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. Here is how to calculate how much protein you need to reach your personal health goals.
Let’s start with the basics: everyone needs protein. Proteins are large molecules consisting of amino acids found in food. Of the 20 amino acids that comprise protein, nine are considered essential and, therefore, must be obtained from the diet. Proteins function as structural components, enzymes, hormones, immune factors, transporters, acid-base regulators, and neurotransmitters, and the single largest tissue store of bodily protein is skeletal muscle (1).
Protein is considered an essential macronutrient because the body cannot biosynthesize enough of it to maintain health and survival. In short, without adequate dietary protein intake, our bodies can’t function optimally.
Recommended Daily Protein Intake
Based on current dietary guidelines, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight per day. However, it is important to understand that the RDA for protein is the recommended minimum intake to prevent a deficiency and was derived from studies on sedentary individuals. It is for this reason that the RDA for protein is not an ideal metric for physically active individuals, dieting individuals, or the elderly population (2)(3)(4).
In fact, a growing body of research suggests that protein intake well above the RDA is required to promote healthy aging, appetite regulation, weight management, muscle building, and optimize athletic performance. Current evidence suggests that the general population looking to optimize health, without specific athletic or body composition goals, should consume a minimal range of 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg body weight per day (0.54 to 0.7 g/lb body weight per day), which is 50 to 100 percent greater than the RDA (2).
Benefits of Optimal Protein Intake
In addition to basic physiological functions, consuming adequate protein, beyond the RDA, can help to support more specific health and body composition goals. Some of the benefits of consuming an optimal protein intake include:
Increases satiety signals. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, and many studies have found that individuals have decreased appetites with a higher protein intake. The high satiety signals of protein aid in balancing blood sugar and hunger hormones, leading to increased feelings of fullness, which is helpful for individuals with weight loss and body composition goals (5)(6).
Increases metabolic rate. High protein diets have been shown to increase metabolic rate through the thermic effect of food or TEF, which is the energy expended to digest, metabolize, absorb, and store the food that you eat. Compared to carbohydrates and fat, protein has the highest TEF and high-protein diets have been shown to increase TEF by 80-100 calories per day (7)(8)(9).
Aids in strength and tissue formation. The amino acids that make protein are essential for tissue formation. Adequate protein intake has been shown to preserve lean body mass, improve bone health, and, when paired with resistance training, contribute to greater muscle development and strength gains (10)(11)(12). The tissue formation properties of protein also aid in muscle recovery, which is highly beneficial for athletes and individuals who train very hard.
Optimal Protein Intake by Category
While the general protein recommendation for optimizing health is 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg (0.54 to 0.7 g/lb) body weight per day, exactly how much protein a person “needs” is dependent upon the individual, their age and size, overall health, activity level, and specific health goal. For instance:
As we age, our bodies tend to experience loss of skeletal muscle mass, also known as sarcopenia, which can have many devastating health consequences. The loss of muscle mass can put aging adults at a higher risk of injury, pain, and a general inability to perform daily activities. Therefore, the optimal protein intake to prevent the loss of lean skeletal muscle in healthy older people is 1.0 to 1.2 g/kg (0.45 to 0.54 g/lb) body weight per day, and 1.2 to 1.5 g/kg body weight per day (0.54 to 0.68 g/lb) for older people who are malnourished or have an acute or chronic illness (13).
Individuals looking to Gain Muscle
Protein is the building block of muscle; therefore, adequate protein intake is essential for individuals looking to gain muscle. The recommended protein intake for maximizing muscle growth is 1.6 to 2.2 g/kg (0.7 to 1.0 g/lb) of body weight per day (14). This does not include individuals looking to build muscle in hypocaloric conditions.
Individuals looking to Lose Weight
Optimal protein intake is higher for individuals with weight loss or fat loss goals due to the greater threat to lean mass from bodily protein being used to battle the caloric deficit. While the increased need depends largely on the size of the deficit and leanness of the individual, evidence suggests that a protein intake of 1.6 g/kg (0.7 g/lb) of body weight per day is an optimal starting point, which can be adjusted as needed based on individual response (15).
Athletes or Individuals Who Train Hard
While athletic performance requirements will vary by sport, as optimal protein intake for bodybuilding varies from that for ballet, generally speaking, athletes require a higher protein intake than the general population. According to the current research, a protein intake of 1.4 to 2.0 g/kg (0.63 to 0.9 g/lb) of body weight per day is optimal for individuals looking to maximize athletic performance, optimize recovery, and maintain optimal body composition (16).
How do I calculate how much protein I need?
While many online calculators and dieting apps will calculate protein intake as a percentage of calorie intake, it is most accurately calculated based on body weight. As previously noted, protein needs actually increase with exercise and calorie restriction, so it is best to calculate your protein needs based on total body weight. If seeking to maintain weight, current body weight can be used to estimate protein needs, while target weight is best used to estimate protein needs if the individual is looking to lose weight.
Protein Calculation Example
If Jane Smith currently weighs 170 pounds and is looking to optimize her health, she should aim for 0.54 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound body weight per day, therefore, her recommended protein intake would be calculated by:
170 lbs x 0.54 to 0.7g/lb = 92 to 119 grams of protein per day
If Jane Smith currently weighs 170 and is looking to lose weight with a target weight of 150 pounds, she should aim for 0.7 grams of protein per pound of target body weight per day, therefore, her recommended protein intake would be calculated by:
150 lbs x 0.7g/lb = 105 grams of protein per day
If Jane Smith currently weighs 170 and is looking to build muscle, she should aim for 0.7 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound body weight per day, therefore, her recommended protein intake would be calculated by:
170 lbs x 0.7 to 1.0 g/lb = 119 to 170 grams of protein per day
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. The amount of protein you need 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 future weight, activity level, and goals, you may require more or less protein than you currently do.
Protein Needs FAQs
Current evidence does not suggest different protein needs for men and women. Protein requirements are dependent on size and goals, regardless of sex, therefore, the amount of protein women need is dependent upon their weight and health goals (17)(18). The recommended daily protein intake for women for optimizing health is 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg (0.54 to 0.7 g/lb) body weight per day and may be higher for women looking to lose weight, gain muscle, or female athletes.
The recommended protein intake to lose weight is a minimum of 1.6 g/kg (0.7 g/lb) of body weight per day.
The recommended protein intake to maximize muscle gain and muscle retention while dieting to 1.6 to 2.4 g/kg (0.7 to 1.1 g/lb) of body weight per day.
The recommended protein intake to build muscle while bulking is 1.6 to 2.2 g/Kg (0.7 to 1.0 g/lb) of body weight per day.
Everyone has different protein requirements, so “enough” protein depends on the individual and their specific goal. For some, 100 grams will be plenty, while others will require more.
“Too much” protein is relative to the individual and their goal. Larger individuals with muscle-building goals or athletic performance goals may require more than 200 grams of protein per day, while smaller individuals with general health goals may require much less.
Yes, protein shakes contribute to your total daily protein intake. A typical scoop of protein powder contains between 20 to 30 grams of protein per serving, which contributes towards your daily protein target.
While there are some muscle-building benefits to feeding windows and distribution of protein throughout the day, for the general population, meeting optimal total daily protein intake is more important than how it’s broken down across your meals. The body can handle very high and low-protein meals, so do what works best for you.
The persistent narrative that protein is bad for the kidneys is largely unfounded and, with the exception of preexisting kidney disease, there does not appear to be any risk with higher protein consumption (19).
Tips to Meet Required Protein Intake
While determining optimal protein may be as simple a completing a calculation, ensuring that you are consuming adequate protein per day can be a little more difficult in practice. Although there are many ways to increase your protein intake, here are a few things to consider.
- Identify your go-to protein sources. Protein can be found in plant and animal foods and figuring out what your favorites are can help to make reaching your protein intake much easier. Be it animal sources such as beef, turkey, chicken, seafood, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or other dairy products, or plant-based sources such as tofu, beans, lentils, or nuts, having a few cooked and ready or no-cook protein sources waiting for you in the fridge can help to ensure that you’re reaching for high-protein foods.
- Consume a source of protein at every meal. Including a source of protein in every meal is a great way to strategically distribute your protein intake throughout the day. Consuming a portion of plant or animal protein at every meal not only helps to meet your recommended daily allowance for protein but helps to ensure you are consuming more well-balanced meals overall.
- Ensure your portion size is large enough. When including a portion of protein in your meals, ensure that your portion size is large enough. While weighing your food will always be the most precise option, using the hand portion size method is an easy and effective tool that can help you ensure you are eating enough protein.
- Supplement as needed. Protein powders are also a great way to increase your protein intake. While it is best to prioritize protein from whole food first, if you struggle to hit your daily protein target you can supplement with a plant-based or whey protein powder. Learn how to choose the best protein powder for your goals.
So, how much protein do you need per day?
The exact amount of protein you need per day depends on your size and your health goals. Individuals looking to optimize health, without specific athletic or body composition goals, should consume a minimal range of 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg body weight per day, while individuals with weight loss goals, body composition goals, or athletic performance goals may require more.
The Bottom Line
Protein is a macronutrient composed of amino acids, nine of which are essential and cannot be produced by the body, so they must be consumed through food.
While the current RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, a growing body of evidence suggests that the required protein for optimizing health is much higher. The exact amount of protein required depends on the individual and their goals and can range between 1.2 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
By creating balanced meals with an adequately sized portion of protein you will be better able to reach your optimal daily protein intake. If you are confused about how much protein you need for your personal goals, it is best to work with a registered dietitian to determine what is best for you.