Protein is an essential nutrient. You have protein in every single cell in your body. Proteins do more than help you build toned muscles. They play an important role in the health of your hair, skin, nails, and your connective tissues. Antibodies are proteins that are critical to your immune system function. Proteins play a role in hundreds of bodily functions that are necessary to keep you healthy. It’s safe to say that proteins are a critical component of a healthy diet.
Our bodies do not store protein, so we need to eat protein every day to maintain our health. The minimum amount of protein that you should eat each day is known as the Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA. The RDA is the amount of nutrient that you need to eat to make sure you don’t get sick. The RDA for protein for most adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of your body weight. If the metric calculations aren’t your thing, you can figure out your RDA by multiplying your weight in pounds by 0.36. Using either method of calculation, you’ll find that a person who weighs 150 pounds would need about 54 grams of protein per day.
Keep in mind: the RDA is the minimum amount of protein that is recommended each day. Depending on your lifestyle and health goals, you may need or want to eat more protein.
How Active Are You?
Protein is necessary to build muscle, but that doesn’t mean that you have to start guzzling protein shakes after your workouts. How much protein you need depends on your activity level and your fitness goals. Here are some factors to consider:
- If you’re relatively sedentary or you do light to moderate activity (like walking) most days: There’s no need to increase the amount of protein that you eat.
- If you work out three to five days per week: You may feel a bit hungrier on the days you workout, so adding in protein to snacks can help you feel fuller, and for longer.
- If you do strength training two or more days a week: Focus on getting protein into all of your meals and snacks during the day to support your routine.
- If you’re trying to build muscle mass: Aim to eat a high-protein snack or meal within 90 minutes of your workout to optimize muscle building.
- If you’re trying to lose weight: Protein at breakfast can help you feel satisfied and reduce the chances of overeating later in the day. A couple of scrambled eggs with your toast or a cup of greek yogurt in your morning smoothie can help keep hunger at bay.
Who Needs How Much Protein?
The RDA may provide enough protein to keep you from getting sick, but may not be enough for people who have higher protein needs, such as athletes, pregnant or lactating people, or adolescents. Here’s some things to consider when determining how much protein you need at different stages of life:
- Teenagers: 14 years and older have protein needs similar to adults, and should aim to have some high protein foods at each meal and snack.
- Adults: Men have more lean tissue or muscle, so they may need more protein than a woman of the same weight.
- Pregnant and lactating people need more protein to support the growing baby. More protein will also support breast milk production for a nursing baby.
- Healthy adults over the age of 65 with no chronic medical conditions can continue to eat the same amount of protein as younger adults.
- Women who are menopausal or post-menopausal may develop sarcopenia, or the loss of muscle mass due to aging. To prevent muscle loss, you should focus on eating protein at every meal and snack, if possible. Strength training two to three times a week can also help women to retain lean muscle mass into their later years of life.
- Adults with kidney disease often have difficulty eliminating the byproducts of digested proteins, which can cause wastes to build up in the bloodstream. So eating too much protein can be dangerous for someone with impaired function of their kidneys.
- People with diabetes may experience a blood sugar spike after eating protein. People with these conditions should meet with a registered dietitian and their doctor to determine how much protein (and other nutrients) they should eat to manage these conditions.
Can You Eat Too Much Protein?
Most Americans eat more than their RDA of protein, so protein deficiencies are uncommon. While protein is a very important and necessary nutrient, it is possible to overdo it. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, no more than 35 percent of your total calories should come from protein (this is more than twice the RDA). If you are eating more than that amount, then you may be missing out on important nutrients like vitamins, water or fiber. These nutrients are found in lower-protein foods like fruits and vegetables. Additionally, if the protein you eat comes from high-fat or processed meats like sausage, bacon or hot dogs, then you could be at a higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
The goal is to eat enough protein to support a healthy body, but not to eat too much protein so that it crowds out other essential nutrients. As with all foods, high protein foods should be eaten with moderation, and in amounts that support your optimal health and lifestyle.
Best Sources of Protein
Here are some good high-protein foods that also include an extra boost of nutrition and convenience.
- Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna and mackerel contain healthy fats that reduce risk for heart disease or strokes.
- Beans and legumes have lots of protein, and also provide fiber and vitamins.
- Yogurt and kefir contain probiotics, which are good bacteria that support a healthy gut.
- Seitan, nutritional yeast, and tofu are vegan and vegetarian-friendly sources of protein.
- Protein powders are a convenient way to amp up your daily protein intake. Look for powders that avoid added sugars and artificial additives, and are tested by a third party for quality.
Protein is an important part of a healthy diet. The amount of protein you need to eat depends on several factors, such as your age, fitness level, and if you have any chronic health conditions. While many different foods can help you reach your protein goals, aim for sources of protein that also include other nutrients like healthy fats, fiber or probiotics.