How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

For all the hype that floods your inbox and Instagram, it turns out you may need less of this stuff than you think.

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You don’t have to hit your local GNC to realize how big the market is for protein products — if you’re like a lot of us, your email spam is full of ads for new bars, shakes, and powders packed with it. And just about every social media account devoted to lifting weights or really any sort of exercise for men is loaded with references to protein supplements. It’s enough to make you feel like you’re way underdoing it with the stuff. Science suggests otherwise. In fact, a recent study found that Americans eat so much protein that the dietary excess is causing air and water pollution due to the nitrogen compounds in wastewater. (Nitrogen is a byproduct of the protein we consume.) So, you know, what’s a thoughtful man seeking bigger muscles to do?

Figuring out how much protein you really need is a good place to start. There are a lot of variables that enter into that equation, according to Amelia Belmonte, R.D., a sports nutritionist in Chicago. The main one? Your activity level, and types of activity you typically engage in. “It definitely depends on a guy’s level of fitness, but overall, an endurance runner’s baseline protein recommendation starts slightly below what, say, a weightlifting athlete’s recommendation is,” Belmonte says. The maximum amount of protein for a physically active guy should be no more than 2 grams per kilogram of body weight, she adds (for a 180-pound guy that works out to no more than 162 grams of protein a day).

But the range of what’s acceptable is pretty wide, depending on whom you ask. The U.S. government puts its recommendations at .75 grams per kilogram while other studies suggest an ideal amount is closer to 1 gram per kilogram (even the scientists can’t agree). Most experts use a range between 0.8 and 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight as ideal when looking at long-term protein needs, says Belmonte. “Typically, it’s 0.8 for a baseline recommendation and up to 1.6 for an active individual,” she says. “But that range could go even higher depending on the types of activity being done.”

Another approach the pros use: Macronutrient percentages, which is based on your basal metabolic rate (BMR). “The BMR uses anthropometric measurements like height, weight, age, and gender to estimate daily caloric needs,” says Belmonte. “After considering activity level, a percent of daily protein can be determined and calculated.” Using this approach, you’ll be gunning for anywhere between 10% to 35% of your daily calories coming from protein.

Given the wide spread in what studies suggest is ideal, it might be easier to assess your individual protein needs based on how you’re feeling. “Prolonged soreness from exercise, poor sleep, getting sick easily or repeatedly, injuries and prolonged healing from those injuries,” are all indications that your protein may be too low, says Belmonte. “Also, changes in hair and loss of muscle mass are signs that you may not be eating enough protein.”

When To Eat Protein

It turns out, how much protein you should consume is only part of the equation. Another key consideration: When you consume it. “You want to include protein at every meal,” says Belmonte, explaining that the goal should be to evenly spread your intake throughout the day, as opposed to loading up with a steak dinner. “Also, it’s good to focus on having protein after a workout to help repair the damage done to your muscles,” she says. “There’s also some research that shows pre-bedtime protein snack is beneficial for muscle repair and growth.”

So what happens if you were traveling yesterday and didn’t eat a lot of protein? Should you double down on the hard-boiled eggs to day? It doesn’t work like that, says Belmonte, who explains that your body can only absorb so many amino acids — the building blocks of protein — at once, after which, the excess protein you eat will either be converted into glucose for energy or stored as fat.

As for where to source those amino acids from, whole food should be your first choice over powder or protein bars. “Whole food sources are more bioavailable, meaning they are more easily absorbed,” says Belmonte. And while protein supplements might be helpful if a person is unable to meet their daily needs because of lack of appetite or as once-in-a-while fill-ins when you’re on the go and needs something that’s convenient, “overall, we should be aiming to consume protein from whole food animal or plant-based sources.”

Animal or Plant Protein?

There’s been much debate recently over whether animal products, like lean red meat, are a better source of protein compared to plant sources. On the one hand, animal protein sources raise your risk of death by heart disease, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. On the other hand, research in the journal Nutrients found that plant protein is less digestible, has fewer amino acids, and is less easily converted into usable energy for exercisers than protein from animal sources. It’s likely true, says Belmonte. “High-quality sources of protein, meaning protein that is easily digested and absorbed and contains all nine essential amino acids, are going to be mostly your animal-based proteins and dairy sources,” she explains.

Still, you can benefit from plant protein sources, says Belmonte: “For example they are high in fiber, B vitamins, and minerals.” If you are basing your protein intake on plant sources, though, your best bet is to complement them with a second plant source—the theory being, two incomplete proteins may add up to one whole. “It can help fill in the gaps from the missing amino acids,” she adds. “A popular example of this is beans and rice.”

Best Protein Sources

If you’re looking for ways to meet that daily protein quotient, remember that the goal is to add some to every meal so that your body absorbs the max amount. These foods, per the American College of Sports Medicine and Cleveland Clinic, will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

  • One cup of milk = 8 grams of protein
  • One cup of soy milk = 7 grams of protein
  • One egg = 6 grams of protein
  • 3-ounce piece of meat = 21 grams of protein
  • 3-ounce piece of wild salmon = 17 grams of protein
  • 3.5 ounces of tofu = 8 grams of protein
  • One cup of dry beans = 16 grams of protein
  • Half-cup of cooked lentils = 12 grams of protein
  • 8-ounce container of yogurt = 11 grams of protein
  • 6-ounce container of Greek yogurt = 15 grams of protein

The takeaway? Odds are good you’re already getting plenty of protein. If your workouts are going well, you’re not struggling with fatigue beyond the usual kid-crying-at-3-am sort, and you don’t find yourself constantly catching your coworkers’ colds, you probably are eating plenty. But if you want to give your intake a boost, a burger might be better than a bean patty, and salmon is definitely your friend.

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