How Much Protein Do I Need? And What Are the Best Sources of Protein?

Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
     
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

While the confusion around how much fat and carbs for you should eat for weight loss continues, there seems to still be one macro that reigns supreme in the world of controversial diets - protein. 

We continue to hear more reasons why protein is good for us, like how it is essential for fitness, weight loss, wound healing and overall health. And very little about any harmful effects. In fact, protein is the only macronutrient that has a minimum requirement for our health - and even this amount is widely debated as too little or not enough for most. 

But is this really the case? How much protein do you actually need and are some sources better than others - like plant vs animal based options? 

chicken high protein foods

What is Protein?

Protein is a macronutrient - in other words, a compound in food that provides calories and other nutritional benefits. All proteins are made up of smaller, important compounds called amino acids that serve as the building blocks for your body. And these amino acids are why protein is considered an essential nutrient. In fact, roughly 15% of you body (including skin, hair, nails, and other tissues) are made up of proteins (1). 

What Does Protein Do?

Although most famous for supporting lean muscle mass, protein is so much more than that!

As the builder macro, protein helps to grow, shape, repair and maintain every single cell in your body - even your blood cells and DNA. Proteins are also responsible for a lot of the work that goes on inside your cells, since protein is also a critical component of hormones, enzymes and other chemicals you produce to live and function normally. It even plays a role in digesting your food. 

And because protein is a macro, it provides energy in the form of calories. Although, it is not as much of a preferred source of fuel for fitness and day to day compared to carbs and fat - mainly because your body will prioritize protein for all of the other many essential functions it is needed for. But if you are eating plenty of protein, some of it will get used for fuel. 

What Are Amino Acids?

There are hundreds of amino acids found in nature, but only twenty make up proteins in food and a little less than half of these are considered essential for human function - nine to be exact! These nine essential amino acids cannot be produced by your body, you can only get them from eating food. And each of them plays a critical role in your health and wellbeing. 

The nine essential amino acids include: 

  1. Histidine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Leucine
  4. Lysine
  5. Methionine
  6. Phenylalanine
  7. Threonine
  8. Tryptophan
  9. Valine

When you eat protein, you break it down into its amino acid counterparts, that are then transported throughout your body for various uses. One of these most important uses being protein synthesis - or building new proteins (2).

Your body is in a constant state of breaking down and rebuilding - majority of your cells are actually completely destroyed and rebuilt every couple of days, weeks, months or years. It is the same reason why your skin sheds, and hair and nails grow. Even your bones go through a remodeling. You are also constantly building all of your body's hormones, cellular DNA, and muscle. And all of these processes are protein synthesis in action... thanks to amino acids. 

Muscle Protein Synthesis

For fitness purposes we will focus on the importance of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), not to be confused with muscle growth. 

When muscles are used during exercise or strenuous activity, it creates micro tears. Amino acids are then shuttled to your muscles to start repairing this damage and synthesizing new tissue to replace the damaged ones. This process doesn't automatically lead to bigger muscles (there is a little more needed for that), but it can make your muscles stronger or adapt to the type of training that caused the tears in the first place (3). 

MPS is why protein, and strength training in particular, is so essential for maintaining lean mass. Your body requires an almost constant stream of amino acids for use and without enough protein in the diet, it can break down your muscle to satisfy this need - leading to muscle loss over time.  

High Protein Diets

It seems every popular diet these days is considered "high protein". But what does that even mean? Let's start by looking at how many grams of protein do you need a day to begin with. And what the research says around any potential benefits of increasing this amount, and to what extent. 

How Much Protein Should I Eat?

Traditional nutrition recommendations suggest a protein intake of 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.27 to 0.36 grams/pound) (4). This would equal out to roughly 40 to 55 grams of protein a day for a 150 pound adult. 

Another way to consider protein needs is looking at macro balance. The US Dietary Guidelines suggest protein intake should make up 10 to 35% of your daily calories. And on a 2,000 calorie diet, this will equal out to 5o to 175 grams of protein a day - quite a large range! 

It is important to note that these recommendations typically skew towards the minimum amount you should be eating. And 50 grams of protein a day might not be adequate in maintaining lean mass, building muscle and promoting better body composition in some. 

In reality, protein needs are not as directly related to calories or body weight as they are to the amount of lean mass you have and how much you use your muscles.  

How Much Protein Do You Need to Build Muscle?

When it comes to building muscle, the amount of protein you eat is a considerable factor. With the role of amino acids in muscle protein synthesis, maintaining a positive protein balance - in other words, eating more protein than you are breaking down or using, is one part of the muscle building equation. Another is getting enough calories in general to build mass. As well as the type and amount of training you are participating in.

Bodybuilders and weight lifters have higher protein needs, because they are looking to add mass and simultaneously using their muscle more than the average person or non-lifter. 

Common bodybuilder advice recommends you eat at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. But the research varies on this topic depending on age, fitness level and overall body composition goals (5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12).  

Older studies suggest that an intake of at least 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.7 to 0.8 grams/pound)  is needed to maintain lean mass with strength training (13,14). More recent studies suggest intakes as high as 1.8 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.8 to 0.9 grams/pound) (15). And a larger and more recent review of the research determined that for most, there aren't any beneficial effects of eating more than 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.72 grams per pound of body weight (16). 

All of of these recommendations still fall within the range suggested by the American College of Sports Medicine that suggests 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.54 to 0.9 grams/pound), which would translate to 81 to 136 grams for a 150 pound adult - significantly more than the average individual. 

However, this can all still depend on your overall calorie intake. Your macro diet ratio may have an impact on body composition when looking at a surplus or restriction of calories. A narrative review of the research and smaller studies have suggested that higher protein intakes between 2.2  to 3.4 grams/kg (1 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight) during a large calorie surplus (to promote weight gain) results in lower gains in body fat - promoting more muscle overall (17,18). 

But the debate still continues around how much protein is actually needed to gain more muscle.  And we may not get a definitive answer any time soon, due to the multitude of individual differences among us all. 

THE VERDICT: Based on the averages from evidenced backed recommendations, a good rule of thumb for maintaining existing muscle is to eat roughly 0.8 to 1 grams of protein/pound of body weight. And this amount may increase as high as 1 to 1.5 grams/pound when looking to add lean mass using a calorie surplus. 

How Much Protein a Day to Lose Weight?

While the research cannot determine that protein alone promotes weight loss or that high protein diets are the best approach to losing weight, protein still has clear beneficial effects for dieters. There are three main arguments for why you should consider consuming more protein when looking to shed pounds. 

  1. Protein is the most thermogenic macro
  2. Protein is thought to be satiating 
  3. Protein protects lean mass

What is the thermogenic effect of protein?

It takes energy to digest your food - commonly referred to as the thermic effect of food (TEF). And as it turns out, each macro requires a different amount of energy to digest. 

Protein is thought to be the most thermogenic of all the macros - causing a small spike in metabolism to digest protein foods compared to fat and carbs (19). And it is commonly believed that eating more protein overall may lead to tiny increases in your daily metabolism and overall energy expenditure. 

TEF only accounts for 10% of your total energy expenditure, but because dieting is associated with decreases in metabolism over time - due to prolonged caloric restriction and decreases in mass, this minor effect on metabolism may be worth considering (20,21).

Does protein reduce hunger? 

Hunger is an inevitable side effect of cutting calories, but the type of foods you are choosing might help curb your appetite more than others. Protein is thought to have some well documented satiating effects, particularly while on a diet (22,23,24).

In one study, consuming 30% of calories from protein caused participants to eat almost 450 calories less per day - leading to twelve pounds of weight loss in 3 months (25). Some research has even suggested 25% of your calories coming from protein can help curb cravings (25). 

It is no wonder popular high protein diets recommend roughly 30% to 40% of calories come from protein. Which would equal out to 150 to 200 grams of protein per day on a 2,000 calorie diet (or 1 to 1.5 grams/pound for a 150 pound adult, eating 2,000 calories a day).  

Why do you want to protect lean mass?

When cutting calories to shed pounds, you will lose a combination of fat and muscle weight. But your goal should be to lose more fat than muscle. 

More lean mass means a better body composition (less body fat %) - helping you look more toned and lean overall. Muscle is also your storage place for carbs (in the form of glycogen), meaning you can process carbs and store them more efficiently, the more muscle you have - leading to less body fat storage. So when it comes to losing weight, maintaining your muscle is going to be a huge benefit. 

Exactly how much protein do you need to maintain your muscle and lose weight?

When calorie restriction for fat loss is considered, research suggests between 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein/kg of fat free body mass or 1.04 to 1.4 grams/pound of muscle is best (26). You can find out your muscle mass by estimating your % body fat  or getting a body composition test done. 

But again, this amount can vary widely from one person to the next, And of course, you have to have muscle to begin with. So if you are looking to lose weight and do not participate in any strength training, you might want to consider adding weight lifting or at least body weight exercises to your weight loss plan.   

THE VERDICT: Consider increasing your protein intake to 30% of your calories or roughly 1 gram per pound of body weight/day if you are looking to drop some pounds and tone up. 

How Much Protein is Too Much?

We've discussed the potential benefits of upping your protein, but how high should you go? And are there any health risks of eating too much protein? 

You might have heard that eating too much protein can lead to kidney damage. This is because your kidneys play an important role in filtering waste, and digesting excess protein results in more metabolic wastes you would need to filter. But this doesn't necessarily mean you are putting a strain on your kidneys.

For those with diagnosed kidney disease, consuming a high protein diet might be harmful (27,28). But the research doesn't support this claim in healthy individuals without kidney disease. In fact, the additional work needed by your kidneys from high protein diets is thought to be well within its normal capabilities (29,30,31,32). 

The type of protein you choose is likely more important than the amount when it comes to health risks. For example, consuming a diet high in red meat and dairy is often associated with increased heart health risks (33,34). And protein amount alone doesn't ensure good nutrition. Plenty of processed, unhealthy foods are advertised as a source of protein - in other words, adding protein to a candy bar doesn't make it good for you. And drinking protein shakes all day just to get your grams in can lead to excess calories and weight gain. In addition, consuming any poorly balanced diet can lead to possible nutrient deficiencies.  

THE VERDICT: Consuming a high protein diet is probably not harmful to healthy individuals. However, overall nutrition is key and the research hasn't shown any health benefits of eating too much protein either. Strive to keep you protein intake reasonable - less than 50% of your calories or less than 2 grams/pound of body weight, to grab potential benefits while still leaving room for balanced nutrition. 

What foods are High in Protein?

Is it just me or does it feel like every health food or superfood is advertised as a source of protein? Protein is in a lot of foods, but that doesn't always mean they are a great source of it. It is worth paying attention to how much protein per calorie you are actually getting from your choices, as well as what other nutrients it's bringing to the table. 

Without a doubt animal sources of protein (meat, fish, eggs and dairy) are going to provide the most amount of protein per calorie - plants just can't compare in protein density. But of course that doesn't mean animal proteins are always the best source of protein for you either. And what about supplements?

Let's take a look at common protein foods and what you should be looking for to get the most benefits from your diet. 

Complete Proteins and Complementary Proteins

You might have heard of certain proteins referred to as "complete". What this means is that these options contain all nine of the essential amino acids you need in proportionate quantities. Incomplete proteins, on the other hand, are lacking in certain essential amino acids. And complementary proteins are two incomplete proteins that when combined create a complete protein. 

All animal sources are considered complete, and most plant sources are incomplete - with the exception of soy, buckwheat and quinoa. To get a more complete protein from plant base sources, some of the best complementary protein pairings include the following: 

  • Rice + Peas
  • Whole Grains + Legumes
  • Grains + Vegetables
  • Grains + Nuts + Seeds
  • Legumes + Nuts + Seeds

Some believe that consuming complete proteins or complementary proteins at every meal is the best way to optimize protein intake. However, this theory misses a couple key factors.

  1. Your body is able to use free amino acids already on hand through the normal protein breakdown and recycling that occurs (35).
  2. Because nutrition doesn't work in a vacuum, eating a diet containing all of your essential amino acids throughout the day is likely sufficient enough (36). 

In other words, if you don’t get all of your amino acids in perfect amounts every single day, your body has ways of filling in the gaps to get you what you need - as long as you are eating a balanced diet.

Where there may be some more merit to this claim is around post workout nutrition and muscle building. Some research suggests that complete proteins from animal sources support muscle growth more efficiently than plant based proteins, because of their amino acid content and rate of absorption (37). Choosing complementary proteins is also thought to improve overall absorption (38).

Although the research around this is still fairly limited, given the demand for certain amino acids in building and repairing muscle after a workout, it might be worth focusing on getting complete or complementary proteins in your post workout recovery. 

Lean Proteins

Lean proteins are essentially protein options that are lower in fat. This matters because fat is calorically dense and can add a significant amount of calories to your food choices if you aren't paying attention. For example, nuts and nut butters are often considered a source of protein. But they only provide 7 to 8 grams per serving - and each serving is nearly 200 calories and 16 grams of fat. Compared to a lean protein option like non fat Greek yogurt that offers twice the protein (14 to 20 grams) for half the calories.  

For anything to be considered an excellent source of protein, it should contain at least 10 grams of protein per serving (per FDA guidelines). And for the most nutrient dense choices, look for at least 10g per 100 calories. 

When looking at animal proteins in specific, opting for lean is also a way to cut out more saturated fat from your diet. With the exception of fatty fish that provide a valuable source of omega-3s. 

Some of the best sources of lean proteins includes:

Fat also slows the absorption of protein and carbs. Which may be beneficial if you are looking for long lasting energy. But may not be as desirable when looking for quick absorption of key nutrients - such as right after a workout. 

Higher fat options work well during pre-workout meals and lean proteins are best for post workout recovery. 

High fat protein options are not necessarily bad for you. It all depends on your personal nutrition needs and dietary goals. A little fat can be a great addition to help add calories when trying to gain muscle, and on the flip side also tends to be satiating - keeping your appetite in check when trying to cut calories. It is a balancing act, figuring out what macro ratios work best for you.  

Vegan Protein

The hardest part about finding high protein vegan options, is that most plant based sources are also a source of fat or carbs - making it a challenge to get a lot of protein per calorie on a vegan diet. But eating a high protein vegan meal plan is not impossible. 

Plants can serve as a great source of protein when you eat them in the right amounts and aim to get the best sources you can find at every meal. And with more food companies providing vegan options - including vegan meat alternatives and other processed options that provide a quality protein choice, getting enough protein has become significantly easier. 

When on a high protein vegan diet, be strategic with your macros by opting for more of the most nutrient dense plant proteins you can get your hands on - aiming to get at least 20 to 30 grams per each meal. 

Here are some of the most common "high" protein vegan foods with their complete macro breakdown per 100 calorie serving. 

Food

Protein (g)/ 100 calories

Carb (g)/ 100 calories

Fat (g)/ 100 calories

Tofu

12g

4g

4g

Tempeh

11g

4g

6g

Edamame

10g

7g

3.5g

Soy Veggie Burger

9g

8g

3.5g

Lentils

8g

17g

0g

Green Peas

7g

17g

0.5g

Black Beans

7g

18g

0g

Peanuts

4.5g

2g

8.5g

Quinoa

3.5g

18g

1.5g

 

Supplements can also be helpful if you are finding it difficult to get enough protein without meat and dairy. 

Protein Shakes and Supplements

With so many protein supplements hitting the market it can feel overwhelming to decide which ones are best for you. 

  • If using protein powder for muscle building purposes post workout, research suggests that 20 grams or more of just about any complete protein is sufficient (39,40,41,42). With whey and soy tending to be the most popular choices.
  • Casein, unlike whey, is a long acting protein – meaning it is absorbed more slowly over time. And some research suggests that casein may be effective in promoting muscle growth when taken before bed (43).
  • For the cleanest powders, look for a third party certification, like USP or NSF. And opt for options with minimal added ingredients like sugar, additional supplements and unknown ingredients. Avoid proprietary blends unless the actual ingredients are described. 
  • If you're vegan, anything with whey, casein or collagen is not going to meet your dietary needs - opt for a complete protein like soy or a quality, complementary blend like brown rice and pea protein combined.

Even though, protein powders and supplements may feel like an easy way to hit your daily protein goals, they may not always be the best way. Opt for more nutrients from foods where you can. 

Powders typically consist of partially broken down proteins that are ideal for fast absorption. This works great in a lean post gym snack or protein shake, delivering amino acids quickly to your muscles for fuel. But throughout the day this can end up being an easy way to get too many calories. 

Whole food proteins provide more volume and might be more satiating than in liquid or powder form. In other words, you probably wont feel as full adding a 20 gram protein scoop to your drink or food, compared to a 4 ounce portion of meat or fish. 

Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

You might have also heard of a group of amino acids called BCAAs or branched chain amino acids. These are amino acids are considered "branched" because their chemical structure includes an additional side chain.

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BCAA supplements are popular in the fitness world as they are thought to support muscle recovery, reduce soreness, increase muscle growth, improve endurance and support the use of fat for energy.

But do they work? 

Research suggests that BCAAs may be an effective treatment for muscle recovery, helping to reduce soreness and promote a faster recovery window. But when it comes to muscle growth, improved endurance and increased fat burning, the research is not quite as strong (44,45,46). Most likely because muscle building and fat burning are much more complex than a pre or post workout snack/supplement - requiring caloric control, training technique and much more. 

But because of their proposed benefits in recovery, if you are lifting weights on a regular basis or participating in intense workouts/training, BCAAs may be a great addition to your post workout recovery to reduce muscle soreness.

Look for brands that are third-party certified and list out the amounts of each type of BCAAs it contains. And you will want options that provide more leucine, as this is the specific type of BCAA that is linked to benefits.

And of course, most naturally high protein foods - complete and complementary - will provide a decent source of essential BCAAs. 

High Protein Meals

egg avocado toast high protein foods

Once you know how much protein you need to eat each day, the next step is to plan your meals and snacks accordingly. And if you are thinking one giant protein shake or stack of meat each day is going to cut it, remember that research continues to suggest that you absorb and utilize your protein intake more efficiently when spread throughout the day (47). Instead, aim to get a healthy dose of protein at every meal and snack. 

Not interested in learning how to meal prep? Check out our meal plans. They are macro balanced to bring an average of 20 to 30 grams of protein to every meal whether you are vegan, paleo or just looking to eat clean.

If you want to get super serious about your macros or just don't want to ever cook your own proteins again, check out our a la carte options. Our grass-fed, wild caught meat and fish options are a life saver!

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