Protein is responsible for way more than just bulking up your biceps — the macro is a part of every cell in your body and helps you perform daily life functions and stay healthy.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Your body needs a bare minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you'll need at least 54 grams of protein daily.
According to an observational study that looked at over 12,000 adults, getting enough protein helps support physical health and normal daily functions — including things like walking to the store, lifting weights and going up a flight of stairs, per April 2019 research in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging.
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Not getting enough protein was also associated with poorer diet quality. What's more, there's an increasing trend of poor protein intake as we age: 46 percent of older adults do not meet their protein requirements in the study
Now that you know just how important the vital macro is, make sure to avoid these common protein blunders that can undo your health wins.
1. You Aren't Getting Enough Quality Protein
While plant-based diets are getting more attention these days for their health benefits as well as their positive effect on the environment, Americans are still eating way too much red and processed meats, a habit that's linked to an increased risk of chronic disease and a shorter lifespan, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Choosing a diet that emphasizes plant proteins — such as whole grains, beans, legumes and nuts and seeds — can provide amino acids as well as the fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants we need to stay healthy and feel good.
ICYMI: Amino acids are the building blocks proteins are made out of and help carry out protein's important functions. There are both essential and non-essential amino acids: Our bodies can't make essential amino acids and so we need to obtain them via our diets while non-essential amino acids can be made by eating foods with protein.
All essential amino acids can be obtained from plant sources, according to a May 2017 study in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology. Plant-based proteins may have lower levels of amino acids compared to animal proteins, but combining plant proteins can give you a complete amino acid profile in addition to other nutrients you won't find in animal protein sources like fiber and phytochemicals.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating a variety of nutrient-dense protein foods from both plant and animal sources, and notes that processed meats should be limited.
If you need another reason to focus on meeting your protein needs, get this: People with obesity who follow higher-protein diets — at least 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight — were observed to lose more weight and preserve more lean muscle mass as well as enjoy reduced blood pressure and triglycerides, according to a June 2017 clinical review in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle.
Calculate your personal protein needs. The current recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight daily. But growing research suggests increasing this to 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to stay lean and reduce the risk for sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss) and osteoporosis.
To meet those needs, limit your intake of red and processed meats and include plenty of plant-based proteins in your diet. Good sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, soy foods, whole grains and leafy vegetables. Round out your diet with seafood, low-fat dairy, poultry and eggs.
2. You Don't Start the Day With Protein
"Many Americans think breakfast is only full of carbohydrate-rich foods and therefore tend to skip the meal," Tawnie Graham, RDN, tells LIVESTRONG.com, adding that many people aren't sure how to include protein in their morning meal.
There are many benefits to including protein at breakfast, one of which is weight control. "A high-protein breakfast can help promote weight loss and/or prevent weight gain or regain," says Su-Nui Escobar, RDN. "One key factor is the improvement in appetite control and satiety."
A study compared a 350-calorie cereal-based breakfast with a 350-calorie high-protein breakfast and found that the higher-protein meal was associated with reduced hunger and feeling more full, per the April 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. "The high-protein breakfast led to daily reductions in the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin, increases in the satiety hormone PYY and reductions in evening snacking — particularly of high-fat foods — compared with skipping breakfast," Escober explains.
Add eggs to your breakfast routine! “An egg scramble with beans and cheese is a great way to boost protein intake at breakfast,” says Graham. She also recommends oatmeal with egg whites or adding a poached egg, kale and sautéed onions to your oats for a savory option.
Need another choice besides eggs? Graham suggests pairing cottage cheese and fruit.
3. You Take in Too Much at a Time
Forking into a thick steak or chugging a protein shake with 40 or 50 grams of protein in one sitting is, unfortunately, not as effective as you might think, says Paige Penick, RDN. "Your body just can't use that much protein at once."
According to research, 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per meal — or about 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal — is optimal and is the maximal amount your muscles can absorb at once, per a February 2018 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Any more provides no additional benefit and excess protein is broken down to glucose or triglycerides for energy storage in muscle or fat.
Dietitian Lisa C. Andrews, MEd, RD, calls getting too much protein in one meal the "shake mistake." "Clients often think they should refuel with a protein shake after a long workout (60 minutes or more) and forgo having carbohydrates. Protein alone won't replace glycogen in the absence of carbohydrates."
Bottom line: "Protein doesn't give you energy (carbs do), and excessive protein isn't always the best for our health," Graham says. "Protein is for maintaining and building muscles, as well as replacing other needed protein in the body."
“Spread your protein consumption throughout the day, and stick to 25 or 30 grams max each time you eat,” says Penick.
“If you need a quick or convenient source of protein, shakes are fine, but you should include some fruit, yogurt, crackers, bread or other quality carbs along with your protein to replete glycogen,” says Andrews. She recommends a 3:1 carb-protein ratio (that's 3 grams of carbs for every 1 gram of protein).
4. Your Carb-Rich Snacks Are Lacking in Protein
Americans love to snack. The problem: Many of our noshes are high in carbs and low in protein. Sure, carbohydrates are your body's ideal energy source, but neglecting protein isn't a good idea if you're trying to curb your appetite or lose weight.
Snacks with protein take longer to digest by the body, so there's a health payoff for you, says Cheryl Mussatto, RD, author of The Nourished Brain. Adding protein into your meals can help slow the absorption of carbs, which can help prevent blood sugar fluctuations, Mussatto says. Plus, it'll squelch that gnawing feeling of hunger by keeping you feeling satisfied longer.
“Snack smartly by including a high-protein food at each of your mini-meals,” Mussatto says.
She recommends snacking on Greek yogurt, almonds or walnuts, a boiled egg, low-fat cottage cheese or a glass of low-fat milk, beans, edamame, low-sodium beef jerky, peanut butter or seeds (such as pumpkin seeds).
- Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging: "Low Dietary Protein Intakes and Associated Dietary Patterns and Functional Limitations in an Aging Population: A NHANES Analysis”
- Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle: "Dietary Protein Content for an Optimal Diet: A Clinical View”
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Beneficial Effects of a Higher-Protein Breakfast on the Appetitive, Hormonal, and Neural Signals Controlling Energy Intake Regulation in Overweight/Obese, “Breakfast-Skipping,” Late-Adolescent Girls"
- Journal of Geriatric Cardiology: “Plant-based Nutrition for Healthcare Professionals: Implementing Diet as a Primary Modality in the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Disease”
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "An omnivore’s dilemma: How much red meat is too much?"