Like most things health and fitness, a seemingly basic question like “how much protein do I need?” can turn into a debate quickly.
On one hand, you have bodybuilders and gym enthusiasts swearing you need at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight a day, or you’ll waste away into skin and bones.
Then you have official nutrition organizations. Almost all of them urge you to limit your protein—usually to less than 30% of your daily calorie intake. Many say we’re eating too much protein already.
You want to do what’s best for your health…
But whom should you listen to?
And is your protein intake even something you should worry about?
Getting Enough Protein Is Key for Your Health
Protein is vital for your health. It has a hand in practically every process in the body. If you don’t get enough, a lot of your effort spent eating right and going to the gym will go to waste. Without adequate protein, you won’t be able to build muscle—or even keep muscle you already have. You end up weak and unhealthy.
Protein is like a secret weapon when it comes to weight loss. It fills you up more than fats and carbohydrates do (1). So eating protein-rich meals keeps you feeling fuller longer. You end up eating fewer calories—and losing weight—without even trying because your appetite is satisfied.
Protein also speeds up your metabolism, making your body a more efficient weight-loss machine. Eating a good portion of your calories (at least 25-30%) from protein can boost your metabolism by up to 100 calories a day compared to low protein diets (2).
But how much protein do you need to reap these awesome benefits?
Most official nutrition organizations tell you to keep your protein to a modest amount. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend only 10-35% of your daily calories come from protein (3). That works out to about 46 grams a day for the average woman and 56 grams for the average man.
The Board of the Institute of Medicine produced a report outlining the recommended dietary amount for different macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbs). The recommended daily amount of protein was only .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for adults 18 years and older (4). That works out to only .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Guidelines from official organizations like these are a decent starting point to figure out your ideal protein intake. But there are few major flaws that make viewing their guidelines as indisputable truth problematic.
Why Official Protein Guidelines Aren’t All That Helpful
The biggest issue with official protein guidelines is their attempt to come up universal numbers that work for everyone.
In reality, a ton of factors come into play that could make the ideal protein amount for you a lot different than the ideal amount for me or someone else. More on those in just a second.
Besides not taking your unique situation into account, most official guidelines are based on minimum recommended amounts. What does that mean? The amount listed is the absolute least amount of protein you could eat to not lose muscle mass.
Most of us want to at least maintain muscle as part of an active lifestyle. And many of us want to build muscle. Focusing too much on the official guidelines can limit your potential.
Especially when a range of studies found that higher protein intake—intake over the recommended daily amounts—has helped build muscle, improve bone and heart health, and increase energy (5).
Bottom line: the ideal level of protein intake for you is somewhere above the recommended guidelines nutrition organizations set…
But how far above those guidelines should you target?
How to Figure out Your Ideal Protein Amount
A “magic number”—the exact amount of protein everyone needs to eat every day for optimal health, just doesn’t exist.
The right amount for you depends on a lot of factors, including:
Are you trying to transform how your body? If so, how are you trying to transform it?
Having clear answers to these questions is an important part of getting an accurate read on your ideal protein intake.
You’re probably already aware of the increased emphasis protein gets if you’re trying to build a significant amount of muscle.
There’s some truth to that, but it isn’t as extreme as some bodybuilders and supplement companies would have you believe.
Eating a higher-protein diet has been shown to help synthesize new muscles and build strength (6).
However, there’s no need to start shoveling protein powder into your mouth or start carrying cans of tuna with you wherever you go. A lot of bodybuilders recommend at least 1 gram/pound of bodyweight for those trying to build muscle, but that’s in the upper range of the ideal intake.
If you’re strength training regularly and looking to build muscle, shoot for around .7-1 gram of protein/pound of bodyweight a day.
If you’re trying to just maintain muscle, you don’t need quite as much protein. You’d do well to start with the nutrition organization guidelines—then go through the other factors in this list to make adjustments.
Higher-protein diets have also been shown to be effective in driving weight loss (7). So if losing fat is your top priority, you can consciously increase your protein intake to speed up the process.
Eating more protein keeps you feeling full—naturally curbing your appetite and making it easier to eat fewer calories—while speeding up your metabolism.
If you aren’t trying to lose weight, there’s less of a reason to bump up your protein intake.
Did you know that elderly people need a bit more protein than younger people to stay healthy and maintain their muscle mass?
When you get older, your body loses some of its efficiency when it comes to repairing damaged muscles. A 19-year-old college kid might be able to go to the gym three days in a row without eating much protein and still see great results. But you might need a bit more if you’re in your 60s or older.
A study found that a baseline intake of between .5 and .6 grams of protein/pound of body weight works well for older people (7).
Physical Activity Level
Generally, the more active you are, the more protein you require.
This is true even if you aren’t strength training. Endurance or distance athletes (like marathoners and triathletes) spend a lot of time training and breaking down muscle. If you fall into that camp—or if you’re hitting the gym regularly—shoot for .8-1 gram of protein/pound of body weight.
Remember to take your job into account! If you’re working on a construction site and then hitting up the Crossfit box 4 times a week, 1.5-2 grams/pound might be just what the doctor ordered to repair muscles and push you closer to your physique goals.
You Probably Don’t Need to Worry About It
Phew. I know I just threw a lot of numbers and guidelines at you.
But here’s the good news: in most cases, there’s absolutely no need to worry about how much protein you’re consuming every day.
If you’re already following a Paleo diet and eating animal products with nearly every meal, you’re right on track to meet your protein needs.
Most of us—unless you’re shooting for peak (competitive) athletic performance or looking to put on a lot of muscle—don’t need to track our protein intake every day.
Protein shakes and bars are convenient, but they aren’t necessary. You don’t need a protein shake every two hours and can replace these substitutes with whole foods. You’ll get a lot more vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats this way—without all the processing and artificial preservatives.
Ultimately, the ideal protein amount for you will vary over time. An intuitive style of eating—adjusting your protein intake and responding to the signals you receive from your body—is ideal for maintaining (and building) muscle and long-term health.
There’s no need to have the exact same amount of protein every day or meal. After you’ve followed the Paleo lifestyle for a while and adjusted to healthy, wholesome foods, don’t stress and listen to what your body is telling you.
Protein is vitally important in keeping you healthy, full, and promoting lean muscle. Unfortunately, there’s a ton of confusion about the ideal amount we need to reap these benefits…
But it doesn’t have to be complicated for you.
Just by following a Paleo lifestyle focused on vegetables and animal products, you put yourself well ahead of people filling up on grains, sugars, and processed foods. They’re much more likely to be protein-deprived.
Your individual protein needs are unique—and they’ll change over time. But you don’t need to worry about your muscle wasting away if you’re eating animal products regularly.
Listen to your body, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments along the way. It’s the key to getting just the amount of protein you need.
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