This is a question that continually pops up amongst our readers. To best answer this question, I always reply with a question of my own: Who are you? What are your goals? How active are you? How heavy are you? Are you healthy? So you can see, when someone asks “How much protein should I eat?”, there isn’t a single clear-cut answer I can give. Appropriate protein intake is dependent upon a number of different factors which must be analyzed before you have a true picture of how much protein you should be consuming. Today we’re going to look at those factors, analyze some studies on the matter, and help you determine exactly how much protein you should be eating to most efficiently reach your goals.
If you’re pretty inactive and not getting much exercise in your life, your protein needs are going to undeniably be lower than someone with higher activity levels. The recommended dietary allowance for adults is .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For the remainder of this article, I’m going to assume a 150 pound body, which means 54 grams of protein per day.
Active. Primary Goal: Weight Loss
If you’re one of the millions of Americans who are working out to actively lose weight, your protein intake is going to be significantly higher than someone who isn’t working out at all. One thing I’ve hopefully rammed into your brain over the years is the importance of doing everything you can to maintain lean muscle mass, especially when on a weight loss plan or diet. The problem is, when you’re experiencing a caloric deficiency, meaning you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming, your body doesn’t simply drop body fat weight. Weight tends to come off as part fat, part muscle. Your goal of course, should be to preserve as much of your muscle mass as possible, while eliminating the fat. As we know by now, lean muscle mass will keep your metabolism high, as well as give you that lean, athletic looking physique.
To preserve this muscle mass, your protein intake must be higher. One such study demonstrated individuals consuming .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight realized more fat loss, less muscle loss, and more total weight loss than those individuals consuming the recommended dietary allowance of .36 grams of protein/pound of body weight(1). So for that 150 pound body, we’re looking at 105 grams protein/pound of body weight.
This makes sense; when you’re upping the cardio and/or restricting caloric intake, it’s going to take more protein to preserve that lean muscle mass. By doubling protein intake over the RDA, it appears a healthy balance can be achieved that allows you to experience fat loss without significant depletion of your valuable lean muscle mass.
Active. Primary Goal: Build Muscle/Athletic Training
I get the feeling most of our readers fall into this category – you’re not significantly overweight, you probably consider yourself “average”. Losing a little extra body fat would be nice, but you’re primarily working out to add some muscle, develop a better physique, and generally tone and tighten up. For you people, your protein needs are going to be still higher than the previous two groups.
One such study from 2004, showed optimal protein intake for people engaging in near daily exercise to be between .9-1.4 grams per pound of body weight(2). The increase in energy expenditure, coupled with more intense resistance training increased the bodies’ need for protein. When you break your muscles down, as you do through intense weight training workouts, your body has to be able to repair and rebuild. Without ample supply of protein, it lacks both the ability to repair and/or rebuild new muscle tissue.
This is something I frequently harp on – muscle isn’t able to pull a magic act, it can’t magically appear out of thin air. When you work out, you’re breaking your muscles down. In order for new muscle tissue to grow, your body must have the appropriate building blocks to create this new tissue. These building blocks come in the form of amino acids, otherwise known as protein.
When you’re training like an athlete, you’ve got to fuel your body like one. Make sure you’re getting enough protein, especially be mindful to consume a whey protein drink immediately after exercise to get those hungry muscles everything they need to most effectively respond to that strenuous resistance training you just put them through.
For a 150 pound body, we’re looking at 135-210 grams of protein/pound of body weight.
Eating Made Easy
So how are these guidelines falling in line with what you previously thought? If you stuck to old school muscle head mentality, you probably heard the standard 1.5-2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. I used to (try) to adhere to these guidelines, and let me tell you, it’s not easy. I’m 165 pounds, so consuming 330 grams of protein a day wasn’t only tough, it was a chore. It became something that was a burden each and every day of my life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe this is the way to live…at least not anymore.
These days, I’m also consuming a lot less meat products (typically only two days a week) and a lot more plant-based foods. This makes things a bit tougher as well, since downing a 12 ounce steak can deliver nearly half of your daily protein total in one sitting. That said, I’ve found ways around this, so if you’re sitting there wondering how in the world you’re going to eat as much protein as I’ve outlined above, it’s actually not that hard.
Once we’ve gotten beyond that old 2 grams of protein a day mindset, and realized we don’t need quite as much protein as we once thought, the burden lessens. Check out the following sample day, where you can see how easy it is to down enough protein without hardly trying…mind you this is on a NON meat day; so for all of you hard core meat eaters, the task will be even easier.
- Meal 1 (breakfast): Two egg white scramble with fresh chopped veggies – 14 grams protein
- Meal 2 (post-workout): Whey protein shake with peanut butter and milk – 48 grams protein
- Meal 3 (lunch): Three bean chile – 30 grams protein
- Meal 4 (snack): Greek yogurt – 25 grams protein
- Meal 5 (dinner): Tofu stir fry with brown rice and veggies – 28 grams protein
That doesn’t look so difficult does it? Add all that protein up and you just netted yourself a grand total of 145 grams of protein…which is right in line with the guideline given above for an active, non-weight loss individual with a 150 pound body.
So the next time you’re wondering “how much protein should I eat?”, remind yourself, it’s probably less than you originally thought. The amount of protein you should be eating depends on a variety of factors, so first identify your goals, along with your current exercise frequency. From there it’s only a matter of doing some quick math and you should have a good idea how much protein you should be eating.
Of course, every body is different, so take the numbers and studies listed above as guidelines. Some of you may need more or less protein to maintain/build muscle mass. Use these guidelines as a starting point and play around until you find what works best for you.