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Dietary Protein: Why, When and How Much?

Grilled chicken and fresh vegetable salad of tomato, avocado, lettuce and spinach

Protein is one of the most important building blocks of your body’s muscles, bones, cartilage, skin and blood and is necessary for almost all of the body’s physiological functions. In addition to being an essential macronutrient, it may also serve as an energy source when the body can’t utilize carbohydrates or fat.

So how much protein should you eat each day? That varies based on several factors – your current weight, your gender and your goals. Do you want to build muscle? Maintain or lose weight? Look more toned? Eating the right amount and the right type of protein can help you achieve one or all of these desired outcomes.

General Guidelines

“The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams for men. Depending on your body weight and activity level, that number may be higher, but a good rule of thumb is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight,” says Jayna Metalonis, registered dietitian at University Hospitals. “This is the minimum amount of protein you need just to maintain good health and does not consider other factors like metabolism, body composition and exercise – if you exercise regularly the recommended daily allowance of protein may be slightly more,” she adds.

Here are just a few examples of protein-rich foods:

  • Grilled chicken breast (3 to 4 ounces): 30 grams protein
  • Hamburger patty (4 ounces): 28 grams protein
  • Yogurt (1 cup): 8 to 12 grams protein
  • Low-fat cottage cheese (1 cup) 30 grams of protein

Protein to Lose Weight

Diet and exercise are always the most reliable and consistent ways to reach your fitness goals including weight loss. Ensuring that your diet includes lots of protein can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight because protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and can help you feel fuller longer, which can make reducing your calorie intake easier to achieve. In addition, consuming enough protein helps to ensure that the weight you lose is fat, not muscle.

Protein to Gain Muscle

A common myth is that eating more protein will make your muscles huge and bulky. This is not true unless you push your body with heavy exercises and significant dietary adjustments designed to achieve a bodybuilder physique. Instead, adding more protein to your diet PLUS some type of weight or resistance training can help change your body composition to one that is characterized by more lean muscle and less fat. As a bonus, increased muscle mass may also increase your metabolism and help you shed fat, leading to a more toned appearance. You should always consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Best Time of Day to Eat Protein

The protein you eat is most helpful to your body when eaten consistently at each meal to keep your energy levels up. In particular, protein intake is very beneficial at the following times:

  • Morning: When you wake up in the morning, your body has already used up most of the nutrients you ate during your previous meal. Consuming protein first thing in the morning is a great way to get your energy back and get your day started on the right foot. Try adding eggs, milk, yogurt or cheese to your breakfast for an easy protein boost.
  • Snacks: If you find yourself getting hungry between meals, a protein-dense snack might be just what you need to tide yourself over. Try a handful of almonds or a serving of Greek yogurt.
  • After a workout: Eating protein within 30 minutes of completing your workout helps your muscles heal and build strength.

Sources of Dietary Protein

You may think that it will be difficult to consume enough protein each day to meet your body’s needs, especially if you are a vegetarian or want to avoid eating too much meat for health reasons. Actually, there are many readily available sources of meat and non-meat protein (some of which may surprise you) that you can build into your diet. These include:

  • Boneless, skinless chicken breast, lean beef or fish
  • Sea food
  • Low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Whole grains like quinoa and millet
  • Beans and legumes (kidney beans, navy beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas)
  • Firm tofu (soybean curds)
  • Edamame (immature soybeans)
  • Egg whites
  • Nuts and seeds (especially peanuts and almonds)
  • Avocados, leafy greens and cherries

Eating a combination of these foods daily can help you meet your protein requirements and keep meals interesting. Even vegetarians have plenty of protein-rich foods to choose from.

What about Protein Supplements?

Overall, it is best to get your protein from a variety of fresh, unprocessed foods such as those listed above. Protein powders and pre-blended protein drinks/shakes are considered dietary supplements and, as such, are not regulated by the FDA and may contain ingredients (even toxins) not listed on the label. In addition to causing digestive upset in some people, some protein supplements may also be high in added sugar and calories. There is no data to support the idea that taking in high amounts of protein through supplements will increase muscle mass or speed weight loss. And, they are expensive. Experts recommend sticking to natural protein sources for the best health benefits.

Related Link

To put protein to work for you, it is important to first understand your individual nutritional needs. University Hospitals has a team of clinical dietitians who can help you create a personalized diet and exercise plan to meet your health and fitness goals.