How much protein do you really need?

How much protein do you really need?

It seems like protein is the buzz word these days.  At smoothie shops everywhere they offer you the option of adding “extra scoops of protein,”  meal replacement bars line the shelves loaded with protein, and many quick fix and fad diets prefer protein over carbs.  Many in the fitness world will also be singing the praises of the importance of protein when it comes to getting in shape and bulking up.  By now you've probably got the drift, that protein is on everyone’s mind these days.  But before you jump on this bandwagon it is important to understand what protein does and how much we really need. 

There is no denying that protein should be a part of everyone’s diet, as it plays a huge part of so many critical functions in the body.  Protein plays a role in building and repairing muscle, tendons, organs and skin, making them the true building blocks of the body.  They are also important in making hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes and tiny molecules for various functions of the body.  Having enough protein in your diet also helps to boost your metabolism, helps with satiety and therefore reduces your appetite.  The latter of which makes protein an important part of weight loss.

When it comes to protein it is important to understand the difference between complete or incomplete proteins.  Complete proteins are those that contain the nine essential amino acids that our body cannot make on its own.  Animal protein, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, as well as quinoa, chia, buckwheat, provide complete proteins (check out this protein power quinoa egg breakfast).  Incomplete proteins are those that do not contain all nine, and must be combined with other proteins, to provide what the body needs.  Many plant foods, such as nuts, seeds and legumes, are considered to be incomplete proteins because they are lacking or low in one or more of the amino acids we need to build cells.  Incomplete proteins found in plant foods can be mixed together to make a complete protein (this can be spread throughout the day & does not necessarily need to happen over the course of one meal).

Related: Best plant protein sources for athletes and active people

It is recommended that adults take in about 12% to 30% of their daily caloric intake from protein sources.  The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.35 grams per pound of bodyweight per day for the average person, for general health. The exact amount will of course vary by individual & activity level.  Athletes or those who are more active may require more.  In order to gain more muscle, the body must make more muscle protein than it is breaking down.  For this reason many bodybuilders increase their consumption of protein to bulk up.  It is recommended that in order to gain muscle one should aim to stay at the higher range of suggested intake (assuming the individual has no health conditions which may conflict with increased protein intake).   

For most people focusing on eating protein two to three times a day is all that is needed.  The good news is that most studies show that most people are easily meeting their needs, and many are even taking in more than suggested.  While some opt for animal proteins, others stick to a plant based diet.  But regardless, with the right combination all protein needs can be met. 

What does a serving of protein look like? Consider some of these options: 

  • 8 ounce container of yogurt has about 11 grams of protein
  • One cup of milk has about 8 grams  
  • One cup of beans will give you about 16 grams of protein
  • 3 ounce piece of meat has 21 grams
  • One egg has 6 grams of protein
  • 8 ounce container of greek yogurt has about 23 grams of protein
  • 1/2 cup of cottage cheese has 14 grams of protein
  • One scoop of whey protein has 24 grams of protein
  • 3 ounce serving of chicken breast has 24 grams of protein
  • 3 ounce serving of tuna has 25 grams of protein
  • 1/4 cup serving of lentils contains 13 grams of protein
  • 3 ounce serving of tofu contains 12 grams of protein
  • 1/2 cup serving of edamame contains 8 grams of protein
  • One cup of quinoa contains 8 grams of protein   

Whether you are a bodybuilder, on a diet or just trying to stay healthy, there is no doubt that protein should play a significant part in your daily intake. 
(Written in conjunction with a registered dietitian)