The power of protein is no secret. Some reports claim this macronutrient is the most sought-after nutrient (followed by fiber and vitamin D). And shopping habits back this up — one projection suggests that the worldwide market for protein ingredients is set to grow to over $114 billion by 2030.
That's because many people are just now understanding things that health experts and scientists have known for years — that protein packs a punch. Protein is essential for our bodies and makes up more than 20% of our cells. It's the building block for muscles, bones, and organs. Plus, studies suggest that getting enough protein can help you maintain strong bones, increase muscle mass, boost metabolism, stave off hunger, and more.
So, how much protein do you need? Read on for tips on optimizing your intake and reaping the benefits of this superstar nutrient.
Why We Need Protein
What Protein Does
Protein is one of the best-employed nutrients in the body, meaning it's always working and has numerous important jobs.
One function is to help repair cells and make new ones. Enzymes are proteins essential for everyday bodily functions like digestion and energy production.
Other proteins have the critical job of transporting nutrients like vitamins and minerals throughout your body, or storing them for usage.
In addition to the basics, a diet specifically higher in protein has significant metabolic health benefits, including preserving lean muscle mass.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
This question is more complicated than you might think. The answer depends on everything from your activity level to your age.
In general, it's recommended by the National Academy of Medicine that adults over 20 years old have a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day. Another general rule of thumb from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is consuming between 10% and 35% of total calories from protein.
For active folks, this number goes up to 1.2 grams and 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day in order to maintain muscle mass.
Protein needs change as people age, according to Lifeforce Physician Leah Johansen, MD, ABFM, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner. "As we age we actually have a higher requirement due to age-related changes in protein metabolism, to offset chronic inflammation, immunity, muscle strength, and physical function," she says.
Research has found that adults over 65 may need 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. That's because some evidence has found that people over 65 need more protein to function optimally than younger folks since the body is less responsive to protein with age. Plus, those who eat more protein maintain their bone mass better as they age, have a lower risk of osteoporosis and fractures, and prevent frail bones.
You can get ahead of the game by increasing your protein intake now. One study following 2,900 seniors for more than 20 years found that those who ate the most protein starting around 55 years of age were 30% less likely to become functionally impaired in comparison to those who ate the least amount. Meaning, eating more protein now can help people maintain physical function later on.
Food for Thought
Ironically, the biggest misconception about protein, according to experts, is that people either mistakenly believe they are or are not getting enough.
According to Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD senior clinical dietitian UCLA Medical Center, the emphasis on protein in the media has led to unnecessary consumption, as most people only need between 0.8 and 1.2 grams/kg/day depending on age and health status.
Research has found that most Americans already get more than enough protein. "Most people think they need more protein than they actually do," says Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, a Culinary and Nutrition Communications Expert. "In fact, most people consume more protein than they realize because protein is found in many foods other than animal products."
Additionally, consuming excess protein does not necessarily lead to weight loss. Hunnes notes that some people consume unnecessary amounts of extra protein in lieu of carbs because they believe it will make them "thinner," which is not necessarily true. If your goal is to lose weight, Hunnes highlights that you need a calorie deficit and the appropriate amount of protein, not necessarily more.
The Best High-Protein Food Sources
So if you’re getting enough protein, are you all set? Well, that depends. Not all proteins are created equal in terms of absorption, quality, or feeling full.
Hunnes recommends whole foods because they have more nutritional advantages, with naturally occurring nutrients not found in concentrated protein powders. "When we just focus on individual nutrients, or nutritional reductionism, we are missing a lot of compounds that when combined do a lot of good," she says.
One specific advantage is that the body absorbs whole food protein like chicken much slower than, say, whey protein powder, leaving people feeling fuller for longer.
Still, there are some reasons why you may want to supplement with protein powder. If you're having trouble reaching your protein goals, the powder form is a convenient way to supplement when whole foods aren't enough. Dr. Johansen suggests looking for protein powders that are low in or contain no added sugars. “Also avoid fillers like maltodextrin, dyes, or bulking agents that can be inflammatory to the body,” she adds.
Another time you may also want to consider supplementing with protein is post-exercise, particularly if your goal is to improve muscle recovery quickly. Whey protein powders are the most fast absorbing protein in comparison to other sources, allowing the amino acids to repair and rebuild in the post-workout recovery period. (More on this in the protein hacks section below.)
Just remember, there's a reason protein shakes are in the "supplement" aisle – they’re there to fill the gaps. Here are the foods high in protein that should be prioritized.
1. Lean Chicken Breast
Lean meats like skinless chicken breast are one of Leveinson's top picks for protein. A three-ounce serving will give you a solid 26 grams of protein.
2. Lean Beef
Lean cuts of beef such as strip or flank steak or tenderloin are great options, according to Levinson. Lean or extra lean ground beef is also an awesome option. On average, three ounces of lean beef contains around 22 grams of protein.
Research has found that eating a high protein diet containing chicken or beef as the main protein source can help people lose weight and increase muscle mass if paired with resistance training.
Levinson says fish is one of the best high-protein food sources because it is filled with a variety of other vitamins and minerals with numerous health benefits.
Fish that contain the most protein include yellowfin tuna with 25 grams of protein in three ounces, tilapia with 23 grams of protein per three ounce filet, and halibut with 19 grams of protein per three ounce serving.
Depending on the size of the egg, the protein content can range from five to eight grams. Protein is found in both the egg yolk and whites.
5. Dairy Products
Dairy-rich proteins like low-fat plain Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and hard cheeses like parmesan are all protein-packed picks from Levinson.
You can expect around 20 grams of protein per cup of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese. And research has found that those consuming yogurt daily for 12 weeks while doing a resistance training program had greater muscle strength gains and fat-free mass than those who did not.
6. Soy Products
Tofu and tempeh are two high-protein soy products. This plant protein is special because it contains ample amounts of all nine essential amino acids, making it different from most other plant proteins that usually skimp on a few. Hunnes especially likes and recommends super-firm high-protein tofu and pea protein milk.
Dr. Johansen says fear of soy products for phytoestrogen content is somewhat of a misconception. Current research has found that soy products don't promote things like cancer or impair male reproductive hormones. And other research on the negative effects of soy are only linked to impossibly large soy consumption.
7. Honorable Mention: Plant Proteins
You can also consider adding in incomplete plant protein sources like pulses, beans, dried peas, lentils, and nut butters for variety. While most plant-based foods are considered incomplete proteins, they still provide essential amino acids.
According to Dr. Johansen, ground flaxseed is another great option as it contains 21 grams of protein and 30 grams of fiber in just one cup. It's also rich in omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and contains 100 times more lignans than any other plant source, which may help prevent breast and prostate cancer.
Now that you know how important protein is and which sources to choose, here are a few tips to make the most of each bite.
Spread Out Your Consumption
Think eating all your protein in one meal is a great way to get it one and done? Think again. There are benefits to spreading out your consumption throughout the day, Levinson says. Research has found that eating protein at intervals spread out by a few hours could enhance the use of protein to better maintain skeletal muscle mass.
There are a few suggestions as to how much protein you should eat per interval. One study suggests eating 25 to 30 grams of protein is best in one sitting. Eating this amount also has been found to promote fullness and preserve muscle mass better than having smaller amounts of protein throughout the day.
Other research claims 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight four times per day is the most beneficial for muscle protein synthesis.
Prioritize Protein Post-Workout
Eating enough protein post-workout is key for optimizing muscle repair and growth. Research on male athletes found that having protein every three hours increased muscle gains in comparison to eating protein every six hours.
Add a Sprinkle
Sometimes, all you need to add protein is a little sprinkle of some high-protein foods. Dr. Johansen likes spirulina powder since one cup contains 64 grams of protein. Spoon some into your smoothie to make this nutrient dense superfood more palatable.
Or, add in some ground chia seeds to smoothies, Greek yogurt, or “noatmeal,” Dr. Johansen suggests. With 16 grams of protein in eight tablespoons of seeds, you can't go wrong.
Make Your Liquid Count
"Drink your protein with DIY bone broths or protein shakes," Dr. Johansen says. According to Dr. Johansen, people are often under hydrated. So if you also happen to be someone who struggles with eating enough protein, you can solve two problems with one solution by drinking your protein.
Prioritizing protein has plenty of benefits for your body and your health, no matter your age. Making a few small tweaks, like focusing on certain high-protein foods and timing your intake, can make a powerful difference.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Susan Grabowski, DO, ABAARM Board Certified in Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine
Leah Johansen, MD, Board Certified Family Practice Doctor, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner