It’s the current darling among nutrients. Everyone wants it. Needs it. Can’t get enough of it. We’re talking, of course, about protein.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans are trying to consume more of the stuff—up significantly from just five years ago, according to an International Food Information Council survey. And are we ever: the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates we ate a record amount of red meat and poultry—a whopping 222 pounds per person—in 2018, close to downing a 10-ounce steak every day. Egg and dairy intake also hit an all-time high. (And that’s just to name a few protein sources.)
Our collective preoccupation has now reached obsession-level status, in part because it has so many factors driving it. The high-protein diet craze (think paleo, keto, Whole30) has people eschewing foods like root veggies and pasta in favor of All The Meats. The rise of high-intensity workouts is spurring CrossFitters and Tough Mudders to seek out extra protein to rebuild their spent muscles. Then there’s our (unfortunate) continued cultural malaise with carbs and shaky relationship with fat—so, honestly, what else can a person eat? “There are only three macronutrients: carbs, fat and protein. Carbohydrates and fat have come under criticism. That leaves protein as the only one that seems OK. And Americans often believe that if something is good, more is better,” says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Paulette Goddard professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and EatingWell advisory board member. Plus, everyone knows that protein makes you feel fuller longer, which must make it some sort of weight-loss miracle, right? See? Darling.
All of which helps explain why 21 percent of adults believe they’re protein deficient. Even many nutritionists and researchers insist we’re not getting enough—and that the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is too low because it represents the minimum amount required for good health. It calls for 0.36 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily, which works out to be around 46 grams for what’s considered the average woman and 56 grams for men—or roughly 10 percent of your daily calories.
It’s true that protein is no nutritional slouch. It is vital for pretty much every cellular function—transporting oxygen through our body, making antibodies that bolster our immune system, forming not just muscles, but also our skin, hair, blood and organs, and creating hormones responsible for things like insulin regulation. And because our bodies don’t store protein like they do fat and carbs, we need a steady stream of it from our diet. But how much do we truly need—for weight loss, strong muscles or just to keep our bodies humming happily along? Here, we sort it all out for you, including what a healthy daily dose looks like and the best ways to get it.
They’re literally made from the stuff. Protein is also key for maintaining healthy connective tissue—ligaments, tendons, cartilage—and your bones, which are (surprise) up to 50 percent protein. Being the pivotal player that it is, here’s what you should know if:
The hormonal changes that can lead to age-related muscle loss—called sarcopenia—begin around this time. In fact, if unchecked, muscle mass naturally declines 3 to 8 percent per decade. “It becomes harder for muscles to synthesize protein as well as they used to, so your needs tend to be higher,” says D. Travis Thomas, Ph.D., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., an associate professor of clinical and sports nutrition at the University of Kentucky. How much higher isn’t totally clear, and experts point out that strength training is still the best way to preserve muscle. But a review of studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 0.45 to 0.68 gram of protein per pound of body weight a day helped maintain more lean muscle among older populations.
A growing body of research suggests regularly active folks may need more protein than the average Jane—around 0.54 to 0.9 gram per pound of body weight daily—to help repair, build and support muscle, says Thomas, who helped draft the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American College of Sports Medicine’s joint guidelines on nutrition and athletic performance. Who qualifies as “active”? Some experts limit it to elite athletes. “But I define it more widely—as anyone who is committed to an exercise program, trains multiple times a week and has a goal for performance or health,” he says. The range Thomas and his colleagues settled on is deliberately broad: if you jog four days a week you’d likely need the lower amount; if you’re training for Tokyo 2020, you’d shoot for the high side. That said, if you eat more protein than you need it won’t turn into lean muscle mass; it will be converted to body fat (just like overdoing anything). So balance is key.
Most of us do. Nothing wrong with fruit and toast, but studies suggest that muscles respond better to protein when fed a good dose of it divided equally among meals every three to four hours, notes Thomas. If you need 60 grams a day, for example, aiming for 20 each at breakfast, lunch and dinner is better than nibbling only a little early in the day and having a mega meatball sub at 7 p.m. (Try these healthy high-protein breakfast recipes to help you get your fill.)
Even if you’re active, slugging protein shakes would likely be overkill—since most Americans are already getting well above the RDA, says Maples. One exception: elderly people who may have a hard time chewing their protein.
Truth-bomb incoming: despite the widespread perception that we need more protein, the vast majority of us don’t. Not even close. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the average woman gets more than 70 grams a day, while men consume more than 100 grams—both well above the RDA of 46 and 56 grams, respectively. And you don’t have to eat a whole rotisserie chicken to get that much. It’s likely a lot less than you think. Check out what you need to hit the RDA (based on the average adult female), along with how much you stand to get from the common portions Americans eat. Both are based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet.
breakfast • 16g
lunch • 7g
snack • 5g
dinner • 16g
dessert • 2g
breakfast • 24g
lunch • 34g
snack • 9g
dinner • 77g
dessert • 2g
82 Grams: That’s the amount of protein the average vegan gets each day. So no, in case you were wondering, it’s not hard to get enough of the stuff if you only eat plant-based foods. These high-protein vegan foods can help.
Our recommended daily allowances were decided by a panel of scientists at the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and represent the average amount needed to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97 to 98 percent of) healthy people. Some experts argue that the RDA for protein—which was set more than 70 years ago in a galaxy far, far away—is outdated. “There’s a small but vocal group who think something higher would be optimal,” says EatingWell advisory board member Richard Mattes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., a distinguished professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. “Which isn’t to say these people are a fringe element. They are very good researchers that just hold a different belief. These are reasoned opinions.” While the exact optimal daily amount varies from study to study, it’s generally between 0.45 and 0.9 gram per pound of body weight—or roughly double the RDA. (For the record, there’s no established upper limit—an amount beyond which isn’t considered safe—for protein.)
Proponents argue that because people’s protein needs can vary greatly depending on factors like gender, age, weight and activity level, the current acceptable macronutrient distribution range (or AMDR, also set by the IOM) may be a better benchmark. It suggests a range of protein from 10 to 35 percent of daily calories—the higher end of which aligns with the amount many in the up-with-extra-protein camp recommend.
But Mattes and most of the experts we spoke with say that the RDA is just fine as is—and point out that most of us are getting way more protein than we need, anyway. “This focus on protein is one of the more overhyped misunderstandings in nutrition right now,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., M.P.H, Dr.Ph.D., dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Protein deficiency is almost nonexistent in the United States. And multiple systematic reviews over the last several years have all come to the conclusion that the minimum requirements for protein are reasonable. Having extra helps for building muscle mass. Other than that there’s really no consistent evidence of any health benefit to eating more of it.”
The concern he and others do have (and a solid argument for leaving the RDA as is)? That fixating on protein could seriously throw your diet out of balance. General nutrition wisdom holds that if you eat a ton of one thing, you’re bound to crowd out other foods. In the case of protein, amping it up may mean skipping things like fiber-rich whole grains or phytonutrient-packed fruits and veggies. “That’s really at the heart of it,” says Mattes. “When you take one particular nutrient to an extreme, this by definition means there will be compromised intake of other important nutrients. Otherwise, calories overall go up.” Not exactly the healthy diet you were going for, huh?
So don’t stress about getting more protein in your life. Odds are you’re already eating plenty.
Is it a magic pound-shedding bullet? No. (And remember: anything in caloric excess will have the opposite effect.) But protein does have benefits that could give you an edge in reaching your weight goals.
There’s good evidence that protein is more satiating than either carbs or fat—so if you have a healthy dose of protein you’re apt to eat less food overall and lose weight. Some research suggests that protein tamps down levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin for up to 4 hours after a meal and favorably alters levels of other appetite-related hormones, as well.
Protein requires as much as 30 times more energy for your body to break down than carbs or fat. “It’s not a massive number, but could easily account for 100 extra calories burned a day,” says Donald Layman, Ph.D., professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Consider it weight-loss bonus points.
A recent review of studies published in the journal Frontiers in Endocrinology found that when cutting calories, keeping your protein intake up to at least the RDA can help you lose a higher percentage of body fat, while preserving lean muscle mass.
“Protein and exercise are synergistic—they each make the other one better because both stimulate muscle and energy expenditure, although they do it in different ways,” says Layman. A weight-loss trial he conducted put overweight women on either a reduced-calorie high-protein diet (30 percent of their daily calories) or a lower-protein regimen (15 percent of daily calories) and looked at how regular exercise impacted their results. Half of each group walked five times a week and strength trained two days for 30 minutes per session; the other half did not work out. All the groups lost a significant amount of weight, but the participants who exercised lost almost no lean muscle mass—meaning the pounds they dropped were almost entirely body fat—while the subjects who didn’t work out lost an average of 6 pounds’ worth of muscle.
Some high-protein diets claim that curbing carbs and amping protein intake waaay up is the key to shedding pounds—and fast. However, a review of studies by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that the majority of trials looking at weight loss found no real difference between people consuming tons of the stuff—upward of 30 percent of total daily calories—versus those on lower-protein diets more in line with the RDA. (Regular exercisers, our experts note, may be one exception.)