How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

Protein, Protein, Protein

“How much protein do I need?” This is one of the questions I get asked most often. Protein seems to be the golden nutrient these days. No matter what the diet fad, protein is at the center of it. This has fueled the huge market for protein supplements, powders and bars. The meat and dairy industries are thrilled. Everywhere we turn, people are telling us to eat more protein. But do you need all of this extra protein?

Photo by Arya Zia CC 2.0

The truth might surprise you. I tell my patients that the number one thing they can do for their health is to stop worrying about protein and start worrying about fruits and vegetables. Many Americans are not getting enough fiber, antioxidants and other powerful nutrients because they are not getting enough fruits and vegetables. So focusing on protein can become a distraction and may end up hurting your health instead of helping. Research shows that protein “deficiency” is essentially non-existent in the US, while fiber “deficiency” is rampant.

Let’s first take a look at function of protein in our bodies. We all associate protein with muscle, but protein has a wide array of functions. Protein is needed for a healthy immune system, for wound healing, to transport of molecules throughout the body, and in the production of blood cells, DNA and enzymes. It is a very important nutrient, but we just don’t need as much of it as people think.

The truth is that all foods, even fruits, have protein. Some foods just have more than others. Meat and dairy contain a lot of protein, but also can contain fats and cholesterol. And meat and dairy products have zero fiber. So Americans need less meat and dairy in their diet, not more. By this I mean much smaller portions than we are used to or even meat free meals. Get some protein from nuts, beans and legumes each day, as these foods are high in fiber and low in unhealthy fats. Whole grains like oatmeal, whole wheat, brown rice and quinoa are good sources of protein and fiber as well.

A healthy adult needs just .3-.4g per pound of protein. This means that an adult weighing 150 pounds needs 45-60 grams per day. Elite athletes who are training at a high level of intensity need more—maybe .5g per pound or 75g per day. Ten to fourteen percent of our calories should come from protein. Would you be surprised to know that the average American consumes nearly double this amount?

Children need protein to support growth, but there is still no reason to become overly focused on protein consumption. In general, children need about .5g per pound. So a 30-pound child needs 15g per day while a 70-pound child needs 35g per day. Parents can rest assured that the requirement can be easily achieved with a well-rounded diet rich in fruits, grains and vegetables. Pushing protein foods that are considered “kid foods” like chicken tenders or cheese may lead to a diet that is high in protein but too high in cholesterol, fats and calories.

Here is a short list of the protein content of foods as well as a link to a more comprehensive list. Choose a wide variety of foods on this list to get the most nutritional benefit. And don’t forget to stop worrying about protein!

  • Pinto Beans 1/2c 9g

  • Lentils 1/2c 8g

  • Lima Beans 1/2c 6g

  • Green Peas 1/2c 4g

  • Spinach 1/2c cooked 3g

  • Peanuts 1oz 7g

  • Sunflower Seeds 1 oz 6g

  • 100% Wh. Wheat Bread 3g

  • Oatmeal 1/2c 5g

  • Brown Rice 1/2c 3g

  • Lean chicken breast 1oz 9g

  • Fish 1oz 7g

  • Skim milk 1c 8g

  • String cheese 1 stick 6g

  • Egg 6g