It’s one of the most important questions you can ask as you’re striving to live a healthier life. However, the answer isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all number.
In fact, to accurately determine how much protein you need per day, you’ll have to consider several factors, notably your age, weight, activity level, and fitness goals.
In this article, we’ll guide you through the process of determining your daily recommended protein intake based on your individual needs.
What Is Protein?
Protein is the building block for muscle tissue. It’s made up of even smaller building blocks called amino acids. Your body needs these amino acids to repair and rebuild the proteins found in muscle tissue that break down during prolonged, intense exercise.
There’s a reason protein is one of the three all-important macronutrients (the other two being fats and carbohydrates). It’s critical to consume enough protein, because that’s the only way muscles will grow.
Without enough protein, you may experience muscle catabolism. This is when your body breaks down muscle and uses it as an energy source—which is something we definitely want to avoid.
Calculating Your Recommended Protein Intake
The guideline that you’ll commonly hear for calculating the recommended protein intake is pretty simple: 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. For example, if you weigh 120 pounds, the general consensus is that your daily protein intake should be 120 grams.
While that’s a great starting point, remember that it’s only a rough starting point that largely applies to active gym-goers and athletes. There are other variables that need to be accounted for before you decide how much protein you need each day.
Your activity level plays a big part in how much protein you need. If your lifestyle is on the sedentary side, you won’t need as much protein as someone who’s more active.
Keep in mind that your activity level doesn’t just take into account how often you exercise or go to the gym, but also the type of work you do. If you spend most of the day sitting at a desk in front of a computer, you’re considered to be more sedentary than those who are on their feet and moving around all day, such as landscapers and construction workers.
Ideal protein intake is also dependent on your goals. When it comes to fitness, there are three basic goals that most people chase: bulking, maintaining, and cutting. Each one affects how much protein you need.
Maintenance is when you want to keep your current body weight the same. When you’re maintaining, you don’t need as much protein as when you’re cutting or bulking. Josephine Conolly-Schoonen, MS, RD states, “During the maintenance phase, [the] recommended protein intake is 1.2 grams per kilogram body weight.” (To convert your body weight from pounds to kilograms, divide it by 2.2.)
When it comes to bulking and building muscle, protein is paramount. Without it, you won’t see the muscle growth you’re working for in the gym. If this is your goal, Conolly-Schoonen advises a protein intake of 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Finally, there’s the cutting phase. Cutting means that you’re trying to lose fat while keeping as much muscle as possible. When you cut, you’re eating a calorie deficit, so the chance that you’ll lose muscle is higher. “During this special phase of calorie and carbohydrate restriction, protein needs increase to 1.8 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram body weight,” says Conolly-Schoonen. This will help minimize muscle loss as much as possible.
It’s harder to build muscle as you get older. In fact, the main cause of sarcopenia, which refers to the gradual loss of muscle mass, is aging. Your recommended protein intake will change over time to accommodate this.
One study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition explains, “Protein tissue accounts for 30% of whole-body protein turnover, but that rate declines to 20% or less by age 70. The result of this phenomenon is that older adults require more protein/kilogram body weight than do younger adults.”
The study suggests that the recommended protein intake should increase by up to 25% for adults over 70.
Common Sources of Protein
There are plenty of delicious and readily available sources of protein to help you reach your recommended protein intake. Here are some of the most common food sources of protein:
- Chicken breast: For 3 ounces (85 grams) of cooked chicken breast, you get 26 grams of protein.
- Eggs: 1 large egg contains 6 grams of protein.
- Beans: ½ cup of cooked beans gives you 8 grams of protein.
- Tofu: ½ cup of cooked tofu has 11 grams of protein.
- Salmon: 4 ounces (113 grams) of cooked salmon gives you 27 grams of protein (salmon also happens to be a prime example of a superfood—check out some other superfoods to fast-track your healthy eating).
If you’re having trouble meeting your daily recommended protein intake with food, protein powder is an easy and convenient alternative. The average scoop of protein powder can get you 20 to 30 grams closer to meeting your protein requirement.
How Much Protein Is Too Much?
There isn’t a clear answer as to how much protein is too much, though Harvard Health Publishing suggests that for the average person, 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is probably overdoing it.
More often than not, any problems that may arise from eating a lot of protein come from the types of food you’re eating rather than the protein itself. For example, while red meat is a great protein source, it also increases the risk of heart disease and colon cancer according to quite a few long-term studies. However, if you vary your protein sources and follow a balanced diet, it’s unlikely you’ll eat too much protein.
It’s also important to note that if you’re not seeing the results you want, the question may not be whether you’re eating too little or too much protein; instead, it may be a question of whether your training is effective. By optimizing your workout routine, you can ensure that you’re making progress both in the gym and in the kitchen.
The question “How much protein do I need?” is one that only you can answer, depending on your lifestyle and goals. By using this article as a guide, you can determine your recommended protein intake for the best possible results.
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