How Much Protein Do I Really Need?

How much protein do I really need?

::Steps onto soapbox::

The current accepted answer (in the medical community) is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight. This is what I learned in my nutrition class (from a PhD in nutrition). This means that a 125 pound woman needs about 45 grams of protein a day. This is actually down from many outdated recommendations.

Want to hear something crazy? That number might be overestimating.

I saw my brother about a week ago and he is STRONG. Rob is a vegetarian and has been for probably 7 or 8 years now (he’s 20). Rob is 6’4″ and close to 200 pounds, but he wears the same size shirt as my 6’1″ 165-170 pound fiance (hope they don’t mind me telling their weights, heh – and the shirt size is a men’s medium).

What I’m trying to say is that Rob is skinny and all muscle. I asked him how he bulked up. “I’m working out and eating tons of protein,” he says to me. “How much is ‘tons’?” I respond. “Oh, you know – maybe 50 or 60 grams a day.” The fact that he could gain so much muscle on just 50-60 grams of protein a day is quite a shock to some people, but Rob is living proof.

For some people that amount of protein may seem like a pittance. Those people would be wrong (IMHO). As a disclaimer, I will admit that protein needs can vary drastically if you are sick or have a specific medical condition. I’m speaking more about the average person, not those in extenuating circumstances. And I will admit that there is variation within the average – maybe Rob and I need less protein than the “average” person… but not that much less. I do best on a high-fat, high-veggie diet.

According to this site, the body burns about .34 grams of protein a day per kilogram of body weight. To add in a margin of safety, we can bump that number up to about .45 grams per day per kilogram of body weight (this would be just 26 grams per day for that 125 pound woman). That’s barely half of what the medical community is telling you the “required” amount is. I’m not shocked at this anymore. Our country likes to prop up big business – what better way to promote the meat industry than by telling our citizens that more protein is better?

If the requirements really are that low, it is nearly impossible to be protein deficient if you’re eating enough. Fresh vegetables and whole grains are fantastic sources of protein. Have you ever met someone who had a protein deficiency? Probably not. People that are protein deficient are usually junk food junkies or people who aren’t eating enough, period. One other way to be deficient is by eating poor sources of protein that are hard to digest (dairy comes to mind).

This is a direct quote for this site, because I can’t say it better:

By the way, breast milk, which has been the ideal food for human babies for hundreds of thousands of years, provides 6% of calories as protein – far less than cow’s milk, which has 22% of calories as protein.”

How interesting. 6% of a 2000 calorie diet is just 120 calories – or just 30 grams of protein.

If you don’t eat enough carbohydrates (or enough in general), your body will start to use its protein for energy – a process called gluconeogenesis. If you have too much protein in your diet, gluconeogenesis breaks down the protein into glucose. You pee out the extra amino acids. One benefit of getting glucose from protein is that it doesn’t cause sharp spikes in your blood sugar (which is why higher protein diets can be good for people with diabetes). However, gluconeogenesis is taxing on the liver which is why high protein diets can damage the liver.

Basically, if you’re eating enough carbs, the your body uses carbs and spares protein – and is able to use the protein for the amino acids it needs. If it breaks down the protein for energy all those extra amino acids are wasted.

The other neglected and ostracized nutrient that I think is incredibly important is… FAT! Specifically healthy fats (this can include animal fats). Healthy fats promote hormone balance, fight depression, and fill us up.

::Steps off of soapbox::

What’s your favorite carb? Fat? Protein?

How much protein do YOU feel that YOU need?

(Back later with today’s journal-y entry. Just had to get this post out there.)

26 Comments on How Much Protein Do I Really Need?

  1. Michele | aka Raw Juice Girl
    29 March, 2010 at 5:09 pm (5 years ago)

    I can’t believe SO many people harp on how much protein we need, yet they’re eating gobs of greasy steak with lots of bread and butter – with NO (or very little) veggies!! That’s craziness, in my opinion. LOL ;-)

    Loved reading this post. Glad you got it out and shared it with us.

    Hugs,
    Michele

  2. cara
    29 March, 2010 at 5:35 pm (5 years ago)

    I know I counted calories before and was always low on the protein realm and I felt fine. I think every body is different and if we try to stick by some ridiculous generalized guidelines we will probably be even more screwed up as a society. We all just need to listen to our bodies I think, but often that is hard I know.

  3. Tiffany
    29 March, 2010 at 5:42 pm (5 years ago)

    wow what great information. it also shocked me that your bro eats 50-60g a day! i’m not sure i could even try to eat that little protein… it’s in everything i eat! i try to get protein in every meal. and as a consequence, i normally average around 90g of protein each day, but i haven’t tried dropping it lower to see how i feel. maybe that’ll be an experiment for me. at 0.45g of protein per kg, i would only need 21g of protein… it would be VERY hard to get that low, and i would have to actively avoid protein sources. hm… interesting!

  4. Lisa
    29 March, 2010 at 7:22 pm (5 years ago)

    What’s your favorite carb? Fat? Protein?
    My favorite carb of all times is BREAD. I cannot pass by a bakery and smell fresh bread without wanting to eat the entire loaf. Favorite fat would be guacamole. Favorite protein is fish.

  5. Kim
    29 March, 2010 at 8:26 pm (5 years ago)

    RIGHT ON! I’ve heard that Americans get way more protein than we really need. There’s this weird thing about protein deficiency, which I think is just a problem created by the food industry/media. I do best on fats and veggies/fruits. I get my protein from dairy, beans and tofu. I really have been happiest on a higher fat diet. It’s shocking to me that I used to fear fat. I restricted it so much, and now I get well over the RDA. I’ve never added up my protein, but it’s probably way more than I need.

    My favorite carb: Pizza dough.
    My favorite fat: Hm, probably nuts. Avocados are right up there though.
    My favorite protein: BEANS! I guess these are carbs too…

  6. Lauren @ Eater not a runner
    29 March, 2010 at 8:37 pm (5 years ago)

    Great post. I feel best when I eat a diet heavy in veggies and grains, and I’ve never been “protein deficient.”

  7. Whitney @ Lettuce Love
    29 March, 2010 at 8:47 pm (5 years ago)

    Great post! I have been a vegetarian for almost 10 years and I get the protein question a lot. I used to drink protein shakes and eat a lot of processed proteins (like soy burgers, tofu, soy chicken). One day I just stopped eating all of that stuff and I feel a million time healthier. I think my body prefers getting its protein from vegetables, nuts and seeds. I feel much healthier when I eat less protein.

  8. clare
    29 March, 2010 at 11:28 pm (5 years ago)

    Maggie I really appreciate this post. I eat very high protein. Way over what is even recommended. I’m going to investigate this a bit more, especially the stuff about the liver. I eat a good balance of fats and carbs too, but I’m wondering if my balance should tip more now. Thanks for the insights Maggie!

    My favorite non veggie carb is of course gluten free oats and gluten free cereal. I adore cereal. My fave proteins right now are egg whites. I am obssessed with hard boileds! I also love soy protein, um, cereal. CEREAL FOR EVERY MEAL!

  9. Rob
    30 March, 2010 at 12:26 am (5 years ago)

    Hey sister,

    Thanks for the shoutout! It was very flattering; just thought I’d give you a little “protein” update. After talking to you in the city about how much protein someone my size should be getting, I figured I’d try to throw in some more into my diet. I picked up some chocolate “whey protein” concentrate powder from Trader Joe’s and some Greek yogourt and started mixing it with almond milk. I must say the only difference I’ve felt since upping my protein (I’m probably closer to 125-150 grams a day now) is severe bloating and some weight gain.

    Blech.

  10. Janet (Pantry Bites)
    30 March, 2010 at 1:23 am (5 years ago)

    I think I do best on a lower carb (not low carb but lower carb), high fat, moderate protein diet. I’m currently experimenting with Ayurvedic way of eating which is higher carb (as it is more vegetarian based) that what I am used to. I’ve been on this way of eating for 2 days and already I think that I do much better with a lower carb diet.

    I also find that if I add more good fats to my diet, no matter the ratio of carbohydrates to protein, the majority of the calories come from fat. This is fine with me as the question really lies with finding the ratio of nutrients that works for me.

  11. coco
    30 March, 2010 at 6:41 am (5 years ago)

    great post Maggie! I feel exactly the same way… many people eats way too much protein!!! I don’t know why they do that because specially animal source protein is very harmful for our body (according to the China Study). I’ve tracked my food for few days and I was amazed that how easy is to get enough protein, even without eating purposefully for protein! just one meal containing protein a day is enough to cover the need.
    favorite protein? fish, tofu, eggs, beans
    favorite carb? grains, starchy veggies
    fat? nut butter, coconut oil, salmon

  12. Kate
    30 March, 2010 at 7:56 am (5 years ago)

    Preach it! It’s so nice to hear a balanced post about protein (and the goodness of fats;) I still have occasional freak out moments where I think I might be eating “too little” protein – and then I take a look at how fantastic my skin & hair & muscles are looking compared to when I used to eat “low carb aka fake foods and lots of meat”, and go back to my green smoothie.

  13. Kate
    30 March, 2010 at 7:58 am (5 years ago)

    Oh, and to answer your questions at the end:
    fave carb – toss up between sweet potato & pineapple
    fave protein – egg or black beans
    fave fat – definitely coconut oil!

    I find if I am craving SWEETS (not healthy carbs, but sugary sweets) it’s usually a sign that I need a little more protein.

  14. Lara (Thinspired)
    30 March, 2010 at 11:27 am (5 years ago)

    Some excellent points about protein, Maggie! Nope, never heard of someone (in the US, anyway) having a protein deficiency.

    Favorite carb? Same as Bobby’s: rice!
    Favorite fat? Avos, I think. Or almonds.
    Favorite protein: Does salmon count, or would that be a fat? ;)

  15. Mallory
    30 March, 2010 at 12:21 pm (5 years ago)

    gluconeogenesis- excess protein does not harm the liver, thats a false statement. further, gluconeogenesis is neither harmful or dangerous to the body or liver. studies JUST showed that the brain getting its glucose require via protein conversion is healthier than it being supplied by carbohydrates.
    a diet based on fatty cuts of natural meat, vegetables and a high saturated fat content are what equate with health.

    PUFAS, refined products/grains/sugar, and wheat are what cause a “fatty liver”

    it is not too many people eating “too much protein” it is too many people eating too many carbohydrates. “whole grain bread” whole wheat _____(anything), are not natural or real foods. you cant find them in nature, sorry, unless you would like to eat a seed.

    i personally eat close to 1.75 grams of protein per lb of body weight, gobs of saturated fat, and a good amount of fresh in season vegetables and eggs. havent been sick in over 5 years, and have not once been “low” on energy!

  16. Hilary
    30 March, 2010 at 1:57 pm (5 years ago)

    I get waaay over what’s recommended on the protein side, but I also get a lot of fruits and veggies, and whole grains. Maybe I can take it down a notch on the protein, though.

    Favorite carb: really nutty grainy whole grain bread
    Favorite protein: poached egg or fresh fish
    Favorite fat: avacado

  17. Heather McD (Heather Eats Almond Butter)
    30 March, 2010 at 8:48 pm (5 years ago)

    Couldn’t agree more Maggie. I really don’t think people require as nearly as much protein as they think they do. Babies grow at a rapid rate, and you’re right, mother’s milk is low in protein, but you know what it’s high in? Fat. It’s fat and carbs the baby needs.

    Every time I’ve tried a high protein diet, it’s only backfired on me. So, I never worry about my intake as I know I’m getting plenty, even on days I skip the meat.

  18. Cindy
    1 April, 2010 at 4:50 pm (5 years ago)

    I love your soap boxes…and great topic!

    I have a love/hate relationship with protein. I never really know but I try and be mindful. I have experimented with plant based protein powders (just recently) and then backed off only using it after my workouts.

    I have however been eating very low gi. (trying anyways) and I have found my happy formula for keeping the carbs low and my blood sugar even keeled and not to low becasue I know exactly how long I can go LOW GI before the grouchies move in!

    it’s all such a juggling act.

    I was using SparkPeople for a while and my fats were high and my proteins were low and it was a daily frustration for me.

    I should track them again, becasue I don’t eat as vegetarian as I was.

    I love healthy fats but even there I was over doing it ( hence MY 8 lbs)

    haha

    greatgreat topic! xoxoxox

  19. Sandi
    7 April, 2010 at 11:16 am (5 years ago)

    Hi there!
    Great post! I feel like people are always telling me how unhealthy I must be for being a vegan, because I don’t get enough protein…the weird thing is that they have no idea what I eat, and just assume that if I don’t eat meat and milk products (or else vast amounts of tofu…) there’s no way I can be getting any protein!
    Favorite protein–maybe nutritional yeast. Favorite fat–um, chocolate :) And favorite carb? Oatmeal.

  20. Gena
    9 April, 2010 at 9:18 pm (5 years ago)

    I notice virtually no diff between days on which I get a lot of protein, and days in which I get very little. If I don’t get fats and complex carbs, though, I’m one hell of a pain in the butt to be around. Whole grains and fats are my chosen sources of energy and sustenance, and veggies are my source of…well, they’re my lifeblood :)

  21. Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga)
    2 October, 2010 at 7:55 pm (4 years ago)

    I would say I need carbs first. Then fat. Then protein. I know I have a low protein requirement. Well, “low” by what mainstream america would say is low…but if low means 30-60 g’s a day, then I am “normal”. It’s all so interesting!

    Thanks for re-linking this post, Maggie!

    • Maggie
      3 October, 2010 at 10:18 pm (4 years ago)

      @Averie: Yep, that’s probably what I require too. I think the health mags are coming around though – I read an article in Women’s Health that said the average woman needs about 45g per day, which sounded fine to me! I cringe when I hear people talking about eating 100+ g’s a day. Yuck. Good luck liver!

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