Protein Isn't Just For Weightlifters. Here's How Much Everyone Should Eat.

Experts share thoughts on how to get the right amount at the right times.
Elena Yeryomenko / 500px via Getty Images

A stroll through a grocery store used to include lots of packages touting the sought-after term “low fat.” Years later, it was replaced with exciting-looking “low carb” claims. These days, “high in protein” is a benefit you’ll see touted on lots of products, whether they’re protein powder, bone broth, salty snacks or just about anything else. But people are more confused than ever about how much protein they should eat.

How much protein do you really need? We spoke with experts who explained its importance, why it’s not a one-size-fits-all nutrient and how to figure out what your body needs.

Why You Need Protein

It’s a pretty simple situation: Protein is good for us, and we ought to eat some every day. What’s most important to remember is that our body really does need what protein provides.

“Most people think of eating protein simply to maintain or help improve muscle size, but it does far more in our bodies,” said Michael J. Ormsbee, a Florida State University professor in the department of nutrition and integrative physiology and director at the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine. “Proteins serve as enzymes, hormones, receptors, signaling molecules and much more.”

Because protein is not something our bodies keep in reserve, like body fat, it’s a daily essential, explained Floris Wardenaar, an assistant professor at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. “Protein provides essential amino acids, which we need to consume as part of our daily diets,” he said. “That’s because the body constantly breaks down protein to create the building blocks for new protein, resulting in a loss that needs to be replaced with food.”

If you notice that you feel fuller after a protein-rich meal, you’ve discovered another of protein’s benefits. “It keeps us satisfied and fuller for longer,” said Jane Burrell, an associate teaching professor at Syracuse University.

What’s The Magic Number?

How much protein is enough to realize all of these benefits? As a basic guideline, the Food and Drug Administration recommends that adults consume 50 grams of protein a day as part of a 2,000-calorie diet. But other experts take a more nuanced approach.

“Adequate protein intake isn’t one number or target to hit, but more of a range that depends on your age, sex, overall health and lean body mass,” said registered dietitian Jaclyn London.

“A generally healthy person who’s not very active should consume 0.8 to 1 gram of protein for each kilogram of body weight a day as a minimum,” she advised. (That would be about 68 grams of protein for someone who weighs 150 pounds.)

“Someone who’s super active with things like running, cycling or training for an endurance event will require more, about 1.2-1.7g/kg per day,” which would be from 82 to 116 grams of protein for a 150-pound person, she continued. “When I’m working with individuals who are active and generally healthy, I typically recommend something closer to 1.2g/kg per day to 1.5g/kg per day.”

Not all proteins are created equal. Consider the amount of cholesterol in bacon and eggs, compared to vegetarian-based proteins or even chicken or fish.
Carlo A via Getty Images
Not all proteins are created equal. Consider the amount of cholesterol in bacon and eggs, compared to vegetarian-based proteins or even chicken or fish.

The Best Protein Sources

“Proteins can not only be found in animal-based foods, but also in plants,” said board-certified naturopathic physician Dr. Kellyann Petrucci. “In fact, some studies have indicated that getting protein from non-meat sources could actually be better for your health. Think low-fat dairy products, fish, beans and soy. These foods are delicious, and they may even help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”

Pay attention to fat content, which can go hand-in-hand with high-protein foods. “Not all protein is created equal,” Petrucci said. “Bacon, sausage or processed meats might be high in protein, but they’re also high in saturated fat, which could be harmful for your heart.”

Finally, food is always better than a supplement or a powder, London said. “Protein powders are everywhere these days, and since they’re considered dietary supplements, they’re not overseen by the FDA,” she said. “When it comes to meeting your nutritional needs, dietary supplements are meant to be used only to fill in the gaps from what might be missing in your diet, not to take the place of attempting to meet nutrient needs through food sources.”

High-Protein Foods

Protein content in foods (one-ounce portions unless noted), according to Johns Hopkins Medicine:

  • Beef or turkey jerky: 10 to 15 grams of protein
  • 5 ounces Greek yogurt: 12 to 18 grams of protein
  • Roasted edamame: 13 grams of protein
  • 3/4 to 1 1/3 cup of high-protein cereal: 7 to 15 grams of protein
  • Meat or fish: 7 grams of protein
  • 1/3 cup of hummus: 7 grams of protein
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter: 7 grams of protein
  • 1 Egg: 6 grams of protein

Spreading Out Your Protein Intake

How much protein you eat is important, but so is when you eat it. “I encourage people to aim for 15 to 25 grams of protein each time they eat,” Burrell said. “If you eat that amount of protein only at lunch and dinner, but not at other times of day, you might be left feeling unsatisfied or hungry.”

You need to get enough calories overall to give that protein what it needs to be most effective, she added. “I work with college students, and many will be on high-protein diets, but they don’t eat enough calories overall,” Burrell said. “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 carbohydrate intake is low, your body will break down functioning proteins and use some of those amino acids to make glucose in order to maintain blood glucose.”

Popular Myths About Protein

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about protein, experts said. Here’s one example: “We still hear that protein causes kidney damage,” Ormsbee said. “The data simply do not support this.”

On its own, protein can’t make you bulk up, either, they agreed. “One misconception about protein is that eating it means you’ll get big muscles,” Petrucci said. “In fact, muscle growth is a complicated process that takes into account protein consumption, exercise and hormones. Athletes may have higher protein needs compared to their peers, but eating this way doesn’t mean they’ll get bigger muscles.”

In fact, smart protein choices are an important part of a nutritious diet. “It’s an absolute essential component of meals and snacks, especially for people looking to adopt small-but-impactful strategies or habits that can result in weight loss or weight management over time,” London said.

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