Get ready for a shocker: you’re probably eating too much protein. Surprisingly, almost all Americans are not protein deficient; with very few exceptions, no matter who you are or what you eat, you’re meeting your Recommended Daily Intake for protein. Just how much protein should you be consuming? Unlike other nutrients, recommended protein intake is mainly determined by body weight; the average person needs to consume .8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. To calculate your protein needs, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 (this equals your weight in kilograms), and then multiply that number by .8. To give you a real-world example, I weigh 110 pounds, which equals 50 kilograms. I need to eat 40 grams of protein each day to meet my body’s needs.
There are certain segments of the population whose protein requirements are higher, most notably those who frequently perform high-intensity strength training exercises (think bodybuilders). If you’re one of the minority of people who fall into that group, then your protein needs will be slightly higher, at 1.2 – 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (the longer, more intense, and more frequent your workouts, the higher the multiplier you should use) .
If all this math is making your head spin, then you’ll be glad to know that there are also general guidelines for protein consumption, mainly that protein should comprise 10-35% of your diet. This seems like a wide range, and it is, as we are each going to respond differently to protein, and we all need varying amounts to keep our bodies functioning properly. The best advice I can give is to include lean protein at every meal and keep track of how full protein makes you feel. Some people, like me, feel more satisfied if they eat a meal that contains mostly carbs; other people only feel satisfied if their meal is protein-centric.
While it’s possible to play around with how much protein you consume each day, there is one major rule to follow when it comes to the source of that protein: like almost all other nutrients, protein is best absorbed when it comes in its natural form – food. This means that you’re better off consuming protein from naturally-occurring sources like eggs; skinless white meat chicken and turkey; low-fat and fat-free dairy; peanut butter; nuts; soy products; beans and legumes; and quinoa. The protein found in shakes or powders is mostly manufactured, so it’s not going to be absorbed or used as well as the real stuff. Protein shakes and powders are mainly hype, anyway – even if you strength train regularly, it’s definitely possible to meet your protein requirements through food alone. If you must choose a protein supplement, however, pick one made with whey, casein, or soy, as these forms of protein are usually metabolized more efficiently.
Just because your protein requirements may be lower than you previously thought, that doesn’t mean you have to completely overhaul your diet. Protein is essential for tissue development, maintenance, and repair, so it’s important that you’re getting enough of it. As long as you stick with the lean sources of protein mentioned above, and avoid pricey and unnecessary shakes, powders, and supplements and limit your intake of high-fat choices like red meat, your protein needs should be met – and you’ll still be able to enjoy the taste and benefits of a balanced diet.