A walk through a grocery store once included plenty of packaging touting the search term “low fat.” Years later it was replaced by an exciting-looking “low carb” complaints. Nowadays, “rich in protein” is a benefit you’ll see on many products, whether it’s protein powder, bone broth, savory snacks, or just about anything else. But people are more confused than ever about how much protein they should be eating.
How much protein do you really need? We spoke with experts who explained its importance, why it’s not a universal nutrient, and how to figure out what your body needs.
Why do you need protein
It’s a pretty simple situation: protein is good for us and we should eat it every day. What is most important to remember is that our body really needs what protein provides.
“Most people think of eating protein just to maintain or help improve muscle size, but it does so much more to our bodies,” says Michael J. Ormsbee, professor at Florida State University in the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology and director of the Institute of Sports Science and Medicine. “Proteins serve as enzymes, hormones, receptors, signaling molecules and much more.”
Because protein isn’t something our bodies store up like body fat, it’s an everyday essential, explained Floris Wardenar, assistant professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. “Protein provides essential amino acids, which we need to consume as part of our daily diet,” he said. “That’s because the body is constantly breaking 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 full after a high-protein meal, you’ve discovered another one of the benefits of protein. “It keeps us satisfied and full longer,” said Jane Burrellassociate professor at Syracuse University.
What is the magic number?
How much protein is enough to achieve all of these benefits? As a general rule, the Food and Drug Administration recommends that adults consume 50 grams of protein per day as part of a 2,000 calorie diet. But other experts take a more nuanced approach.
“Adequate protein intake is not a number or a goal to achieve, but rather a range that depends on your age, gender, general health and lean body mass,” says a dietician . Jaclyn London.
“A generally healthy person who is not very active should consume at least 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day,” she advised. (That would be about 68 grams of protein for someone who weighs 150 pounds.)
“Someone who is super active with things like running, cycling, or training for an endurance event will need more, around 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 working with active and generally healthy people, I generally recommend something closer to 1.2g/kg per day to 1.5g/kg per day.”
The best sources of protein
“Protein can not only be found in animal foods, but also in plants,” says certified naturopathic physician Dr. Kellyann Petrucci. “In fact, some studies have indicated that getting protein from sources other than meat may actually be better for your health. Think low-fat dairy, fish, beans, and soy. These foods are delicious and may even help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Pay attention to the fat content, which can go hand in hand with high protein foods. “Not all proteins are created equal,” Petrucci said. “Bacon, sausages, or processed meats may be high in protein, but they’re also high in saturated fat, which could be harmful to your heart.”
Finally, food is always better than a supplement or powder, London said. “Protein powders are everywhere these days, and because they’re considered dietary supplements, they’re not supervised by the FDA,” she said. “When it comes to meeting your nutritional needs, dietary supplements are intended to be used only to fill in the gaps of what may be lacking in your diet, not to replace the attempt to meet nutrient needs with food sources.”
Foods high in protein
Protein content in foods (one-ounce servings unless otherwise noted), according to Johns Hopkins Medicine:
- Beef or turkey jerky: 10 to 15 grams of protein
- 5 ounces of Greek yogurt: 12 to 18 grams of protein
- Roasted Edamame: 13 grams of protein
- 3/4 to 1 1/3 cup high-protein cereal: 7 to 15 grams of protein
- Meat or fish: 7 grams of protein
- 1/3 cup hummus: 7 grams of protein
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter: 7 grams of protein
- 1 Egg: 6 grams of protein
Extend your protein intake
The amount of protein you eat is important, but so is when you eat it. “I encourage people to aim for 15 to 25 grams of protein every time they eat,” Burrell said. “If you only eat this amount of protein at lunch and dinner, but not at other times of the day, you might feel unfulfilled or hungry.”
You need to get enough calories overall to give this 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’re not eating enough calories overall,” Burrell said. “In order for protein to be used to create new protein, you first need enough calories. Otherwise, your body will just use that extra protein for energy. And if the carbohydrate intake is low, your body will break down functional proteins and use some of these amino acids to make glucose to maintain blood sugar levels.
Popular Protein Myths
There’s a lot of protein misinformation out there, experts said. Here’s an example: “We still hear that protein causes kidney damage,” Ormsbee said. “The data just doesn’t support that.”
Protein alone can’t make you fat either, they agreed. “A common misconception about protein is that eating it means you’ll have 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 than their peers, but eating this way does not mean that they will get bigger muscles.
In fact, smart protein choices are an important part of a nutritious diet. “It’s an absolutely essential part of meals and snacks, especially for people looking to adopt small but effective strategies or habits that can lead to weight loss or weight management over time,” said said London.