“How much protein should I eat” has to be one of the top diet/fitness question asked of professionals. Many popular diets – Paleo, Atkins, Zone – call for plenty of protein. Protein is often viewed as the key to weight loss, muscle gains, and better health. Meanwhile in food marketing, protein has been glorified to such an extent that food manufacturers are putting it everywhere from grain based cereals (looking at you, Cheerios) to bread to ice cream. Not to mention the variety of protein bars and shakes available. But how much protein do we actually need everyday?
On average, our intake might not be all that high
According to the NHANES survey (America’s big, ongoing nutrition and health survey) the average American man and woman eats 102 and 70 grams of protein per day, respectively. The Huffington Post refers to this as “twice the daily recommended amount” in one of their articles, although I’m not quite sure where they got that number. The general protein recommendation is 0.8-1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Sine the average American man weighs 191 pounds or 86 kg, that’s really only about 20% more than the recommended amount. Women are basically right on target, with the average female weighing in at 159 pounds or 72 kilograms. And if you consider that on average men eat 2,475 calories a day and women 1,833, that is only about 16% of energy intake from protein. Experts advise anywhere over 10% and under 35%. Of course, I’d take all this with a grain of salt, since Americans are notoriously bad at self-reporting their food intake.
What are your protein needs?
- For the average person – an American who is generally active but not intensively athletic – the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8-1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
- Athletes need anywhere from 1.2-1.7 g/kg/day, depending on the sport, training intensity, gender, etc.
So, if I’m an average American who weighs about 70 kilos (155 pounds), I should eat about 56-70 grams of protein per day. The average 200 pound man will need 72-90 grams per day.
As recreational athletes who do CrossFit training a few times a week, you’ll be somewhere above the RDA and into the athlete range, likely closer to 1-1.3 g/kg/day. Using our standard men and women, that’s 70-91 grams for the ladies and 91-118 grams for the gents.
What happens if you take in more than you need?
There isn’t really an “upper limit” for most healthy people for protein the way there is for vitamins and minerals (meaning you won’t poison yourself by eating too much). This is mainly because it’s decently hard to overdose on protein unless you’re using supplements excessively. But, the body can really only process around 30 grams at a time for muscle synthesis purposes, so it is better to spread out protein intake in order to optimize muscle building. But this, of course, only applies to muscle synthesis. While 30 grams and 90 grams of protein will produce the same boost in muscle building, that extra 60 grams of protein will be used for other things, including producing hormones, enzymes, immune factors, and transport molecules (think: hemoglobin, LDL, HDL, etc). Any protein not needed for those functions will be broken down and stored for energy use later (so, as fat), as is any macronutrient consumed above and beyond daily needs. And some, of course, is always excreted.
On the whole, we put too much focus on protein. It’s not a miracle nutrient and we don’t need to put it in everything. The fact that Cheerios could actually make money selling a cereal that added a few grams of protein and multiplied the sugar content by seventeen-fold makes my point for me. We could live perfectly healthy lives eating less than we do now, on average. We could also live perfectly healthy lives eating a little more. Your own needs really depend on a variety of factors including goals, lifestyle, food preferences, physical activity, and the rest of your diet. This can also be more of a sustainable eating and less of a health question unless your protein sources are frequently from processed or red meats. It’s also important to remember that there is protein natural occurring in plenty of foods other than meat – for example a slice of bread has 2 grams, 1/2 cup of spinach or a medium potato each has 3 grams.
The bottom line is, if you’re eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (chicken, eggs) at least once a day, and mixing in the occasional legume or dairy, you’ll likely get plenty of protein for good health. If you have performance goals, you’ll want to consider those, make a protein goal, and find healthful ways to achieve it daily, either with whole foods or supplements. If your protein needs do end up being higher, I recommend choosing higher quality sources – like chicken over a spinach salad – rather than protein enhanced processed foods.