Everything you need to know about dietary protein
This article will cover the following topics:
- The importance of dietary protein
- The factors that increase or decrease your personal protein needs
- A simple way to calculate your personal protein needs
- How to identify an appropriate amount of protein per meal
- A downloadable cheat sheet for protein serving sizes
- Succinct summary of takeaway points
Please use this article as a reference and jump to the information that is most relevant to you.
Why is dietary protein important?
Many people think that protein is only important for athletes and lifters; this is not true. While protein is important for physical performance, it is also crucial for overall health (both mental & physical), tissue health (for healthy skin & hair), and aging.
We are made of protein: Everything from muscle, skin, hair & nails to hormones & neurotransmitters. If you want these things to thrive and be healthy, getting enough protein in the diet must be a priority.
When you don’t provide your body with enough dietary protein, it will break down existing protein-based tissues at an elevated rate (from muscle, nails, hair, skin, etc.) and recycle it to create new tissues.
This recycling process is very strong early in life (which is why kids and teens can get away with relatively low-protein diets and still grow in a healthy manner), but things slow down with age. So if you’re thinking “But I’ve never eaten much protein why are these things just starting to happen now?”, you now understand that it is because you are older and your body has different requirements.
If you start to notice problems with skin, hair, nails, etc., your first instinct should be to look at your overall protein intake, because you’re likely not eating enough of the protein building blocks to support the health of these tissues. Further to that, higher stress levels increase the protein requirements of the body, so if you’re dealing with a lot of stress and can’t seem to recover, more dietary protein may be what you need.
How to know if you need more protein
There are lots of ways you can tell if you need more protein, but here are the most common:
- You’re hungry a lot of the time, notably later in the day/evening
- You have slow-growing, brittle nails & hair, dry skin, and/or eczema/acne
- You’re constantly fighting off little colds/sniffles, aka immunity seems low
- You have mood swings and unsteady energy through the day
- You get very sore and tired after physical activity
The factors that determine personal protein needs
How much protein do you need? This is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Let’s break down the six most important factors to consider when determining individualized protein intake:
- Physical activity level
- Stress level
- Body size
- Dietary preference
- Personal goals
The older you are, the more protein you need.
This is counter-intuitive for most but as mentioned above, hormones drive the bus when we’re young and we can recycle tissues as necessary. Once we’re into our 30s, tissues start to break down at an elevated rate and sarcopenia (age-related muscle-loss) really kicks up in our 50s and beyond. If health, strength and/or beauty are important to you, the fountain of youth lies in ensuring adequate protein intake as you age.
Side note: For maintaining muscle mass (and independent living) as we age, physical activity and more specifically resistance training is an even more important stimulus than protein intake, but the two together are the holy grail.
Physical Activity Level
The more active you are, the more protein you need.
This is especially true if your goal is to build muscle. The same is true if your goal is to lose body fat. Why? Muscle tissue is metabolic, meaning it requires energy, so the more muscle you have, the more energy (aka body fat) you can potentially burn each day.
Side note: Many people worry about getting “too bulky” if they try to build muscle. The reality is that building muscle is a very slow process, so getting bulky overnight is an unrealistic fear without merit. This is akin to thinking that if you practice shooting basketballs for a few weeks that you’ll soon be in the NBA; things in life aren’t so easy. Operate from love for yourself, not fear of propaganda.
The more stress you manage, the more protein you need.
This goes hand-in-hand with activity level (physical exertion is a stress on the body), but the more stress in your life, the quicker your body will wear down it’s tissues. Stress comes in many forms whether it’s work stress, aforementioned physical stress, relationship challenges, frequent lack of sleep, under-hydration, an inflammatory diet, and more. A low-protein diet will exacerbate these other stressors and fast-track health problems.
The bigger you are, the more protein you need.
More specifically, the more muscle mass you have, the more protein you need to maintain this muscle mass. As a result, taller people will generally need more protein than shorter people.
If you are overweight or obese, eating a high-protein diet has shown to be one of the most effective and sustainable fat-loss strategies because it preserves muscle mass (keeps metabolic rate high) and is very satiating (keeps hunger low).
While plant-based protein sources offer a wide variety of micronutrients and added dietary fiber, when it comes to protein quality these sources are considered inferior to animal-based proteins for two reasons:
- They’re not complete proteins (they’re deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids)
- They are relatively poorly absorbed (roughly 70% efficient compared to animal sources, due primarily to the fact that they’re bound to the aforementioned dietary fiber).
Please note, this is not being written to degrade plant-based sources of protein or anyone who prefers these sources of food; this is factual information to take into consideration when calculating what your body needs. For this reason, plant-based eaters should aim to exceed the minimum range for dietary protein intake as often as possible.
Furthermore, due to these missing essential amino acids, plant-based eaters need to consume a combination of different protein sources at each meal to meet protein recommendations. As a general rule, select a protein source from two of these three categories at each meal:
- Beans & pulses (like lentils)
- Grains (whole wheat, wild rice, etc.)
- Nuts & seeds
A low protein diet is good for one thing: Getting smaller.
Some people want to get smaller all around, meaning less fat, less muscle, less everything. If this is your goal, a low protein diet will help. This will, however, also be detrimental to health and I would not make this recommendation to anyone as a coach, but we are all on our own journey.
If you want nice hair, skin & nails, ensure adequate protein intake. If you want to build muscle, ensure adequate protein intake. If you want to lose body fat while maintaining (or building muscle), ensure adequate protein intake. This last point is also a huge feather in the cap for dietary protein, because it is nearly impossible to convert into body fat, and is therefore a valuable tool for anyone who would like to lose body fat without compromising health or constantly feeling hungry.
How much protein is enough?
This is the part that confuses people. Most research gives recommendations in grams of protein per kg of bodyweight, and leaves it up for people to do the math based on their weight. You then have to figure out how much protein is in different foods and then how to mix and match to get that much protein into your body each day.
The current recommended dietary allowance (or RDA, which is the minimum level to achieve, not the maximum) is 0.8g/kg bodyweight/day. New research has experts calling to raise the RDA for older and active populations to the 1.2-1.6g/kg bodyweight/day range.
Formulas aside, here is a simple rule of thumb for determining minimum protein intake is:
Take your bodyweight (in lbs), divide it by 2, and eat more grams of protein than this daily.
Example: I weigh 180lbs, I divide this by 2, I therefore need more than 90g of protein daily.
As per the considerations mentioned above, the younger you are, the smaller you are, the less active you are, the less stressed you are, and the more you consume animal-based protein sources (vs. plant-based alone), the more adequate this minimum number will be.
However, the older you are, the bigger you are, the more active you are, the more stressed you are, and the fewer animal-based protein sources you consume, the more you should strive to exceed this baseline recommendation.
By how much should you exceed it if your lifestyle factors indicate that you need more protein than the minimum? As per the maximum in the research (1.6g/kg bodyweight/day), here is a simple formula to use to find your protein ceiling:
Take your bodyweight (in lbs), multiply it by 0.75, and eat closer to this many grams of protein daily.
Example: I weigh 180lbs, I multiply by 0.75, I therefore need upwards of 135g of protein daily.
What does this look like in real life?
Math is hard and measuring is a pain. To make protein intake simple, follow this system:
Step 1: Eat 3-4 times per day
Step 2: Eat a full serving of protein at each meal (~20-30g protein)
What is a full serving of protein?
- For lean sources of animal protein (like meat & fish), one serving is roughly the size/thickness of your palm.
- One egg is 6g of protein. You will need 3-5 eggs (in one sitting) to get one full serving of protein.
- If you’re using a protein supplement, a serving size is generally 1 scoop (20-35g protein).
Given that most foods contain a mixture of protein, fat and carbohydrate, it can be tricky to determine the protein content of many foods- especially if you’re eating a plant-based diet- so we’ve created a protein cheat sheet that you can download for free. Save this to your phone to facilitate choices at restaurants, and print it out to keep on your fridge for easy home access.
Is there such a thing as too much protein?
No, it is not possible to eat too much protein, unless you have a pre-existing medical condition. If you eat a lot of protein, you’ll probably notice that your body temperature will go up and you might fart a lot. If you can live with those side effects, eat all the protein you want. As mentioned previously, protein is satiating and nearly impossible to convert to body fat, so erring on the side of more protein vs. less as previously outlined is a good rule of thumb.
Do you need to eat animal-based protein?
No, you don’t. The research is pretty clear that as long as you get enough protein (regardless of source), you’ll get the same results.
That said, if you have access to quality animal protein, you should take advantage of that. Even including a small amount in the diet can ensure you don’t become deficient in important nutrients like B12, iron and choline.
As always, the more diversity you have in your protein sources, the more nutrients you will consume and the less likely you’ll be to suffer from any sort of nutrient deficiency. Both plant and animal sources contain important nutrients for achieving optimal human health.
Isn’t animal protein linked to health problems?
Processed meats have been linked to an increased risk of chronic disease. Red meat was at one point lumped into the research with processed meat, but advances in research have shown that red meat is not associated with a higher incidence of heart disease or otherwise. Animal-based foods are not innately bad for health. If you’re looking for a martyr, the evidence points quite clearly to the processed food industry. This is all a topic for another day, but vilifying animal protein for health problems is unfounded.
Higher protein intake is associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, meaning people who eat more protein tend to live longer. There is also no risk to kidneys or otherwise (again, you’d have to already be in a diseased renal state in which case of course your guidelines are different).
Here are some good links to additional research if you’d like to explore the subject in greater detail:
Higher-protein diets are associated with higher HDL cholesterol and lower BMI and waist circumference in US adults
Association of egg intake with blood lipids, cardiovascular disease, and mortality in 177,000 people in 50 countries
High‐protein vs. standard‐protein diets in overweight and obese patients with heart failure and diabetes mellitus: findings of the Pro‐HEART trial
- Adequate protein intake is crucial for health, performance, aging & appearance.
- To determine how much protein you need, take your bodyweight (in lbs), divide it by 2, and eat a minimum of this many grams of protein per day.
- The older you are, the bigger you are, the more active you are, the more stressed you are, and the fewer animal-based protein sources you consume, the more daily protein you need.
- If you meet the criteria for increased protein intake, take your bodyweight (in lbs), multiply it by 0.75, and eat closer to this many grams of protein daily.
- To make protein intake easy, eat 3-4 times daily, and aim for one full serving of protein (~20-30g) at each meal. Download this protein cheat sheet to make things even easier.
- For optimal results (regarding health, performance, aging or appearance), consuming a wide variety of both plant-based and animal-based proteins is recommended.
- High-protein diets are linked to increased longevity and are not associated with any negative health outcomes.
For more information on protein, be sure to check out our podcast with world-leading protein research Stu Phillips from McMaster University:
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