Protein Power: How Much Is Good?
Proteins are essential to the body, but the question most often asked is how much you should consume daily. Nutrition experts say the amount of protein you need depends on many factors, such as your age, activity levels, gender, weight, and health status.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults ranges from 0.8 grams to 1.6 grams per kilogram body weight (or 0.4 to 0.7 grams per pound). This means that a person weighing 165 pounds, or 75 kilograms, should consume 60 grams of protein daily.
However, studies suggest that older adults may need more protein to slow the decline of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, which occurs due to aging. Sarcopenia in older adults can lead to frailty, disability, loss of independence, and death, according to The National Resource Center on Nutrition & Aging. Because of this, it’s recommended that older adults consume 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (one kilogram is about 2.2 pounds). This means that an older adult weighing 165 pounds, or 75 kilograms, should consume 75 grams of protein daily.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also weighed in on the issue and recommends an intake of 50 grams per day for adults based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Complete and Incomplete Protein
To meet the RDA for protein, studies show that “high-quality” protein, also known as “complete” protein, is best. Complete protein contains nine essential amino acids that the body needs but cannot make on its own. Amino acids, by the way, are the molecules that serve as the “building blocks” for protein.
Generally, high-quality protein is found in animal products such as:
“When you talk about high-quality protein, it is, and always has been, animal-based proteins in nature,” Gabrielle Lyon, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and founder of the Institute for Muscle-Centric Medicine, told NBC’s Make It. “Now, that’s not to say plant-based proteins are bad because they’re not. We’re simply talking about the amino-acid profile.”
Just as there are complete proteins, there are “incomplete” proteins that lack the essential amino acids the body needs. Incomplete proteins are found in plant-based foods, such as:
• Grains (including oats, barley or quinoa)
Eating a combination of two or more incomplete proteins can compensate for each other’s lack of amino acids. This means you’ll have to eat more plant-based foods to get the specific amount of protein that you need.
But keep in mind, Lyon noted, that “the amount that an individual would need to consume for overall health and wellness, for protection as they age, would also increase their calorie consumption.”
Making Healthy Protein Choices
The right amount of protein can help you control your hunger because protein makes you feel full longer. Protein also speeds up your metabolism and helps to prevent muscle loss if you want to lose weight.
Tracy Morris, lead nutritionist at Fitbit, the maker of wearable activity trackers, recommends mixing complete and incomplete protein when making healthy protein choices.
In an article for the Fitbit blog, Morris suggested eating lean, low-fat, and minimally processed foods. Some foods Morris says to consider include:
• 3 ounces of poultry (eggs, chicken, turkey, for example), which have an average of 26 grams of protein per serving
• 3 ounces of meat, which has an average of 25 grams of protein per serving
• 3 ounces of seafood, which has an average of 18 grams of protein per serving
• 1 cup of beans, which has an average of 18 grams of protein per serving
• 5 ounces of low-fat Greek yogurt and three ounces of Tempeh, both of which have an average of 15 grams of protein per serving.
Although certain foods provide an adequate amount of healthy protein, Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health cautions that some of these foods are loaded with saturated fats and sodium. For example:
• A 4-ounce broiled sirloin steak may have about 33 grams of protein, but it also has 5 grams of saturated fat, which studies have shown can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.
• A 4-ounce ham steak has 22 grams of protein and only 1.6 grams of saturated fat but is loaded with 1,500 milligrams of sodium.
Meal Ideas for Getting Protein on Your Plate
Once you determine how much protein you need, Morris recommends eating that amount throughout the day rather than in one meal at the end of the day. For instance, it’s not necessary to eat a huge steak or large chicken for dinner in order to get your daily protein allowance.
Morris recommends consuming about 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal. For most people, this means eating more protein at breakfast and lunch and less at dinner. Morris provided some ideas for meals that include:
Breakfast: 25-30 grams of protein and 400-500 calories
• Soak oats overnight in 1 cup of low-fat milk, then top it with 1 cup of apple, three chopped walnuts, and cinnamon, topped with a small tub of low-fat Greek yogurt
• A fluffy omelet made with two large eggs, 1½ oz low-fat cheese, and sautéed mushrooms, served with sliced ½ an avocado and whole-wheat toast
• A breakfast burrito: a whole-wheat tortilla filled with one scrambled egg, ½ cup black beans, sautéed peppers, and ½ a sliced avocado, topped with ½ cup shredded cheese
Lunch and dinner ideas: 25–30 grams of protein and 400–500 calories
• A 3-oz turkey burger topped with sliced tomato, a generous handful of arugula, and one tablespoon of avocado mayonnaise, served on a whole-grain bun
• 1 cup chickpeas, tossed with 1 cup mixed greens, balsamic vinegar, and two teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, topped with 1½ oz crumbled feta cheese
• 3 oz smoked salmon on a whole-wheat bagel smeared with two tablespoons of cream cheese, topped with sliced tomato and red onion
Snack ideas: 10–20 grams of protein and approximately 200 calories
• ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese with five mini whole-wheat crackers and 1 cup carrot sticks for dipping
• A hard-boiled egg served on whole-grain toast with sliced tomato
• 5 oz low-fat Greek yogurt topped with raspberries
Morris writes that you don’t have to “eat like a caveman” or “follow a trendy, unsustainable diet” to get the daily amount of dietary protein needed. She said that simply being aware of which foods are the best choices for protein and eating them throughout the day will keep you in a healthy range and even help you lose weight.