How much protein do you really need?
You've probably heard that protein is a crucial part of a healthy diet, and that it is especially important for active individuals. Protein is essential, as it forms the basic building blocks of the body. It is found not only in muscle, but also in skin, hair, bones, and virtually every other body part.
Protein intake is often the primary nutritional focus for athletes as it supports muscle recovery, promotes a healthy body composition, provides energy, and boosts the immune system. Consuming protein-rich foods helps repair and strengthen muscles, maintain lean muscle mass, and support immune function. It is essential for athletes to get enough protein from their diets in order to perform and feel at their best.
So how much is enough?
The amount of protein required for both health and performance has been a subject of heated debate. Depending on who you talk to, you may get wildly different answers. For instance, the bodybuilding community tends to err toward the side of "more is always better", while your physician may recommend more moderation of protein intake.
Officially, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for daily protein intake has been set at a modest 0.4 grams per pound of body weight by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For a 200 lb man, this would come out to a mere 80 grams of protein per day. To most physically active individuals, this figure may seem quite low. That is because the recommendation is made with the average American in mind – someone who is sedentary and cares about maintaining general health rather than optimizing athletic performance.
Those who live active lifestyles should follow the advice of dietitians who specifically serve athletic populations. A report published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of America, and the American College of Sports Medicine suggest that active individuals should consume around 0.5 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily. This range is appropriate for both strength and endurance athletes, across most sports, and for athletes with any level of experience.
Should I be at the higher or lower end of that range?
The short answer is that erring toward higher protein intake isn't going to hurt you, unless you have underlying kidney disease. So it's generally a good idea to fit more protein in your diet insofar as is possible and sustainable for you.
There are also a few circumstances that are associated with an even higher protein need (likely closer to the 0.9 g/lb target):
- High training load: Intermediate to advanced trainees who are doing 5+ hours of exercise weekly will require more protein to recover adequately and make performance gains.
- Weight loss: Individuals who are in a caloric deficit need to increase protein intake in order to maintain their muscle mass while losing fat. When someone is purposefully eating less than what they need, their body will try to break down muscle proteins for energy. They must take extra care to consume even more protein to mitigate muscle loss.
- Weight gain: Conversely, people who are actively trying to gain muscle also need to eat more protein to achieve their goal. They need to ingest an excess of protein in order to provide their body with the building blocks to add even more muscle during a gaining phase.
Protein needs are more flexible than you think.
With that said, it's not all that important to be precise with the amount of protein you consume day to day. You may see elite athletes obsess over consuming an exact quantity of protein per meal, measured down to the gram. This is complete overkill for the vast majority of people. The body has a remarkable ability to adapt and utilize the protein it receives. Therefore, it practically doesn't matter too much if you eat 130 grams or 160 grams in a day, because your body will just use what it needs that day and burn off the excess.
While it is essential to obtain the minimum amount of protein needed for muscle repair and growth, you're likely not going to feel much different if you fall short every once in a while. You may have already noticed that the recommendation of 0.5 - 0.9 g/lb is an incredibly wide range that allows for a large margin of error.
Rather than getting to attached to specific numbers, most people can benefit by consuming a variety of protein-rich foods such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, and nuts. By incorporating a range of protein sources into meals and snacks throughout the day, active individuals can ensure they are meeting their protein needs without the undue stress of having to measure everything precisely. A balanced diet is all about maintaining a sensible approach to nutrition rather than becoming overly fixated on exact measurement.