Protein is everywhere but how do you know if you’re getting enough protein per day? You can buy protein popcorn, protein chocolate bars, even protein water. But what’s all the hype about? What does protein even do? And can you eat too much protein?
Whether you are looking to lose weight, gain muscle, recover from that tough workout, feel more satiated after a meal or even just maintain good health, getting enough protein is crucial.
Let’s start by looking at what protein is and why our bodies need it.
What is protein?
Protein is one of the three main classes of food—also known as macronutrients (the other two being carbohydrate and fat). It’s needed to keep your body functioning properly because proteins are the main building blocks of your body. They are used to build and repair muscle, tissue, skin, nails, hair, as well as hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and various other tiny molecules that serve important functions.
Without protein, you just wouldn’t be you!
Proteins are made up of smaller molecules called amino acids linked together like beads on a string. The amino acids form long chains of protein, which are then folded in different ways to create three-dimensional structures that are important to our body’s functioning.
There are 20 different amino acids that combine to form proteins, and although your body requires all of them, you only have the ability to make 11 of them! These are termed non-essential amino acids. The other nine—those you can’t make—are termed essential amino acids, and must be obtained from your diet.
How much protein is too much?
The amount of protein that you need depends on a few factors but one of the most important is your activity level.
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) (1) for protein intake is 0.8grams per kilogram of body weight per day (or, around 0.36g per pound). For someone who weighs 150lb (68 kg), the consumption would be around 54 grams of protein a day.
However, the DRI for protein is only to prevent a protein deficiency. It’s not necessarily optimal, particularly for athletes who train often and train hard. For people doing high-intensity training or when reducing energy intake, protein needs can be anywhere from 1.2g-2.0g/kg/day. (2) But wait! There’s more.
Not only is the total amount of protein important, so is the distribution of protein throughout the day (3). See, you can’t just eat a 16 oz steak and call it a day. The body needs its protein stores to be continually replenished, meaning you should aim to consume a moderate amount of protein every 3-5 hours.
An equal daily protein distribution can help you achieve a healthier body composition, improve athletic performance, maintain a strong immune system and a healthy metabolism. And since protein promotes satiety (makes you feel full longer) it can help you manage your body weight.
Protein calculator: see how easily you can get to your goals
Get an accurate body weight. It’s most accurate to weigh yourself first thing in the morning on an empty bladder. You could take an average of your weight readings over a few days to minimize any temporary weight fluctuations.
If you took your weight in kilograms, you can skip this step. If not, convert your weight from pounds to kilograms. There are 2.2lb in 1 kg. So if you weigh 150lb, divide 150 by 2.2 to get 68kg.
Next, consider your activity level.
Sedentary—you are seated or lying all day with no physical activity (0.8g/kg; *1.0g/kg if over the age of 70. A lot of research points to the fact that that older adults need more protein)
Light active—you sit all day for work and sometimes do light activity such as walking or household chores (1.1g/kg)
Moderately active—you spend most of the day sitting with occasional standing or walking and sometimes participate in light activity (1.4g/kg)
Very active—you are either standing or walking for most of the day, or you spend your day sitting but also do a fair amount of regular physical activity such as going to the gym or attending spin classes regularly (1.7g/kg)
Vigorously active—you do strenuous work such as construction or do high intensity exercise most days (2.0g/kg)
Now take this number and multiply it by your body weight (in kg). So let’s say our 150lb (68kg) example is ‘light active’. Their protein requirement would be 68kg x 1.1g/kg = 74.8, or about 75g of protein per day.
How does your protein intake compare to what you’re currently doing? You can calculate your current daily protein intake by writing down your food for the day and looking at the corresponding food labels to determine their protein content. Conversely, you could plug your food intake for the day into an app or website that tracks calories and protein for you.
Where can I get protein?
Protein is not just about quantity but also quality. Generally speaking, protein from animal sources provides all the essential amino acids—which kind of makes sense if you think about it—animal tissues are similar to our tissues.
Animal sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Egg protein is considered the highest quality protein of all foods. Many plant-based protein sources, however, are lacking in essential amino acids, making it important for vegetarians and vegans to eat a variety of plant-based protein sources throughout the day. Check out this article for what you need to know about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet.
The following chart shows the protein content of some typical foods.
Can I eat too much protein?
If you eat too much protein, the extra can be converted into sugar or fat in the body. Protein requires the body to expend a lot more energy to digest, absorb, transport, and store it. This doesn’t happen quickly or easily.
About 30% of the energy we get from protein goes toward digestion, absorption, and uptake into cells, however only 8% of energy from carbohydrates and 3% from fats does the same.
You may have heard that too much protein can damage the kidneys. This, however, is a myth. Though protein restriction is helpful for people with pre-existing kidney problems (4), in healthy people, normal protein intakes pose little to no health risk. Even a fairly high protein intake- 2.6 to 3.3g/kg/day does not impair renal or kidney function in people with healthy kidneys (5).
Now that you know how much protein you need per day, you can plan out your diet and lifestyle to be healthy. We always encourage you to talk to your practitioner about your health.
- Thomas, DT, et al. (2016) American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(3),543–568.
- Mamerow, MM., Mettler, JA., English, KL., Layman, DK., Paddon-Jones, D (2011) Protein distribution needs for optimal meal response. The FASEB Journal, 25(1)
- Franz, MJ., Wheeler, ML. (2003) Nutrition therapy for diabetic nephropathy. Current Diabetes Reports 3(5),412-417
- Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L., Peacock, C. (2016) The effects of a high protein diet on indices of health and body composition–a crossover trial in resistance-trained men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 13(3),1-7