How much protein do you really need?
Ask this question within the fitness community and you could attract half a dozen answers — and quite opinionated ones, at that. Wellness professionals have debated the optimal amount of macronutrients — fat, carbs, and protein — for as long as I can remember. And frankly, the debate doesn't seem to be slowing down.
I want you to make one thing abundantly clear: Your protein needs are unique to your body composition, lifestyle, activity level, eating protocol, training intensity, and goals. The optimal protein intake for your friends, colleagues, or fitness coach may not work for you.
Below, I explain how to calculate your daily protein intake, and which lifestyle factors could impact that estimate.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Before beginning any new dietary plan, please consult a nutritionist or registered dietitian.
Why Do We Need Protein, Anyway?
To understand why you need protein, you need to first understand what protein is.
Protein is a macronutrient, along with fat and carbohydrates. You need protein to function throughout daily life and thrive in your workouts.
Protein is made up of amino acids — often referred to as the "building blocks" of protein. There are over 20 amino acids in your body, some of which you make on your own (called nonessential amino acids), and some you can only get through foods (known as essential amino acids).
Each amino acid comes with different health benefits, including but not limited to growing and repairing muscle tissue, normalizing digestion, providing energy, producing hormones and neurotransmitters, and maintaining healthy skin, hair, and nails.
In other words, you need protein to be a healthy, well-functioning human. You need protein to keep your hormones, muscles, and other connective tissues healthy.
And, as an athlete, you need protein to help recover from your workouts.
Why Do You Need Protein To Help Recover From Workouts?
Every time you work out, tiny muscle fibers in your body break themselves apart. In order for your muscles to fuse themselves back together and grow larger and stronger, you need protein. This process is called muscle protein synthesis.
James Linker from Shredded Sports Science explains this process and the required balance between anabolic and catabolic state (where muscle fibers are broken and rebuilt) in his excellent video “How Do MUSCLES GROW?” By the way, the “anabolic window” is debunked or more nuanced than it is presented in most protein intake recommendations.
Workouts are vital to a long, healthy life (clearly, I wouldn't dedicate my career to fitness if I wasn't a big fan of workouts). However, biologically they do take a toll on your muscles. If you want to grow into a stronger, faster athlete, you need to ensure you eat enough protein to help your body recover.
Now that you understand muscle protein synthesis, you can see why there is no "one size fits all" approach to protein intake. A physically active individual needs a higher amount of protein than a sedentary individual. In addition, a person with a higher body weight, higher percentage of muscle mass, or more intense workout schedule will need to increase their protein intake even further.
In other words, bodybuilders, endurance athletes, and, most likely, you will need more protein than someone who doesn't follow a regular training program.
How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
For sedentary individuals, The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends consuming 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. This equates to roughly 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
For a 68-kilo female (roughly 150 pounds) this equals 54.4 grams of protein per day. For a frame of reference, this is less than one chicken breast (which contains 58 grams of protein).
In the area of sports and exercise nutrition we know that this is not nearly enough, especially for people with an active lifestyle.
A single chicken breast will not help you build muscle — let alone power you through HIIT workouts, chasing after your kids, or carrying groceries home from the store. The 0.8 grams of protein per kilo recommended daily allowance does not take into account regular physical activity, such as resistance training or intense cardio.
If you want to boost muscle strength or follow a regular fitness program, you need to increase your daily protein requirement. Studies show that 1.5-1.7 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight (or 0.68-0.77 grams of protein per pound) is optimal for building muscle.
Back to our original question, "How much protein do you really need?" Here's your answer:
A 68-kilo (150-pound) female would need between 102-115.6 grams of protein per day to increase muscle gain and recover from her workouts. Depending on the goals and training phases of clients of my programs I may even suggest a slightly higher dose than this. This is especially true for lean muscle gain for athletes who focus on resistance training and who are in a caloric deficit as shown by a study by Eric Helms et al.
The Amount of Protein You Should Consume at Meals
You should include a source of fat, protein, and carbs with every meal. Many recommendations suggest to consume extra protein within 30 minutes following your workouts. However, it has been shown that unless you are a top elite athlete this window is less strict. It’s important that you achieve your protein percentage as part of your macro split over a period of 24 hours.
Pro tip: Protein shakes with grass-fed whey protein powder around the time of your workouts can be a very convenient way to hit your daily protein goals. Protein powder is easily transportable, and can easily be tossed in a gym bag or otherwise consumed on-the-go.
If you are aiming for between 102-115.6 grams of protein per day, you should try to consume a minimum amount of 20 grams of protein at each meal. Hopefully, over the course of three meals and two pre- and post-workout snacks, you will hit your recommended dietary allowance.
Your goal should be to consume high-quality protein sources, from both plant- and animal-based foods. Below, you'll find several high-protein foods to consume for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
- 1 cup of quinoa: 4 grams of protein
- 100 grams of lentils: 22.9 grams of protein
- 1 cup of chickpeas: 20 grams of protein
- 100 grams of kidney beans: 6.2 grams of protein
- 1 cup of black beans: 14 grams of protein
- 100 grams of tofu: 10.6 grams of protein
- 100 grams of soybeans: 36.7 grams of protein
- 2 tablespoons of almond butter: 6.7 grams of protein
- Two hard boiled eggs: 12.6 grams of protein
- 4-ounce hamburger (ground beef): 23 grams of protein
- 6 ounces plain Greek yogurt: 8 grams of protein
- 5-ounce salmon: 28 grams of protein
- 5.5-ounce pork chop: 24.9 grams of protein
- 142 grams tilapia: 17 grams of protein
- 80 grams chicken thigh: 18 grams of protein
- 100 grams turkey breast: 28 grams of protein
The Optimal Protein Intake Varies Person To Person
If you're trying to answer the question, "How much protein do you really need?" you need to take into account your body mass, fitness goals, training intensity, lifestyle, and activity level.
Protein is essential to daily life, aiding in muscle building and recovery, balancing hormones, and maintaining healthy hair, skin, and nails. Every human being needs protein to live. But as a physically active adult, you will require a higher protein diet than a sedentary person.
Protein helps rebuild your muscles post-workout, thereby preventing muscle loss. I recommend physically active individuals consume between 1.5-1.7 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight (0.68-0.77 grams per pound) to fuel and recover from your workouts. In specific circumstances this may even be higher.
You can consume protein from both animal sources and plant foods. If you struggle hitting your daily protein goal, I recommend taking protein supplements, like 100% grass-fed whey protein powder, to help power through your workouts.
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