It’s every dieter’s – and every eater’s, for that matter – number-one question:
How much protein should I consume each day?
Greatly contributing to the confusion is the fact that the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein set by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences is incredibly low, at just .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. That’s just 50 grams per day for a 140-pound woman and 65 grams for a 180-pound man. Most Americans, especially those who are health-conscious and exercise regularly, are already eating significantly more than that.
This is a good thing. The RDA for protein is the minimum you need to meet basic nutrient needs and prevent illness, but most of us strive to function at a higher level.
The body uses protein to support immunity, to produce hormones and enzymes, and to build bones, cartilage, muscles, skin, and blood. From an athlete’s perspective, protein, broken down into amino acids, is used to repair damaged muscle fibers and build new muscle tissue after exercise.
For those thinking about weight loss, protein helps you feel fuller, longer. You’re more satiated, so you don’t need to eat as much. Protein helps preserve lean body mass, and if more energy is consumed than is expended, of the three macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein), protein is the least likely to be stored as fat.
According to Jenn Gargiulo, RDN, CSSD, active people should consume somewhere between .55 and 1.0 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day; that’s between 77 and 140 grams for a 140-pound woman and between 99 and 180 grams for a 180-pound man, leaning toward the higher end of the range if you’re activity level is particularly high. “Specific protein needs vary depending on the age of the athlete, the type of exercise they do – endurance versus strength versus general training – and the athlete’s goals,” Gargiulo says. She also points out that protein needs should be based more heavily on those factors and not as just a percentage of total calories consumed, which is how many of today’s popular diets quantify protein goals.
Also noteworthy, Gargiulo says, is how the protein is consumed. “It’s important to remember protein intake should be spread throughout the day, to maximize anabolism, which is the body’s ability to break down proteins into amino acids,” she says. “Aim for .2 to .25 grams per pound per meal, across a minimum of four meals per day.” That is 28 to 35 grams of protein per meal for our 140-pound woman and 36 to 45 grams for our 180-pound man.
We all know to eat protein from lean sources like meat, fish, and eggs. Plant-based folks can try seitan, tofu, tempeh, lentils, grains like spelt and teff, and seeds like amaranth and quinoa. But for those who struggle to eat enough protein, and for whom the idea of upping protein intake is daunting, try eating a protein source first at meals, so you don’t fill up on carbohydrates. Replace cereal with whole eggs – the yolk contains all the nutrients! - at breakfast. Try Greek yogurt over traditional yogurt. Snack on cheese or nuts. And no matter your dietary preference, you can always add in a protein shake, either whey or a plant-based option, as a meal or snack.
“Animal proteins are more bioavailable than plant proteins,” Gargiulo says. “It doesn’t mean you can’t meet your protein needs following a plant-based or vegan diet, but it will take larger quantities of plant-based foods to get the same amount of protein, in grams, that you would get from animal proteins.”
For comparison, a 4.5-ounce chicken breast contains 29 grams of protein, while 6 ounces of tofu contains 15 grams and two-thirds of a cup of lentils contains 12 grams. This is not to say that one is better than the other; in fact, all are necessary.
Says Gargiulo: “A variety of nutrients from both plant and animal sources is important for overall optimal health.”