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Am I Getting Enough Protein?

Diet and Nutrition

April 29, 2024

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Photography by Darren Muir/Stocksy United

Photography by Darren Muir/Stocksy United

by Christine Byrne, MPH, RD

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Medically Reviewed by:

Jared Meacham, Ph.D., RD, CSCS

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by Christine Byrne, MPH, RD

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Jared Meacham, Ph.D., RD, CSCS

•••••

Here’s why this macronutrient is important and how to make sure you’re getting enough.

I get asked all the time about protein. People often ask me whether they’re eating enough of it and how to figure out the amount they need. If you’re asking yourself these same questions, first let me ease your mind a bit: You don’t need to down chicken breasts and slam protein shakes all day to get enough protein.

Still, it’s true that protein is extremely important for your overall health, and it’s fair to wonder whether you’re eating enough of it — not everybody is, and various health conditions affect your protein needs. Here’s what you need to know about what protein does in your body, why it matters, and how much you should eat.

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How much protein should I eat per day?

There are a few different recommendations floating around about protein needs. For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting 10–35% of your total calories from protein.

This means that if you’re eating 2,000 calories per day (which isn’t the right number for everyone but is an easy number to use as an example), 200–700 of those calories should come from protein. Since protein has 4 calories per gram, that breaks down to 50–175 grams of protein per day.

That’s a pretty wide range, which explains why so many people are confused about how much protein they actually need. If you have performance or strength goals, research suggests that eating 0.7–1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is enough.

If you’re not actively working toward an athletic goal such as building strength or gaining muscle, it’s probably fine to fall somewhere on the lower end of the range, and there’s no need to obsessively track your protein intake or get the same amount every day.

But there are other reasons you might want to increase your protein intake. Muscle mass naturally decreases as we age, so older adults might have higher protein needs than younger adults. For adults 65 years old and older, consuming more protein is associated with better mobility and greater muscle strength.

Also, protein doesn’t spike your blood sugar and can help prevent big blood sugar fluctuations when you eat it alongside carbs. So eating more protein could be helpful if you’re managing diabetes or prediabetes.

According to the American Cancer Society, your protein needs also increase during cancer treatment since your body is working harder to maintain tissue and fight off infections.

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What happens if I’m not eating enough protein?

True protein deficiency — when your body doesn’t have enough protein to meet its basic needs — is rare in the United States because most people have access to enough protein-rich foods.

Still, it’s possible to eat too little protein for your body to work at its best.

Some signs and symptoms of insufficient protein intake are:

  • edema (swelling)
  • fatty liver
  • skin, hair, and nail problems (such as dry skin, slower wound healing, brittle hair, and splitting nails)
  • loss of muscle mass
  • higher risk of bone fractures
  • stunted growth (in children and adolescents)
  • difficulty fighting off infections
  • increased appetite and food intake

These are pretty advanced signs of significant protein deficiency (which, again, is unlikely for adults in the United States). But if you’ve noticed that your skin, hair, and nails seem brittle; if you’re getting sick often; or if you’re feeling hungrier than usual lately and can’t think of a reason why, it might be worth adding more protein to your meals so you feel more full and satisfied.

What is protein, and why is it important?

Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients (the others are carbs and fat). All three give your body energy — meaning they contain calories — and each serves various other functions. Protein contains 4 calories per gram.

All protein is made up of amino acids — small molecules that each serve a different purpose in your body, such as building and repairing muscles and tissue, making hormones, and breaking down the food you eat.

Protein’s role in building and maintaining muscle is probably the function that gets the most attention — that’s why protein is such a big topic in strength training and other sports communities. It’s important to consider because maintaining the muscle mass you have is good for your overall health, even if you’re not trying to build more or get stronger.

But protein also supports many other functions in your body, including:

  • cell and tissue repair
  • nail, hair, bone, and organ growth and maintenance
  • hormone production
  • fluid and electrolyte balance
  • blood clotting
  • immunity
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What type of protein is best?

When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into separate amino acids. There are 20 unique amino acids that your body uses, 9 of which are considered “essential” because your body can’t make them on its own — you need to get them from food or supplements.

Different types of protein have different amino acid breakdowns. While animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, not all plant-based proteins do.

You may have heard that it’s impossible for people who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet to get enough of the essential amino acids. But research suggests that it is absolutely possible to get everything you need from plant-based foods.

The trick is to eat a variety of foods, since different sources have different amino acid profiles. And some plant-based foods — soy, quinoa, hemp seeds, chia seeds, spirulina, and certain whole grains — do contain all nine essential aminos, so they’re great choices.

If you want to supplement your protein intake with protein powder or protein bars, there are a couple things to keep in mind.

First of all, you can probably meet your protein needs through food alone, especially if you eat animal products. Second, it’s absolutely fine to use protein supplements if you want to — you’ll get the same amino acids that you’d get from food (although this can vary depending on what kind of protein is in your powder or bar).

Finally, whole foods that contain protein — such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and whole grains — are packed with other important nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, that you probably won’t get from supplements.

How can I add protein to my diet?

When I work with clients who want to add more protein to their diets, the first thing I suggest is eating at least one good protein source at every meal. That could mean eating eggs or Greek yogurt as part of your breakfast, chicken or tofu at lunch, and fish, meat, or beans at dinner.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend filling a quarter of your plate with protein, which is a great place to start.

If you feel like you’re eating protein at every meal but still not getting enough, you can aim to eat at least one protein source at every snack as well. You might opt for a protein bar, or you could eat peanut butter with apples or carrots, chia pudding, yogurt and granola, or cheese and crackers.

In general, I don’t recommend tracking every gram of protein you eat or obsessing over certain numbers. As long as you’re including a protein source in every meal and most snacks, you should be getting what you need.

Medically reviewed on April 29, 2024

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About the author

Christine Byrne, MPH, RD

Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian who specializes in disordered eating. She owns Ruby Oak Nutrition, a group private practice based in North Carolina. A longtime journalist, Christine regularly contributes to several national media outlets, including SELF, Food Network, and Everyday Health. She takes a non-diet, weight-inclusive approach, and aims to make nutrition and wellness more accessible for all. Christine holds a masters degree in public health nutrition from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a bachelors degree in writing from Northwestern University. Find her on her website, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

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