How much protein do you need?

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on September 18, 2010

yummy grilled chicken

How much protein do you need every day? This is a terrific question, and there isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all answer. (Thanks, by the way, to the survey respondent who suggested this as an article topic! I received a number of great suggestions, and I’ll be working my way through them in the next several months.) The answer depends on how much muscle you have, whether you’re athletic, and whether you’re dieting for fat loss or just maintaining your weight. The answer to this question, for a woman over age 25, used to be 50 grams per day. But doesn’t it seem a bit odd that Sally, who’s 40, tall, muscular, and athletic would need the same amount as her grandmother, who weighs 30 pounds less and is 80 years old and sedentary? In fact, these days pretty much everybody agrees that active people need more than couch potatoes. Big surprise, right? The American Dietetic Association now says that people involved in “weight and body-focused sports” (hmmmm—I’m not really sure what that means, but it appears on the page titled “Eat Right for Resistance Training,” so let’s assume it means strength trainees) need 0.54 to 0.77 grams per pound. So according to this recommendation, a 130-pound woman who lifts would need 70 to 100 grams a day. Many strength coaches would say this is too low, and I agree with them. But it’s a darn sight better than 50 grams. So if you want to be conservative, follow the ADA’s lead and shoot for 70 to 100 grams a day. Funny—the ADA recommends that people who do heavy or intense endurance activity (people like marathoners, triathletes, competitive swimmers, etc.) should eat 0.7 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound, which is more than the strength trainees are supposed to need! My take-away is that heavy training of any kind signals a greater need for protein. You need it to repair the micro-damage muscles sustain from any kind of exercise—and to grow new muscle tissue. What would that much protein per day look like on your plate? You could get 71 grams in a day by consuming the following:

  • two eight-ounce glasses of skim milk = 16 grams
  • three ounces of chicken breast = 26 grams
  • two slices of whole-wheat bread = 7 grams
  • three ounces of canned tuna = 22

Actually, the other vegetables, fruits, nuts, and starches (grains, pasta, beans) you consume also include protein, but in smaller quantities. So you’d very likely get another 10 or more grams from them. A great resource for figuring out the protein, carbs, calories, and other nutrients in any food is the USDA nutrient database. I use it all the time for fruit, fresh vegetables, and meat. But what about when you’re dieting? If you’re having trouble with hunger, try increasing your protein intake. Why? Protein is the most satisfying food, which means you’re going to feel less hungry 90 minutes after eating if your meal included 25 grams of protein than if it weighed in at 10 grams. I shoot for at least 20 to 25 grams of protein per major meal (and 100 to 125 grams total per day). I eat every three hours or so, and I also make sure that every snack includes at least some protein. So I won’t eat just an apple in mid-afternoon; I’ll pair it with some reduced-fat cheddar cheese. How much protein do you tend to eat? Have you found it difficult to eat enough of it? Photo by dbkfrog

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