Discovering the perfect protein intake routine can seem about as clear as mud. For starters, there are many variables involved. Protein consumption differs from person to person, based on gender, current body composition, physical activity level, training goals, and even height. There is also a timing element to protein consumption. Is it better to spread out protein-packed meals or shove it all into one seating? What is the best source of protein — and what is simply a waste of calories? The amount of information out there surrounding protein is plain down overwhelming.
Well, the confusion stops now. We are unlocking all the answers to your protein questions – and in the most simple and digestible way. Protein is powerful and, if used correctly, has the potential to completely change your body composition. Bookmark this article – consider it your one-stop shop for all the information you need to make your protein journey a strong one.
- Before calculating protein intake, assess your current health and fitness goals. Looking to lose weight, bulk up, or maintain body mass? Each requires a different amount of daily protein.
- At a baseline, a healthy individual should consume the recommended daily amount of 0.8 g/kg of protein per pound of body weight.
- Consuming too much protein on a daily basis is possible — especially if you are not an athlete or are not training for an intense fitness event. Overdosing on protein can lead to startling health concerns, like heart disease.
- There are many sources of protein that can fit into your daily routine and diet. Whether you are vegetarian, paleo, constantly on-the-go, or looking for affordable options – protein comes in all different forms to fit your needs.
What Is Protein?
First things first, what is protein? Solid question. You may have heard protein referred to as “the building blocks of life.” This is essentially true. The real building blocks of life are amino acids. And amino acids create protein.
Protein is a crucial component within our bodies. Found in our muscles, bones, organs, skin, and hair, protein also plays a role in transporting oxygen in our blood system. So, we need protein for survival. And we also need to consume it for fuel. Protein is a macronutrient, meaning that we need to consume a significant amount of it for our body to thrive. This macronutrient is a massive energy source for the body, allowing optimal performance levels throughout the day.
20 amino acids compose all proteins – including protein in your body, as well as plants and animals. Your body produces more than half of these 20 amino acids (11). These are nonessential amino acids. Your body cannot produce the remaining nine. These amino acids are essential and you can only retrieve them through specific food sources. We will tap into these sources shortly.
Why does all this matter? Amino acids play a huge role in protein synthesis – or the process in which the body creates protein molecules. It allows for muscle protein synthesis (MPS) to occur, which builds muscle mass throughout the body. At the same time as muscles are forming, muscle protein breakdown (MPB) is occurring. Ultimately, we want to increase MPS at a faster rate than MPB, resulting in a net gain of muscle protein.
This backstory of protein helps us to navigate what our body needs to be high-functioning. It also signifies the importance of protein intake as it relates to achieving our fitness goals. The question still remains – how much protein do we need to consume to achieve these goals?
How To Calculate Protein Intake
The primary step in calculating protein intake is to determine your caloric diet. In other words, what health and fitness goals are you trying to achieve and how does food play a role? There are three main types of caloric diets that typically correspond to your health goals:
- Weight Loss = Hypocaloric Diet: In this diet, you are burning more calories than you are consuming. Likely, you already are – or are looking to become – extremely active. You want to transform body fat mass into lean muscle mass.
- Weight Gain = Hypercaloric Diet: In this diet, you are intaking more calories than you are burning. Perhaps you are looking to put on a few healthy pounds of weight, in the form of muscle. Or maybe your fitness goals are to bulk up – to build some serious muscle.
- Maintaining Weight = Eucaloric Diet: In this diet, calories out is equal to calories in. You are maintaining your current weight. During a eucaloric diet, there is still an option to gain muscle mass while simultaneously shredding body fat – all while maintaining your current size (on the scale).
While all three of these goals are vastly different, they have one common thread: protein. You guessed it, each fitness goal requires a particular protein intake throughout the day.
At a baseline, the National Academy of Sports Medicine states that the recommended daily allowance for protein intake in a healthy individual is 0.8 gram/kilogram (g/kg) per pound of body weight. This is 0.36 grams per pound. Time to do some math. Suppose you currently weigh 150 pounds. Calculate your protein intake by multiplying 150 pounds by 0.36 grams (150 X 0.36), resulting in 54 grams of protein a day. Simple enough, right?
Based on your current or aspirational activity level, combined with your fitness goals, the amount of g/kg per body weight will change. To break this down, we have created a quick chart to reference.
First, locate your appropriate health goal/caloric diet discussed above (hypocaloric, hypercaloric, eucaloric). Then, select whether you are an active individual or more of a healthy, sedentary individual. Answering these questions will lead you to the appropriate protein intake range amount.
Notice each intake amount is a range. If you are very active – training for a fitness event, have major physic goals, or are frequently weight lifting – you should lean toward the higher end of the protein intake spectrum. This increased amount will support your physical output, allowing MPS to outpace MPB. If you are a healthy individual interested in losing weight, you still need protein – but slightly less.
Activity level plays a huge role in your protein intake. Bottom line, if you are training hard – up the protein to the max range. If you are moderately active, consume protein on the lighter end of the range. Either way, add protein to your diet for energy sustenance and muscle synthesis.
Protein During Pregnancy
Protein intake is equally as important, if not more, during pregnancy. Just as healthy adults need protein to fuel cell reproduction throughout the body, an expecting mother needs protein more than ever to form a human being. Consuming a proper protein-filled diet during pregnancy supports the baby’s growth while they are forming bones, muscle, skin, blood, and hormones. The bottom line, protein nourishes both you and your little one during your pregnancy. So, how much should you consume during this phase of life?
Protein consumption varies based on the stage of pregnancy and you will calculate based on three variables: the recommended daily amount for a healthy adult, the amount of protein the fetus requires, and the amount of extra protein a pregnant woman consumes.
Increased protein intake should continue all the way into post-pregnancy. A mother’s body is working overtime during the lactation phase, producing milk to support their newborn. That takes a lot of energy!
A simple protein intake structure during pregnancy looks like the following:
- First Trimester: 1.1 g/kg per pound of body weight.
- Second Trimester: 1.66 g/kg per pound of body weight.
- Third Trimester: 1.77 g/kg per pound of body weight.
- Post-Pregnancy (Lactation): 1.5 g/kg per pound of body weight.
Remember, this is a general protein intake guide. While it is close to what you may need, it does not take into effect your own personal health concerns or needs. Please consult your doctor before changing your diet, whether you are trying to conceive or are already pregnant.
Can You Consume Too Much Protein?
Too much of anything typical comes with downfalls. This includes protein intake. If you are over-consuming protein, you are at a higher risk of developing kidney stones. High-protein diets typically (not always) include red meat. While red meat can serve as a great source of protein, it is also associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease and heart attacks. On a less extreme note, too much daily protein consumption can lead to constipation, dehydration, and gout.
Then how much protein is too much? Recommendations state that a healthy adult should not consume more than 2.0 g/kg per body pound on a daily basis. High protein intake levels are more for highly active individuals who are training for a competition or event. These athletes desperately need large amounts of protein to support energy exertion and muscle growth.
Best Sources Of Protein
You can find protein from both animal and plant sources. That said, not all protein sources are equal. Typically, “complete proteins” proteins are those found in animal products. This simply means that they carry essential amino acids – the amino acids that are not already found within the body. Protein sources with a complete amino acid profile include red meat, white meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy.
Plant sources can also provide protein for the body. While not as many, there are two complete plant protein sources you should consider incorporating: quinoa and soy. Other plant sources high in (incomplete) protein include nuts and seeds, grains, veggies, and fruits.
Now, when is the best time to consume all this protein? Frankly, there is no optimal time to consume your daily recommended amount. It will likely work best to spread protein intake out throughout the day versus consuming it in one sitting. From a fuel perspective, this will keep you feeling energized from morning to night.
While there is flexibility in spanning out your protein intake, there is one caveat. It is best to consume some form of protein shortly after a workout session. This is because your muscles are more sensitive and protein gives your muscles the amino acids needed to properly repair and rebuild.
Quick Guide To Protein Supplements & Powders
Another alternative to achieving your recommended protein amount is via powders and supplements. Powdered protein comes in a variety of forms. There are protein powders made from eggs and milk – and then there are plant protein powders, made from hemp, peas, seeds, or soybeans.
Protein powders and supplements often contain other non-protein ingredients. These added ingredients can be beneficial, like vitamins and minerals. While other added ingredients can be quite the opposite of healthy, like sugars, artificial flavors, and thickeners. The ingredients found within protein supplements vary from brand to brand. It is important to do your research and read through all ingredients before purchasing.
The benefit of protein supplements? They are easy. For starters, making a protein drink takes no time at all. You can whip one up and be out the door in minutes. For the busy, worker-bees, it travels well. You can be sure you are hitting your protein intake needs throughout the day – no matter where you are.
How To Accomplish Your Protein Goals
If you are new to the protein scene, consuming higher levels of protein throughout the day can seem daunting. How do you fit it all in? Here are a few tips to get you started and on the right track. Soon you will find your rhythm, squeezing in a little more protein into each meal.
- Kickstart the day with a protein-packed breakfast. Right off the bat, begin the day on a high note. There are so many fantastic breakfast options that contain protein — eggs, chia seed pudding, turkey bacon, sausage, and overnight oats with nut butter. Find what you like and get the day started right!
- Keep nuts handy. Almonds, cashews, pistachios, and nut butters — nuts are packed with protein and energy-sustaining nutrients. They are easy for grabbing a handful on the go. And even better for topping off snacks. Throw some sliced almonds on top of your Greek yogurt for a little extra protein punch.
- Pre-pack your meals for the upcoming day or week. Planning out your meals ahead helps track your protein progress throughout the day. Prepping meals beforehand also supports a busy, on-the-go schedule. Prepare and set aside main meals, as well as snacks and protein shakes to consume once the day has started.
- Make tiny, impactful tweaks. Little food adjustments really add up. For instance, try swapping your regular morning yogurt for greek yogurt. Greek yogurt has a higher protein quantity and will add nicely to your intake goals. Also, consider switching from refined grains to whole grains. Whole grains also contain more protein and are just as easy to find when grocery shopping.
- Get into a routine that works for you. In order to achieve your protein goals, you must get into a routine that works best for you and your daily activities. Whether that is planning menus or preparing meals ahead, ordering healthy protein options online, always having protein sources available in your car or gym bag, front loading, or pacing out your intake — find what works best for you and stick with it.
Sample Day Of Eating
If you are in need of a little inspiration to get you started on the right foot, below is a sample day of protein-centered eating. Get creative! There are a million meal ideas available that incorporate protein. Use sources like Pinterest or social media food accounts to help generate fun recipe ideas. Bookmark what you like and give them all a try!
- Morning: Veggie omelet with a side of turkey bacon and whole grain toast.
- Post-Workout: Vanilla coffee protein shake or vegan protein bar.
- Lunch: Chicken burrito bowl, filled with quinoa, veggies, cheese, avocados, and other toppings of choice.
- Snack 1: Greek yogurt, topped with fruit, granola, and almond butter.
- Snack 2: Cheese slices and a handful of almonds.
- Dinner: Whole grain pasta with turkey meatballs.
- Dessert: Chia seed pudding, topped with honey and fruit (and cacao nibs!).
Changes That Occur With Proper Protein Consumption
You will begin to notice changes in your body after incorporating more protein into your daily diet. Immediately, you will feel fuller for longer. Your energy will be completely sustained throughout the day. The fuller you feel, the less likely you will crave unhealthy, mid-day snacks. And the less you fall into unhealthy cravings, the more likely you will begin losing weight and seeing progress toward your fitness goals. It is a domino effect.
Training will feel different. Protein will fuel your body with the energy needed to smash out strong workout sessions. As your muscles begin to break down through exercise, the increased protein consumption will repair and grow your muscles. With consistency, lean muscle mass will quickly replace body fat.
Protein is essential in everyone’s daily diet. Whether you are a top athlete or a health-inspired individual, protein fuels the body for optimal performance and energy. With the right plan in place, protein consumption is the secret ingredient to unlocking your health and fitness goals.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much protein does a person need per day?
As a baseline, the recommended daily allowance for protein intake in a healthy individual is 0.8 g/kg per pound. This amount fluctuates based on physical activity level and fitness goals. This amount also differs if you are pregnant or recently gave birth.
What about building muscle?
If you are looking to put on body mass and build muscle, the recommended protein amount is between 1.6 to 2.4 g/kg per pound of body weight. This protein intake is appropriate if you are an extremely active individual. Athletes training for a competition or event should lean toward the higher end of this range.
What carbs/fat/protein split is good?
Your macronutrient splits will vary based on your health and fitness goals.
- For bodybuilding: 40-60% carbs / 25-35% protein / 15-25% fat
- For maintenance: 30-50% carbs / 25-35% protein / 25-35% fat
- For fat loss: 10-30% carb / 40-50% protein / 30-40% fat
How much protein per day for women?
The recommended amount of protein is gender-neutral and based on activity level, current body mass, and fitness goals. Women should follow the same guidelines as referenced in the chart above.
What do athletes need to consider with protein intake?
Athletes should be hypersensitive to their protein needs. Their workouts are rigorous, allowing for muscle protein breakdown to happen at a faster rate. Muscle protein synthesis will repair the breakage if protein is consistently consumed at a higher rate.
How much protein should bodybuilders be ingesting?
Like all athletes, bodybuilders should be consuming the highest amount of protein within their range of 1.6-2.4 g/kg per pound of body weight. Muscle protein synthesis needs to outpace muscle protein breakage to continue building muscle mass.
- National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the Recommended Dietary Allowances. Recommended Dietary Allowances: 10th Edition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1989. 6, Protein and Amino Acids. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234922/
- Harvard School of Public Health: When it comes to protein, how much is too much?
- Harvard School of Public Health: What should you eat?
Caroline Brindle graduated from James Madison University with degrees in Health Sciences and Writing Communications. She is currently studying to receive her MBA in Food Marketing.
Caroline’s expertise in wellness stems from her studies, as well as her passion in all things healthy living. She’s a multi-marathon runner, fitness class enthusiasts, healthy trend hacker, and avid wellness researcher.