Ask HE: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

by in Ask the Experts, March 4, 2010

Last month, we talked about getting the right amount fiber every day. One of you followed up with another good question — what about protein? While protein is an important part of any diet, more isn’t always better. As it turns out, most folks are already eating an adequate amounts of this muscle-building nutrient.

Q: How much protein do I really need in a day (and how do I get it)?

A: Less than you think, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
First of all, here’s some background. The protein you get from foods helps to regulate your metabolism and plays a role in how your immune system functions. Unlike the carbohydrates and fat that come from foods, protein isn’t an efficient source of energy, which is why you don’t want to eat anything but protein — you’ll run out of gas! Also, unlike carbs and fat, your body isn’t able to store protein. Our systems use what up what’s needed from a meal and any extra protein gets shipped on out as waste.

For the average adult, protein should make up about 15 to 20% of his or her daily calories (growing children and serious athletes often need more). This comes out to 75 to 100 grams per day in a basic 2,000-calorie diet. One way to get a ballpark figure for how much you need is to calculate about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So a 150-pound person would need about 60 grams per day.

And don’t let those high-protein Atkins-style diets or drugstore shelves packaged with supplements, protein bars and shakes fool you. I’ve seen some supplements with 60 grams per serving. That’s more than a day’s worth for some folks! You can easily get your daily need from protein-rich foods — meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts and soy. Whole grains also provide a few extra grams of protein. Since many of these foods are meat-free, vegetarians can easily meet their needs, too.

Here’s an example menu for a balanced day. You just want a small amount of protein with each meal and you’re covered — no need for protein mega-doses from shakes and other supplements.

2 egg omelet with 2 tablespoons shredded cheese
1 slice whole grain toast

Morning Snack:
Apple with 1 tablespoon peanut butter

3 ounces grilled chicken breast on 2 slices whole-wheat bread with lettuce, tomato and 2 tablespoons hummus

Afternoon Snack:
6 ounces non-fat yogurt
1 granola bar

Tofu and Broccoli Stir Fry with 1 cup cooked brown rice

Daily Total: 1,650 calories; 87 grams protein (21% of calories)

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