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