We have to start this conversation about the amount of protein you need in a day with a bit of controversy. I’ll say up front that because I’m on a paleo-based, LCHF my protein tends to be on the higher side of the recommended range.
BUT – that doesn’t mean I eat a 1kg steak at every meal either! As a rule of thumb at each meal my protein is about the size of my palm.
Different entities have opposing opinions on how much protein a person should consume for optimal health.
Additionally, your genetics, gender, activity level, age, and your goals impact the amount of protein that you should consume. So we’re going to offer some guidelines for differing goals. However, it’s also very important to pay attention to your body. For example, if you follow a guideline to lose weight and you find that you are low energy and perhaps getting sick more often, then you might increase your protein intake and see how your body responds.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Generally speaking, adults should get 10% to 35% of their day’s calories from protein. That’s about 46 grams of protein for women, and 56 grams of protein for men. Just to give you an idea about how much protein is in a particular food know that…
- A cup of spinach has 0.9 grams of protein.
- A 3 oz. piece of meat has around 20 grams of protein.
- A cup of whole almonds has 30 grams of protein.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is the bare minimum you need to maintain health and not get sick. If you exercise or are sick, you’ll need more protein.
Let’s look at the calculation quickly so you can do the math yourself.
One kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So if you weigh 180 pounds, that’s about 78 kilograms.
Multiply that by .8 grams and you need 62 grams of protein a day. This is to maintain your health and is the bare minimum.
If you’re not into managing the calculation on your own, you can use this handy calculator
What Is Your Goal?
The amount of protein that you eat can and should vary depending on your goals. For example, if you want to build muscle and get stronger, you should, at the very minimum, double the RDA. But what if you want to lose weight, gain weight or have some other goal?
If your goal is to lose weight, then there are a few considerations. They include:
How you’re losing weight. Are you losing weight through diet alone or through exercise and diet? If exercise and diet, then double the RDA or use the calculator provided, and choose the appropriate activity level.
If you’re doubling it, then that means at least 20 percent of your calories should come from protein. It’s important to point out that several studies have found that the magic weight loss number for protein is 30 percent of your calories from protein and you’ll see this number come up again.
Regardless of whether you try 20% or 30%, try to choose lean protein sources. Keep in mind that nuts, beans, and seeds are good sources of protein. It doesn’t all have to come from meat.
Are you trying to lose weight through diet alone? Make sure that you are getting the minimum amount of protein in your diet and make sure it’s coming from low calorie sources. However, if you get hungry while you’re dieting, then instead of eating more low calorie carbs, try increasing your protein.
Generally speaking, increasing your protein intake while reducing your starchy carb intake will result in weight loss. The goal is to lose body fat while maintaining your lean muscle. Protein can help you do that. Protein is more filling so you’ll not only feel full faster, you’ll stay full longer. That helps prevent cravings and helps you stick to your diet.
If your goal is to gain weight, then increase your protein intake. Start with 2x the RDA, or around 20-25 % of your daily intake. You might add a protein shake to your daily intake. You can also swap out your snacks for full-protein snacks like nuts and seeds, yogurt, and nut butters.
Maintaining your weight is about being aware of how much protein you’re consuming each day in combination with how much of other foods you’re consuming. And again, it does depend on your activity level. If you’ve lost weight by eating a diet that is 35% protein, you may find that dropping that intake to 30% protein will help you maintain it as long as you continue to exercise and steer clear of starchy carbs.
Many fitness nutrition experts recommend a ration of 30/30/40 for fitness. That is 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat, and 40 percent carbs. However, carbs don’t mean bagels and pasta. It means carbs from veggies, whole grains, and fruits.
As you’ll notice from these different goals and protein recommendations, there are a few commonalities. Regardless of your goals, you want to:
- Consume lean sources of protein
- Pay attention to your body – how are you feeling, sleeping, etc…
- Adjust your protein intake depending on your health and activity level
- To improve health and reduce or maintain weight, consume fewer starchy carbs
- Vary your sources of protein – you don’t have to rely solely on animal sources
There are risks to getting too much or too little protein. The risks of too much protein are generally related to digestion. Too much protein can slow down your digestion. It can also be a strain on your kidneys. However, the biggest downside to eating too much protein is that you’ll gain weight and, generally speaking, people who get too much protein in their diets do so at the expense of eating vegetables and whole grains.
There are bigger risks to not eating enough protein and we’ll take a look at those in a future post.