How Much Protein Do We Really Need To Eat?
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By Fiona Riddle
Protein is considered “the building blocks of life” as it is one of the main macronutrients and is responsible for numerous bodily functions such as building tissues and muscles, hormone production and energy. Overtime, a lack of protein can lead to a number of conditions such as impaired immunity, anemia, and vascular dysfunction along with general fatigue and feelings of weakness. Adequate protein is also vital for optimum hair, skin, and nail health. So how much should we eat everyday?
The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) to prevent deficiency for the average sedentary adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. For example, an adult that weighs 165lb (75kg) would consume 60g of protein each day to avoid deficiency. This number is specifically for a sedentary adult and, therefore, protein needs vary based on activity levels. Additionally, it may be worth noting that the recommended intake is strictly for deficiency avoidance, not for optimal functioning.
“Recent evidence suggests that current recommendations are insufficient, and more protein intake is needed to ensure longevity and increased health span.”
Recent evidence suggests that current recommendations are insufficient, and more protein intake is needed to ensure longevity and increased health span. The official Dietary Guidelines for Americans acknowledges that there is a “need to reconsider the Dietary Reference Intakes. The U.S. and Canadian Dietary Reference Intake Steering Committees are currently developing plans to re-examine energy, protein, fat, and carbohydrate.” Some upper estimates suggest that 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is a more accurate ratio, while others posit that half your bodyweight in grams is adequate.
“… it is important to take into account the vast differences in humans aside from weight alone.”
When considering any recommendation, it is important to take into account the vast differences in humans aside from weight alone. Activity level, for example, is hugely important as those engaged in very active lifestyles will burn more calories and effectively need more fuel and more protein. Those looking to build larger muscles through strength training and lifting may also find themselves needing to increase their protein intake as protein is the essential building blocks of these muscles. One 2016 review suggests “1.0, 1.3, and 1.6 g protein per kg BW per day is recommended for individuals with minimal, moderate, and intense physical activity, respectively.”
“Women who are pregnant, and who are trying to conceive, are advised to increase their protein intake…”
Women who are pregnant, and who are trying to conceive, are advised to increase their protein intake as it is crucial for a developing baby’s growth. Inadequate protein intake during pregnancy can lead to preeclampsia, embryonic losses, intrauterine growth restriction and reduced postnatal growth. One study estimated the average requirement to be 1.22g/kg of bodyweight for early pregnancy and 1.52g/kg of bodyweight for later stage pregnancy.
“As we age, our protein needs actually increase as sarcopenia, loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, begins to set in.”
Age plays an important role in energy needs as well, specifically in terms of protein needs. As we age, our protein needs actually increase as sarcopenia, loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, begins to set in. Muscle mass begins to decline in the third decade of life, and evidence suggests that 50% of mass is lost by the 8th decade of life. Sarcopenia is associated with “increased insulin resistance, fatigue, falls and mortality,” making adequate protein intake (along with strength training) even more important as we get older. To prevent these negative effects, it is recommended to consume 1-1.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight once adults reach their 40s and 50s.
Interestingly, one study found an association between the distribution of protein throughout the day and frailty. This study did not find an association between total protein intake and frailty, highlighting the possible importance of the pattern of consuming protein. It is common to consume the majority of one’s protein at the end of the day during dinner and to consume very little protein in the morning. Some experts recommend spreading out protein intake throughout the day for a number of reasons. For one, protein is highly satiating, so consuming adequate amounts throughout the day may help to prevent cravings, binging and feelings of fatigue.
“…consuming protein throughout the day, and especially after exercise, may help to improve muscle growth.”
Additionally, one study suggests that either 10g of essential amino acids or 25g of complete protein, meaning all 9 of the essential amino acids are present, is sufficient for stimulating protein synthesis. Consequently, consuming protein throughout the day, and especially after exercise, may help to improve muscle growth. This can be done simply by consuming 20-30g of protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner from high quality sources.
Good sources of protein include fish, meat, eggs, cheese, yogurt, tofu, legumes, and hemp seeds. Protein powder is another popular option for those looking to easily add more protein to their diet. Examples of 30g of protein include a 4oz piece of meat, 4 eggs, 1.5 cups of tofu, or 3 cups of chickpeas.
When tracking your daily protein needs, it is also important to note the differences in animal versus plant-based protein sources. Animal sources of protein are considered complete proteins which, as described previously, means they contain all 9 essential amino acids that our bodies cannot create on our own. Plant sources, on the other hand, do not typically contain all 9 essential amino acids. Obtaining all of your dietary protein from plant-based sources, such as in the case of a vegan diet, consequently, has some disadvantages. To avoid such disadvantages, it is necessary to incorporate “complementary” nutrients in the form of supplements, or certain fish (Vitamin B12 or omega-3 fatty acids in wild salmon and small fatty fish, like mackerel) into the diet.
“adequate daily protein intake is essential for overall health and functioning.”
While further research needs to be done on daily protein intake, it can be concluded that adequate intake is essential for overall health and functioning. And as we age, we should make efforts to increase our protein intake in order to prolong our health span and maintain quality of life. Including high quality protein at every meal, regardless of your dietary preferences, seems to be an important factor in optimum health.
Fiona Riddle is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking. She has helped clients take their health into their own hands and successfully boost their energy and confidence through sustainable lifestyle changes. www.feelgoodwithfi.com