Protein is a vital component of every cell in our bodies. It is the building block for our muscles, our bones, maintains the nervous system, fortifies the immune system, and helps with physical performance - especially in older ages. It keeps the skin, hormones, and even enzymes healthy. Whether you're a fitness enthusiast aiming to build lean muscles, or someone focused on maintaining a balanced diet, it's important to understand how much protein to consume in a day and whether you need a protein supplement.
A case study in how much protein is enough
Take, for instance, Patrick and Cynthia. Patrick’s day consisted of sitting at his desk at work, working on his computer, and then coming home to relax on his couch with some TV shows. He rarely engages in any physical activity or exercise except for an after-dinner stroll with his wife.
Patrick’s protein needs are usually calculated based on his body weight, which is 195 pounds. His recommended daily protein intake is 0.35g per pound of body weight, which amounts to approximately 70g of protein per day. This amount of protein is enough to meet Patrick’s minimum physiological protein needs and support his lifestyle.
On the other side of the spectrum is an athletic individual named Cynthia. Cynthia is gearing up for a marathon while weightlifting and doing high-intensity intervals as part of her training.
How much protein does Cynthia need each day? Based on her body weight of 154 pounds and intense level of activity, her recommended daily protein intake is about o.73g per lb., which amounts to approximately 112g of protein per day. This is necessary because her body needs more protein to repair and build muscle tissue, support her high-intensity workouts, and recover faster.
Body weight & lifestyle factors
Most of us fall in between Cynthia and Patrick. We exercise between 30-60 minutes a day, and it can range from yoga and walking to lifting weights and high-intensity cardio. Our protein intake depends on our lifestyle and energy needs.
The American College of Sports Medicine indicates that anywhere from 10-35% of the average American’s diet should contain proteins. In terms of bodyweight, this means a recreational athlete weighing 150 pounds should strive for between 75-90 grams per day.
Of course, if you exercise more, you can increase your protein consumption— but you don’t need to overdo it! If you are eating protein with the hopes of building muscle, the quality, quantity, and timing of consumption is more important than the overall amount you eat.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating 20-30 grams of complete protein within 2 hours of exercise.
Which protein sources are best?
When eating protein, you want to make sure it is a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids. Eggs, milk, and lean beef are high-quality proteins that are easily digestible. For instance, one large egg contains around 6 grams of protein.
Turkey, chicken, and fish are also a good source of protein. 3 oz. of chicken or fish contains anywhere from 19-24 grams of protein.
Dairy is another great source of protein: a 5.3 oz container of plain Greek yogurt contains 15 grams of protein. A cup of milk has roughly 8 grams of protein and an ounce of cheese contains 7 grams of protein.
Legumes have protein, too! A cup of lentils contains roughly 16 grams of protein. Including a variety of vegetable protein sources in your diet is also a good strategy to ensure you’re getting a range of nutrients.
But let’s say you are the average athlete, and you weigh 150 pounds and need about 75-90 grams of protein. In one day, if you ate:
- 1 cup of oatmeal (10g of protein)
- two eggs (12 g)
- 6 oz of chicken (42g)
- ½ cup of lentils (8g)
- 1 cup of black beans (15g)
…you would have consumed 87 grams of protein.
But honestly, that is a lot of food. Plus, you need to add in more fruits and vegetables and some carbs. So, it is tempting to throw in some protein powder on your oatmeal in the morning or eat a protein bar as an afternoon snack.
What about protein supplements?
Are protein products, like shakes, powders, and bars, part of your daily routine? The protein supplement market has been rapidly expanding, with the industry fueled by factors such as the aging population, fitness trends, growing interests in plant-based protein supplements, and accessibility to e-commerce. There is also a continuous interest in self-care, contributing to the growth of this industry.
The question of whether protein supplements are good for you depends on various factors, including your dietary needs, health status, and lifestyle. Of course, like any change in your diet, it is best to ask your doctor.
However, EatingWell suggests that high-quality, third-party tested protein powders with minimal sugar and no harmful additives can be a healthy choice. As we age, we lose muscle, and boosting our protein intake may help increase strength and lean body mass, especially if you have a restricted diet.
Medical News Today also shares research suggesting that protein supplements significantly improve muscle size and strength in healthy adults who perform resistance-based exercise training.
Protein powder considerations
However, it’s important to consider the quality control of protein supplements. As per a review published on Human Kinetics, safety assessments are crucial, especially given the potential addition of cheaper ingredients to increase total protein content.
According to Harvard Health, protein powder supplements can harbor health risks and are recommended only for certain conditions, such as impaired appetite or wounds. You should make sure that the protein powder is ‘clean’ and does not have unnecessary additives. NIH published a study indicating that some protein powder supplements can have heavy metals.
Lastly, online sales of protein supplements have increased, indicating a shift in how consumers purchase these products. However, this also highlights the need for further education on potential health risks from unregulated protein supplements, as stated in a study on Wiley Online Library.
Can you consume too much protein?
You might not need your morning protein shake as much as you think. Of course, like anything else, too much of a good thing is just…too much.
Cleveland Clinic stresses that aside from bad breath, too much protein can overstress your kidneys causing kidney damage, digestive problems, and dehydration. It is always important to drink enough water to make sure your kidneys function well.
MDPI suggests the following:
“…Instead of adding protein and amino acid supplements to high-protein diets, protein should be preferably received from whole foods, such as fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, and cereals, along with fibers and other food components supporting the well-being of both the host and their gut microbiota.
This should be highlighted in the nutritional plans of athletes, sportspeople, as well as more sedentary populations.”
Protein supplements can certainly be a healthy addition to your diet, but they’re not for everyone. These supplements are often utilized by athletes and those with specific dietary requirements who may struggle to meet their protein needs through food alone.
So, while protein supplements can be beneficial for some, they should be used wisely and under the guidance of a healthcare or nutritional professional.
The Bottom Line:
Protein is an integral component for overall body health, but you don’t need to rely on supplements, as whole foods should always be the primary source of your nutrients. Supplements are just that – a supplement to your diet, not a replacement for real food. But when consumed, opt for a high-quality powder and be sure to speak with your medical professional first.