How Much Protein Do You Need?
Protein is essential to health, but as with most things in nutrition, there is no simple answer when it comes to how much protein you need. Depending on your age, health, activity level, and goals, protein requirements can vary widely from person to person. Although there is no perfect formula when it comes to protein intake, there are some factors that can help you better determine how much protein you actually need.
Functions & Benefits of Protein
Let’s start with the basics: everyone needs protein. Proteins are molecules found in food made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of life. Although most popular for muscle building, these amino acids have many different roles in the body including acting as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies. Protein also helps to replace “worn-out” cells, transport various substances throughout the body, and aid in growth and repair so without adequate protein intake, our bodies can’t function optimally.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Most official nutrition organizations recommend a fairly modest protein intake. In the last year, Health Canada has removed the recommended daily value of protein suggesting that “most people get enough protein” and now suggests that people “chose a variety of protein foods” as part of a healthy diet. Unfortunately, the term “most people” is rather general and also suggests that not everyone is getting enough. Prior to this change, the recommended daily value for protein was 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 0.36 grams per pound) of body weight per day. Therefore, based on this formula, it would be recommended that a 150-pound person consume 54 grams of protein per day.
As a general rule, this formula is a great place to start. With a few simple calculations, you can quickly determine if you are in the right ballpark of protein intake, and although some people will certainly be consuming enough protein, others may discover they are falling short. For instance, someone eating a standard Canadian diet of a bagel for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and a bowl of pasta for dinner will not meet this recommended number. It is also important to keep in mind that this recommendation is only the amount to avoid protein deficiency or malnutrition, it does not necessarily reflect an ideal intake. Depending on the specific individual and their goals, there are certain situations where it is advantageous to increase protein intake, at least temporarily.
Who Can Benefit from More Protein?
Athletes or Individuals who Train Hard
Protein is most well known for its ability to help build muscle and, with good reason, it is essential for it. People who are very active and/or trying to build or maintain muscle mass may, therefore, require more protein. Depending on the sport or activity, the American College of Sports Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Dietitians of Canada recommend 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to help optimize recovery from training and maintain optimal body composition and athletic performance.
Individuals Trying to Lose Weight
Compared to carbohydrates and fat, protein is the most satiating macronutrient and can help to balance blood sugar keeping us full for longer periods of time. Therefore, not only can consuming additional protein help to manage hunger cues, but it can help to increase metabolic rate by supporting the growth and maintenance of muscle mass, especially when paired with resistance training, which is essential for weight loss. Moreover, consuming protein can also help to increase levels of the hormone glucagon, and glucagon can help to control body fat. Glucagon is released when blood sugar levels go down, and therefore this causes the liver to break down stored glycogen into glucose for the body. Thanks to this process, protein can help to liberate free fatty acids from adipose tissue, which is why it is beneficial for weight loss.
Older Men and Women
As we age, our bodies tend to experience loss of muscle mass, also known as sarcopenia, which can have many devastating consequences so ensuring we consume adequate protein is vital. In fact, loss of muscle mass can put older adults at a higher risk of injury, pain, and a general inability to perform daily activities. Therefore, consuming a higher protein diet can help to prevent further tissue breakdown and reduce the adverse effects of aging. Several studies have shown that an intake of 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight may be more appropriate.
Individuals with Blood Sugar Disruption
Protein does not impact blood sugar the same way carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, do. High-protein diets have been shown to have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar, and lead to beneficial changes in a wide range of metabolic, cardiovascular, and inflammatory markers.
Protein Requirements Will Change Over Time
Another thing that is important to keep in mind when it comes to protein is that requirements will ebb and flow over time. Your required protein intake today will likely not be the same as it will be 5 years from now nor will it be the same as it was 5 years ago. Depending on your current diet, activity level, stress level, and goals, you may require more or less protein than you previously did or will.
Protein: Quality over Quantity
As with all food, it is also important to understand that not all sources of protein are created equal. Because protein has become so popular, almost “trendy”, it is easy to find heavily processed forms of protein and protein powders, and food manufacturers often add protein to foods that do not include protein in the first place. For instance, many granola bar brands will label themselves as “high in protein” but if they contain refined sugar, refined oils, additives, and preservatives they remain a less-than-ideal choice. Products such as protein bars and protein powders may have a time and a place (if you can find high-quality versions), but if you really want to increase your overall protein intake you are best to do it with whole food sources such as eggs, meat, poultry, and seafood, or plant-based proteins such as beans and lentils.
The Bottom Line
For the average individual, the simplest way to ensure you are eating enough protein is to ensure that you are eating a high-quality source of protein at every meal. Not only will this help to ensure that you are eating adequate protein, but will also help to ensure you are eating a well-balanced meal along with carbohydrates and fat. If you are unsure of how much protein you need and don’t know where to start, there are some great online resources that can help you give you a range or starting point of how much you need. However, even with all of the recommendations, calculations, and suggestions available, the best way to determine how much protein you need is through self-experimentation because your body is the best coach you will ever have.