How Much Protein Do I Need? (& 10 High Protein Foods to Help You Hit Your Macros)March 15, 2022 - Katie McCallum
You're not alone if you're interested in counting macros, namely your protein intake.
You're also not alone if you've found it to be more complicated than you initially bargained for.
"Protein is often the macronutrient that we either don't get enough of or we overdo it with, and people are usually at one end of the spectrum or the other," says Emma Willingham, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist who specializes in sports nutrition.
All of our tissues — including our muscles, hair, skin, nails and linings like the one that makes up our GI tract — are made of protein, so it's important to be sure that you're getting the right amount of it through your diet.
And, yes, there's such a thing as too much protein.
The more common concern, though, is not getting enough protein — since a lack of it can affect your muscle mass and, as a result, your functional strength and mobility over time.
"Aside from protein making up tissues, our body is also constantly metabolizing it into amino acids that are then used for various functions like producing hormones, helping with immunity or building new muscle," says Willingham. "To help keep up with this turnover, we have to feed ourselves enough and consistent amounts of protein throughout the day."
How much protein do I need?
"The trick with this," Willingham points out, "is that a lot of research now consistently shows that the current recommended dietary allowance — which is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day — isn't actually adequate for most people."
Instead, Willingham says, the minimum amount you want to be getting is more like 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
(You can calculate your recommended grams of protein per day by dividing your body weight by 2.2 — to convert from pounds to kilograms — and then multiplying that number by 1.2)
"This amount can then increase depending on your exercise goals, age or overall health," adds Willingham.
Some people may need more protein per day, including:
- People who are really active
- People who are trying to build muscle
- Older adults
- People who are in catabolic disease states, such as diabetic ketoacidosis or advanced-stage cancer (or treatment of it)
How much more protein do these individuals need? It's best to consult a dietitian since there are many factors to consider.
As a general rule of thumb, though, for those wondering how much protein you need to build muscle or if you're more active, Willingham recommends:
- 1.6 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for people who do frequent strength training (weightlifting, resistance training, Pilates boot camp)
- 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for people who do frequent cardio (runners, joggers, walkers)
"There's not really a clear exercise threshold that indicates when you need more protein, but if you're meeting the CDC's physical activity guidelines — which is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week and two to three days of strength training — make a purposeful effort to ensure that you're getting enough protein during meals and snacks," says Willingham.
Lastly, you'll need to spread your protein intake into four feeding periods throughout the day — breakfast, lunch, a snack and dinner, for instance. In other words, eat protein throughout the day, not just at one or two meals.
This is important because we're constantly breaking down protein for various purposes, so we need to replenish our stores consistently.
"It's also helpful to eat or drink a good source of protein within an hour after exercise, since this helps promote the muscle protein synthesis needed to build and repair your muscles after a workout," explains Willingham.
How to eat more protein
If you're falling short of your recommended protein intake or starting a new strength training program, here are five steps to help you incorporate more protein into your diet:
1. Include high protein foods into your meals
In general, Willingham says that one-quarter of your plate should be comprised of protein at each meal, which equates to somewhere around 20 to 30 grams of protein.
High protein foods to consider include:
- Fish, such as tuna and salmon
- Seafood, such as shrimp and scallops
- Poultry, including chicken and turkey
- Certain dairy products, including cow's milk, non-fat Greek yogurt and low-fat cheeses
- Peanut butter
- Pasta made from chickpeas, lentils or peas
"Some foods high in protein also contain significant amounts of carbohydrates, including quinoa, lentils and certain pastas, so if you're watching your blood sugar or weight, just be sure to portion size these options as needed," adds Willingham.
2. Choose high protein snacks
Since it's best to get protein throughout the day, you might be wondering how to choose snacks that also help you hit your macros.
Here are Willingham's suggestions for high protein snacks:
- Two hard-boiled eggs
- Low-fat string cheese and some nuts
- Tuna on whole wheat crackers
- Low sodium turkey jerky
3. Opt for lean proteins when possible
When adding more protein to your diet, avoid adding significant amounts of unwanted additives or calories. Choose lean proteins.
"The cut of meat that you're eating affects what else you're getting in addition to the protein," explains Willingham. "Red meat, for example, is a bit higher in saturated fat, which isn't as protective as the type of fats found in a lean protein option like salmon, which is rich in the healthier omega-3 fats."
In other words, the protective fats in lean meats are actually good for your heart health and brain health, whereas the saturated fat found in a rib eye steak can, over time, have the opposite effect.
"If you're having red meat, choose a loin cut, like a sirloin or pork loin, since these have less saturated fat," Willingham adds.
4. Understand what makes a protein "complete" and how to approach ones that aren't
"Complete proteins are ones that contain all of the essential amino acids that your body cannot make on its own, meaning they're good bioavailable sources of protein," says Wilingham. "This primarily comes up if you're trying to build muscle efficiently or are at risk for losing muscle due to age or health."
Examples of foods that contain complete proteins include:
- Lean animal proteins, including fish, seafood, chicken and turkey
- Cow's milk and soy milk
"Many plant-based proteins are 'incomplete' proteins, meaning they don't have the complete amino acid profile that other protein options bring," explains Willingham. "This means that if you're trying to add or maintain muscle via a plant-based protein option, you'll have to work a little bit harder — perhaps by eating larger volumes of these foods or by pairing certain ones together."
For instance, maybe combine both edamame and quinoa together in a meal to get the same effect you would with a single complete protein.
And don't take this to mean that plant-based proteins aren't worth including in your diet.
"Plant-based proteins are very nutrient dense, containing many other important nutrients, including fiber and B vitamins," adds Willingham.
5. Know what to look for in protein powders and shakes
"Overall, I think it's best to meet your daily protein intake through food if you can," recommends Willingham.
But this can be hard to do on a daily basis, give most people aren't always carrying around boiled eggs or tuna packets.
"In these cases, store-bought protein shakes can certainly be a helpful way to supplement your diet," says Willingham.
If you're looking to protein powders instead, just be sure that you're making an informed decision. The supplement industry is loosely regulated, so you'll need to research quality products that don't have extra stuff added to them. You'll also want to choose a company that certifies its products don't contain trace amounts of contaminants that can be easily introduced during the manufacturing process.
"It can be hard to find a good quality protein powder, but they can definitely still have a place in your routine if you're working with a dietitian who can guide you to the ones that are better choices," adds Willingham.