How Much Protein Is Enough?

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Everyone has an opinion about protein. How much to eat, when to eat it, and why. So how do we know if we’re getting enough and if our diets measure up?

Everyone has an opinion about protein. How much to eat, when to eat it, and why. So how do we know if we’re getting enough and if our diets measure up?

All the conflicting studies and news reports, combined with claims made on social media, are enough to make your head spin!

Why is protein such a hot topic?
There are so many trends centered on protein these days. It would be difficult to list them all. Whether it’s branched chain amino acids, the best protein bar, or the virtues of plant-based protein – and I’m just scratching the surface here – it seems like there’s always something new to learn. Not to mention, we all secretly want to know what kind of protein Caitlin Clark is eating at breakfast. Am I right?

And while I am totally on board with “geeking” out on some fun scientific facts (Can anyone name all the essential amino acids?), this can distract us from the main event, kind of like putting the emphAsis on the wrong syllAble.

With that in mind, I’d recommend re-focusing on the big picture, to what truly makes an impact. Below, we’ll review who isn’t getting enough protein and why, which folks need to focus on protein more (and less!), and the most efficient ways to get it. And of course, we’ll be sharing some of Ann’s amazing recipes to boot!

So, what exactly is the bigger picture?
Here it is in a nutshell: If we eat enough calories, we tend to get enough protein.

While there are exceptions to this (see below), it’s comforting to know that when it comes to protein, many of us are doing just fine. I saw a quote somewhere that said, “If you have the time and headspace to think about whether or not you are getting enough protein, you probably are.”

Yes, but how much protein do we NEED?
We don’t need to be counting our daily grams of protein. Numbers are irrelevant for an otherwise healthy and independent adult, because Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) are developed more for a hospital or long-term care setting in which health care professionals are managing a patient’s nutrition for them.

After all, data indicates that Americans on average are meeting their protein needs and have been for the last 20 years.

Instead, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) 2020-2025 recommends we focus on customizing our own varied diets based on cultural and personal preferences as well as budgetary needs.

So, who is at risk for not getting enough protein?
Older Americans. As we age, adequacy becomes harder to achieve for a range of reasons including a natural decline in appetite (or interest in food) and activity levels as well as an increased need for assistance in procuring and preparing meals.

Not to mention, as early as our 40s, we start to lose muscle mass. This is especially true if we aren’t prioritizing muscle strength. Most of us are busy trying to get dinner on the table!

To help close that gap, snacks like yogurt, a small smoothie (or store-bought Ensure), peanut butter or cheese on crackers, a handful of nuts, or a scoop of tuna or egg salad are all high in protein, convenient, and broadly appealing. (links for some of ann’s recipes).

Who else?
Teenage girls. This group is more likely to experiment with dieting and food restrictions. Similar to the group above, when they don’t eat enough overall, they don’t get enough protein.

Modeling positive eating behaviors at home, in which parents are eating adequately, is important. Avoid diet talk or pressure at mealtime, as this can encourage restrictions and dieting at a young age. Show love, respect, and forgiveness towards your own body as well as the friends and family around you.

How do we “meat” our protein needs?
Animal sources of protein have a higher biological value than plant-based alternatives. With all nine of the essential amino acids (essential meaning those we need to eat because the body cannot make on its own), animal sources are the most efficient way to get protein.

But “protein” is not a food in itself; it’s a macronutrient found in food at different levels. For instance, bread has a small ratio of protein to carbohydrates while meat is the opposite. Beans are somewhere in the middle.

Eating a variety of protein-containing foods will help support and repair muscle, transport nutrients, and repair tissue amongst other bodily functions. And when sources of protein vary widely, we reap the beneficial macro- and micronutrients found in those foods as well.

Looking for ways to incorporate animal-based proteins beyond red meat in your diet?

There are so many recipes, but here are a few of my favorites from Ann: Chili-Maple Glazed Salmon, Easy Egg Taco, Pesto Baked Chicken, Aunt Peggy’s Turkey Chili, Gruyere Dijon Turkey Burgers, and Overnight No-Cook Oatmeal Yogurt Cups. Many recipes also work really well for subbing in ground chicken or turkey for the beef, such as Easy Zucchini & Ground Beef Dinner.

Can we meet protein needs from only plant-based sources?
Those who follow a vegan diet can achieve adequacy by choosing a wide variety of plant-based protein sources, insuring they take in all the essential amino acids, thereby creating “complete” proteins.

For example, whole grains, legumes, and nuts would be a great mix, while eating just legumes wouldn’t get you there. Of note, quinoa and soybeans are two plant-based foods that do contain all nine essential amino acids, and I love Ann’s recipes for BBQ Tofu Bowls, Coconut Quinoa Breakfast Cookies, and Cilantro Lime Edamame & Black Bean Salad. Even simpler, this Easiest Steamed Edamame is a good snack or side dish too!

Because it can be challenging to meet protein needs on a vegan diet, some people use protein supplements to help them meet their complete protein needs.

Protein for Athletes

In order to optimize performance, high-achieving athletes will often adjust protein, intake (more or less) and time meals depending on when they plan to use their energy. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution and will depend on the sport, meal timing, age, and gender, as well as the individual’s unique needs and preferences. For this population, it’s helpful to meet with a certified sports nutritionist and personalize meal planning.

Those in their 2nd and 3rd trimesters and/or breastfeeding have increased nutritional needs, including the need for protein. This is only an extra serving or so of protein, not eating for two adults like we may see on TV!

Medical Conditions
For those with acute or chronic illness and having trouble meeting nutrition needs, it’s important to consult a medical provider for condition-specific resources. This could mean an increase in protein post-operatively or a chronic reduction in protein as is recommended in the setting of kidney disease.

Does it matter when I eat foods with protein?
Eat foods with protein when it works for you. In saying that, keep in mind that meals containing a mix of protein, carbohydrate, and fat provide both quick and long-term energy as well as a sustained feeling of fullness.

Bottom Line
Those who are eating adequate calories are likely meeting their protein needs. Focus on the bigger picture of achieving adequacy, rather than the more niche details that can be confusing and conflicting.

For folks who need to make adjustments in their protein intake for medical reasons or high-performance athletics, a few small adjustments can make a big impact.


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