How Much Protein Do I Need?
What are my personal protein needs?
The amount of protein each person needs is one of the most debated but least understood topics in nutrition today – spend just a few seconds on social media and you’ll only add more layers to your lasagna of protein confusion! So, are there guidelines to protein intake, especially ones that apply to people with varying levels of athleticism? Thankfully, the answer is yes! We’ll help you lose some of those perplexing layers that aren’t adding any flavor to your pursuit of nutritional knowledge.
PROTEIN NEEDS BY GOALS
For our first protein point, it’s important to establish that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to our personal needs. In nutrition and performance, expert recommendations, about protein, are more of a spectrum than a definitive prescription. Factors influencing this range can include age, gender, genetics, overall diet, exercise intensity, frequency, and duration, as well as individual goals such as muscle maintenance versus muscle gain.
The second protein point to consider is that all healthy adults, regardless of activity, require protein. Proteins are the building blocks of the body and are used for a multitude of functions in addition to muscle repair and recovery. If you have a goal that involves muscle in any way, the amount of protein in your daily diet becomes even more important.
The third protein point we want to consider is the fact that we don’t eat protein directly - the foods we choose to eat deliver it to our bodies. Because these are comprised of various amino acids in differing ratios, our pro tip is to consume a variety of protein-rich food sources in a day or week, rather than seeking out the one “best” protein source. This provides your body – and your performance potential – with a more complete spectrum of amino acids.
Our fourth protein point? Don’t guess at your protein needs! Have a protein plan based on how much protein you need individually– per day and per meal or snack.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO I NEED?
What types of activities do you primarily participate in and what are your goals for that sport or activity?
- General Population: If you are in this category, you are not necessarily participating in any sports or physical activities but your goal is to maintain general physical fitness and strength. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, which aligns with most government guidance around the world, is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight per day. However, many researchers now agree that 1.2 - 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.54 - 0.82 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day is a more optimal intake for healthy adults.
- Building Muscle: If you are in this category, you may be a bodybuilder or physique athlete, or participating in a sport that requires muscle and strength, and your goal is to either maintain a greater amount of muscle or to continually increase strength. Traditionally, your range of protein per day has been 1.4 - 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.65 - 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. However, new data is beginning to move that range upwards to 1.6 - 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.73 - 1.10 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.
- Athletic Performance: If you are in this category, muscle and strength are likely still important to you, but probably not your ultimate goal – this applies to team sports players, endurance athletes, and combat and extreme sports participants. This type of training is intense, so your target range for protein intake is 1.4 - 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, or 0.64 to 0.91 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
You’ve probably noticed that these guidelines are in ranges. As we mentioned earlier, when we take into account factors such as age, gender, genetics, overall nutrition balance, and exercise and training, our needs may move on the spectrum. As you increase your exercise or training intensity, duration, and/or frequency, your protein needs may move toward the higher end of the spectrum. Ultimately, you will need to adjust within your ranges to find what works best for you.
The Protein Intake Hierarchy
Historically, we’ve tended to focus our protein intake almost exclusively on the post-workout “anabolic window.” We are beginning to understand, however, that this is probably not ideal in building, repairing, and recovering muscle. Let’s look instead at a three-tiered protein intake hierarchy:
- Your Total Daily Protein Intake. This is the most important factor to consider and should be your priority. If you are achieving your total daily protein intake for your goals that you have determined when calculating your macros, not only will you be in a solid place from a protein perspective (to help support muscle protein synthesis - building, repairing, and recovering muscle), but you will have more flexibility throughout your day on protein per meal intake and timing.
- Your Protein Distribution Throughout the Day. After total daily protein intake is protein distribution throughout the day or eating between 3 and 5 protein-rich meals and snacks per day. Protein-rich is defined as between 20 and 40 grams of protein each time you eat. The range accounts for individual variance; to make this more specific to your goals, simply divide your daily protein target by the number of your meals and/or snacks to give you a per meal target. For example, your daily protein target is 150 grams. You would like to eat 5 times per day. 150 grams per day divided by 5 meals is a target of roughly 30 grams of protein meal.
- Timing of Your Protein Intake Around Your Exercise or Training. Assuming you are following the protein hierarchy, the timing of your protein intake relative to training or exercise, in particular post-workout, becomes less critical. Conversely, if you are not following the protein hierarchy of importance, your post-workout protein meal becomes more influential. A good rule to follow in general is to time one of your protein-rich meals or snacks to around 2 - 3 hours prior to training, and another within 1 - 3 hours after. Simply fit the rest of your protein in across your day to best fit your schedule.
Protein Foods or Protein Supplements?
When in doubt, food first, always. Choose a variety of high-quality, complete protein sources throughout the day. Find ways to incorporate different sources, including plant and animal-based products. Some good examples include meats, eggs, poultry, fish and seafood, dairy, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and soy.
If you find yourself short on protein, a supplement can be a great choice. Protein powders, bars, and ready-to-drink shakes all can deliver high-quality protein when you need it. Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard family, including Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein, Gold Standard 100% Protein Shake, Gold Standard 100% Isolate, and Gold Standard 100% Plant Protein will provide you with 24 grams of premium protein per super convenient serving to help you reach your daily goals.
Scooping It All Together
To more accurately answer the question of how much protein you need, review your performance goals (general fitness, build muscle, athletic performance), determine your muscle goal (maintain or build), and calculate your daily calorie and macronutrient needs to make sure your daily protein targets are in the optimal range. Try to keep the protein hierarchy in mind: total daily protein per day first, protein distribution throughout the day second (per meal based on the number of meals in your day), and protein intake timing relative to exercise or training last. Try to consume your protein from a wide variety of whole food sources throughout your day and week and if you are not consistently achieving your daily protein targets, choose a premium protein supplement to augment your intake.