If there’s one word you’ve heard a lot with regard to nutrition, it’s protein. People say that you need it at every meal. You need it after your workout (and pre-workout too!). You should eat more if you want to lose weight… and on and on. With so much talk about protein, it can be hard to figure out exactly who you should listen to. We talked to expert dietitians to find out how much you really should be eating, how to get it, and why everyone is sooo concerned about it. So without further ado, here’s the full scoop on protein.
1. You don’t need that much. Though it may seem like you need a lot of protein to be healthy, that’s not the case, according to Maggie Moon, Los Angeles-based registered dietitian and best-selling author of The MIND Diet. “The average woman needs 46 grams of protein a day, which translates to about five ounces of fish, poultry, or meat,” she says. That’s basically one serving of animal protein a day.
“The basic recommendation is to get 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to keep your body working and avoid deficiency,” she adds. Moon also notes that your baseline protein needs can vary depending on your calorie needs, and that protein should be at least 10 percent of your calories. So if you’re eating 2,200 calories per day, you need a minimum of 220 calories from protein, which works out to 55 grams. There are times when people need to eat more or less protein — if healing from surgery or having kidney issues, for example — but this is a good general guideline. For more specific info on how much protein you need, check out this handy individualized calculator.
2. It’s easy to hit your protein goals, even if you don’t eat meat. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, there’s a lot of emphasis put on getting enough protein, but Megan Roosevelt, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and founder of Healthy Grocery Girl, says that concern is pretty unwarranted. “With a balanced diet, it is not difficult for a vegan or vegetarian to meet their protein needs. Legumes (also known as pulses or beans), as well as nuts and seeds, are some of the most common forms of plant-based proteins,” she explains.
A lot of plant-based foods that you wouldn’t expect are packed with protein, Roosevelt says. For example, a quarter cup of dry oatmeal has five grams of protein, three tablespoons of hemp seeds has 10 grams, and a cup of kale has three grams. In other words, as long as you’re eating a mix of different plant-based foods at every meal, you’re going to hit your protein goals.
3. If you work out, you may need extra. But don’t go overboard. Many people wonder if they need to increase their protein intake if they’re working out really hard, and the answer is yes. “Being active increases protein needs for muscle recovery and growth,” explains Moon. “Eating a balanced snack with protein and carbohydrates in the two-hour window after a workout (20-30 grams total protein, or about 10 grams of essential amino acids) helps develop strong muscles,” she says. An intense workout routine (with 45-60 minutes of vigorous exercise every day) may call for a higher amount of protein overall, somewhere between 1.2-2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day. “Keep in mind that because bodies adapt, highly trained athletes require less protein,” she says. “That is, until they start a new-to-them regimen that challenges the body in new ways.”
4. Don’t worry about “complete” vs. “incomplete.” You may have heard that you need combine different types of protein to reap the full benefits, but Moon says this idea is outdated. “There used to be this idea of ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’ proteins that is misleading. We know now that there’s no need to combine plant foods with specific ‘incomplete’ proteins to make a ‘complete’ protein in any given meal or snack.” Phew! That makes things much less complicated.
5. Don’t overdo it. While protein is great for building muscle, going overboard is usually a bad idea. “Eating too much protein can be very dangerous and counterproductive in helping you achieve your healthiest body,” Roosevelt says. “Consuming too much protein can cause it to be stored as fat, which can lead to weight gain, and dehydrate the body and put a strain on your kidneys that work to metabolize protein.” And you definitely don’t want that, because overworked kidneys can produce kidney stones. So, how much is too much? It varies from person to person, but it’s best to stick close to your actual protein needs to avoid these unpleasant symptoms.
Do you worry about getting enough protein? How do you get your daily dose? Tell us about it @BritandCo!
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