To give you an idea of how important protein is to the human body, consider the word’s origin: protos. That’s Greek for “first,” as in top, or of foremost importance. Protein is responsible for the muscles throughout your body, as well as things like hair, hormones, blood, all manner of connective tissue and even the enzymes that power your digestive system.
Despite all that, most people continue to equate protein with bodybuilding, powerlifting and “bulking up.” True, protein is an essential part of any bodybuilder’s nutrition plan, but protein is absolutely essential for every one of us. The question is… how much protein do we really need?
The answer to that question depends on who you are and what your goals are. Let’s break it down.
According to WebMd, “most Americans get more than enough protein each day... from animal sources, like meat, poultry, and eggs.” If those are staples in your diet, chances are good you’re getting enough protein and supplementation—be it protein powder, protein bars, etc.—won’t be necessary.
Current recommendations for protein intake for American men and women are as follows:
- Men: 56 grams
- Women: 46 grams
- Both: derive 10-35% of your daily calories from protein-rich foods
Quick Guide to Protein Rich Foods
- 3-ounce piece of meat—about 21 grams of protein
- 8-ounce piece of meat—about 50 grams of protein
- 1 serving of Greek yogurt—about 12 grams of protein
- 1 glass of low-fat milk—about 8 grams of protein
- 1 medium egg—about 6 grams of protein
- ½ cup of cottage cheese—about 14 grams of protein
- 1 serving of peanut butter—about 8 grams of protein
- 1 cup of beans—about 20 grams of protein
- 2 oz. of mixed nuts—about 6 grams of protein
Pregnant & Breastfeeding Women
Women who are either pregnant or breastfeeding need to increase their daily intake of protein to support their growing baby. During pregnancy, it’s recommended that women get 10 more grams per day of protein than they did before they were pregnant (an extra cup of yogurt, for example). When breastfeeding, that suggestion goes up to 20 extra grams per day.
Athletes and Bodybuilders
All athletes are not created equal, so it’s still important to break down this classification into a few target ranges. Here’s a general guide based on body weight. For each pound you weigh, you need the following grams of protein per day:
- Active adult: 0.4-0.6
- Growing athlete: 0.6-0.9
- Adult building muscle mass: 0.6-0.9
The low end of those ranges target females, and the higher ranges are meant as a guide for males. So, for example, a 150-pound active male would need about 0.6 grams of protein, for a total of 90 grams of protein per day. A 115-pound developing female high school athlete would need about 0.7 grams of protein, for a total of 80.5 grams of protein per day. A 200-pound adult male bodybuilder looking to “bulk up” would need 0.9 grams of protein, for a total of 180 grams of protein per day.
The Takeaway Lesson
Know your goals, know your body and know your diet. Don’t simply cram in extra protein because it’s the current fad. Also, don’t just equate eating more protein as simply eating more meat. Beef, chicken, pork and even fish are obviously great sources of natural dietary protein… but they can be high in fat as well. Non-meat sources of protein like beans, legumes and nuts should be included to maintain a balanced nutrient profile.
Continuing that logic, it’s important to look at the entire package of protein, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals in your protein sources. You want to look for foods that are low in saturated fats and processed carbohydrates that will just break down into sugar your body doesn’t need.
And with any change in your diet, adding in more of one thing means you might need to decrease your intake of other foods to ensure you’re not going over on your daily calories. “Bulking up” with extra protein can, if you’re not careful, simply result in “bulking up” without adding the extra muscle you’re really after.