Are You Getting Enough Protein? Here's How to Calculate Your Body's Needs
Here's how RDs calculate the ideal protein intake for each individual, plus what you should know before you try protein powder.
Protein is one of the key building blocks of our bodies and one of the most necessary nutrients for human function. We need it to produce antibodies, enzymes, blood, connective tissue, hormones, and more. Protein is also responsible for muscle repair and growth. But because it’s so critical—the word actually stems from the Greek term pronos, which means “first”—many Americans are concerned about whether or not they’re meeting the recommended amount of protein daily. And when you factor in the 17 billion dollar-plus protein supplements industry (and its associated marketing), who wouldn’t fret about packing more protein into their diet?
But protein needs vary greatly from person to person—your required intake is determined largely by your lifestyle and activity level, muscle mass, age, current state of health, and body composition. There is a simple formula for estimating your body’s protein needs, however. “For people who are active, I take their weight in pounds and convert that to kilograms (divide pounds by 2.2 to get kilograms) and multiply by one,” explains Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutrition expert and author. “For example, a woman who weighs 150 pounds would need 68 grams of protein per day. However, for folks who are less active, I would then multiply the number of kilograms by 0.8.” So a more sedentary 150 pound woman would need around 55 grams per day. The Dietary Reference Intake, or DRI, for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. This is the minimum required amount.
It’s important to remember that protein is (luckily) readily available in foods. “Most of us are getting plenty and don’t need to count every gram of protein,” says Largeman-Roth. The average American diet is a lot higher in protein than many assume, vegetarians included. We tend to associate meat-and-milk-heavy dishes with protein-rich meals, but the nutrient is also found in plenty of plant-based ingredients like grains, nuts, beans, tofu, fruits, and vegetables. (And don’t forget eggs: a two-egg sandwich can pack more than 20 grams of protein; add a shmear of hummus and you’ll probably have nearly half your daily intake by the time you finish breakfast.)
“However, if you are putting in more time at the gym or the park and aren’t seeing the results you want, you’ll want to pay more attention to how much protein you’re getting from food, and be sure to get a protein-rich meal or snack after a workout to help repair small tears in your muscles,” Largeman-Roth says. Those with physically strenuous jobs, people who exercise frequently, and elderly adults may need more protein, too.
Bottom line: aim to get your protein from food, and remember that the quality of the protein you’re consuming is incredibly important (red meat is still red meat). And if you’ve been wondering whether you need to up your intake with protein shakes or meal replacement bars, skip ‘em and make one of these easy high-protein recipes, or find our favorite high-protein vegetarian recipes here instead. Also remember that the FDA does not regulate supplements as closely as it does food and beverages, and that more research is needed on the actual effectiveness of protein supplements, especially for those who aren’t professional athletes or body builders.