Written by: Matthew Kostek, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Of all the characters in the “diet theater” we hear or read about each day, the nutrient, protein, repeatedly lands a leading role. In fact, protein is the only nutrient for which an entire food group is named. A brief perusal of the USDA’s MyPlate website reveals this, do you see a carbohydrate foods or fat foods group? How about a vitamin food group? You won’t, but there is a protein food group that includes meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, and to be inclusive, those who eschew animal products may designate plant-derived options like beans and legumes as protein foods.
The food industry, a pervasive sponsor of protein’s popularity, has insidiously loaded the grocery store isles with “high protein” versions of cereal, nut butter, milk, yogurt, bars, shakes, bread, pasta, coffee, and even, yes, bottled water. The claims of increased protein include weight loss, muscle gain, improved immune function, appetite suppression, exercise recovery, as well as more energy. While there is truth here, protein is essential for health, and some manipulation in the diet may be warranted, does protein deserve such high billing? How much should we really be getting? In this article, I will explain what protein is, does, how much is enough, and exactly where “consuming protein” should fall in the context of our overall dietary pattern.
What it is
Microscopic compounds consist of oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, called amino acids, primarily form the macronutrient protein. We refer to protein as a macronutrient (carbs and fats are also macronutrients), macros for short, because they yield energy and are required in large amounts for us to function. Animal-derived foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy readily provide protein as well as beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, though to a lesser degree. In fact, protein is found ubiquitously in most food products as well as these whole foods.
Why is it special?
It is the Nitrogen (N) that separates protein from the rest of the bunch. During digestion, protein gets broken down into amino acids, which then are used to make other proteins that we need, such as hormones (long distance messengers), enzymes (facilitates chemical processes), neurotransmitters (short distance messengers), as well as structural support material like collagen and other types of tissue, including muscle. Muscle tissue is the largest repository of amino acids in the body. Some amino acids can be broken down further and used to generate energy. Though for this, the N must be liberated, producing by-products such as ammonia and urea. This is a normal chemical reaction occurring in our bodies, likely fine for most but a possible concern for others, particularly those with conditions like gout or kidney disease. Some amino acids are broken down and stored as fat. So, put simply, all protein we ingest is broken down into amino acids and used for making other proteins (most popular), energy for immediate use (less popular), or energy for later use (in the form of stored fat). Unlike other macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, in the form of glycogen and fat in the form of triglycerides, protein does not have an inactive or” stored” form that our bodies can access when needed. Hence, any shortage of amino acids in the diet will create a need. To fill the need, we must disassemble something in our body with abundant amino acids, like muscle tissue. Though we can’t necessarily prevent this, we can, with a solid diet, minimize it.
So, how much protein do we need?
US Dietary Guidelines recommend protein comprise 10-35% of our total dietary intake, with minimum amounts being equivalent to .36g of protein per lb. of body weight (BW). So that would mean, for example, 45g of protein for a 125lb person, 54g for a 150lb person, and 72g for someone weighing 200 lbs. NHANES data tells us that the average American adult (weighing 180 lbs.) eats approximately 80g of protein per day. This easily exceeds the 65g minimum they should be getting. So, for the most part, there is no shortage of protein in the American diet. Yet we are inundated with messages about protein’s importance, as if there’s a shortage and we’ve not eaten it before, as well as when, why, and how to eat it. There’s nothing like constantly being reminded about something we are already doing that makes one think they need to do more. In general, this is a message we do not need, though, for some, it may be warranted.
So who needs more protein, then?
Older folks aged 60 and above should eat a higher protein diet (0.5 g/lb BW per day) to maintain lean mass. Age-related sarcopenia (loss of lean mass) is a concern for these folks. We know that those who eat more protein hold onto more muscle vs. those who do not. This is regardless of exercise; though proper exercise allows them to keep even more. The importance of maintaining or even growing lean mass as we age cannot be understated. It is tied directly to independence, function, and performance of ADL’s (activities of daily living). For those keeping score at home, take ‒64g, ‒80g, or ‒100g of protein per day for a 125lb, 150lb, or 200lb individual, respectively.
Those suffering from wasting diseases or conditions such as HIV or cancer (more so the treatment). As with older folks (60 yr and above), maintaining lean mass is extremely important to these folks too. Again, coupling high protein with exercise yields the best results. The recommended amount is 0.6 g/lb BW per day. So, again, the math works out to ‒80g, ‒95g, and 125g per day of protein for a 125lb, 150lb, and 200lb individual, respectively.
Athletes and active adults, meaning anyone training for and/or participating in a competitive sport or event. This includes a middle-aged recreational athlete preparing for a local half marathon, an amateur bodybuilder in a heavy training phase, and even a professional soccer player. Any adult performing regular moderate and/or vigorous intensity exercise also qualifies. Exercise training may, acutely, create a negative protein balance (more is being broken down and used than is available) which can adversely affect immune function, recovery, and physical performance in the athlete. Research supports taking extra protein to maximize muscle building, tissue repair, and recovery. The exact amount is not clear. We know it varies by age, training history, sex, and training mode (endurance, power, strength, etc.), thus current recommendations for adults in training range from 0.7-1.0 g/lb to as high as 1.5 g/lb BW per day. That gives us quite a wide range for our 125lb, 150lb, and 200lb reference individuals with suggested ranges of ‒113-192g, ‒135-230g, and ‒180-309g per day of protein, respectively.
One could reasonably fall into more than one of these four categories (“regular” folks, older folks, folks with wasting conditions or disease, and athletic folks). For instance, a sixty-five-year-old cyclist could be categorized into the older folks group, as well as the athlete's group. In any case, finding the optimal amount of protein is a trial-and-error process and, while important, is more of a practice in fine-tuning. Before focusing on a single nutrient, everyone should already have a grasp of how much they should be eating to maintain their lifestyle (“active” or not), taking regular meals that already include whole foods (including veggies and whole grains), getting adequate rest, which includes regular high-quality sleep and recovery from daily stressors, and is getting some regular physical activity. Getting a good handle on those things will pay larger dividends for health and performance than focusing on a single nutrient, especially one that you are likely already getting enough of. To illustrate, adding an extra 20g of protein to a meal will do little for me if I am struggling to get more than five hours of sleep each night. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article. However, know that the amount of sleep one gets affects every aspect of our health, from appetite control, fuel utilization, immune function, growth, development, and tissue repair, among other things. If these “basics” are satisfied and it makes sense to have a closer look at protein, then give it a go. Please, keep in mind that the info in this article is designed as an evidence-based guideline, not a replacement for direct advice from a health practitioner. Consequently, if optimal protein consumption is something of importance to you, a consult with a dietician and/or a Nutrition Coach can pay dividends for your health and performance.
So, to summarize, protein, a likely over-hyped yet important macronutrient necessary for healthy growth, development, and function, is found in abundance in the American diet. Protein occurs mainly in animal products (meat and dairy), as well as in lesser amounts in grains, legumes, nuts, and beans. Protein requirements can be met through combinations of all these types of foods. Most of us get enough protein in our regular diet, but some of us could take more. However, benefits will only be realized in those who are already following a healthy dietary pattern and getting adequate amounts of rest; For those participating in exercise training, again, achieving a balance of training and recovery is an essential first step before fine-tuning. For your convenience, the articles that provided the evidence described in this article are listed below.
If you’d like some more help in managing or improving your protein consumption, here are two additional things I offer:
You can download my free protein foods guide here. In it, you’ll see more info on how much you should be getting as well as how to identify and track protein foods.
If you think you could use help, support, and/or expert guidance in making meaningful changes to your diet or physical performance, we can work together to get your eating on track. Check out my remote, holistic Nutrition Coaching program!
Matthew Kostek, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Over the past 25 years as a Personal Trainer, Wellness Coach, Clinical Researcher, Professor, and Exercise Physiologist, Matt has helped hundreds of adults achieve their health and performance goals. Matt earned his PhD in Kinesiology from the University of Connecticut in 2010. Now, a sought-after exercise and nutrition Coach, he owns and operates Matt K Training, a company providing personal training and nutrition coaching services to those wishing to optimize the health and physical performance. Through his highly effective, holistic, “big picture” approach, Matt helps his clients live better by eating, moving, and recovering well.
Antonio J, Ellerbroek A, Silver T, Orris S, Scheiner M, Gonzalez A, Peacock CA. A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women--a follow-up investigation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Oct 20;12:39. doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0100-0. PMID: 26500462; PMCID: PMC4617900.
Berryman CE, Lieberman HR, Fulgoni VL 3rd, Pasiakos SM. Protein intake trends and conformity with the Dietary Reference Intakes in the United States: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2001-2014. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018 Aug 1;108(2):405-413. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy088. PMID: 29931213.
Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, Cesari M, Cruz-Jentoft AJ, Morley JE, Phillips S, Sieber C, Stehle P, Teta D, Visvanathan R, Volpi E, Boirie Y. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2013 Aug;14(8):542-59. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2013.05.021. Epub 2013 Jul 16. PMID: 23867520
Bozzetti F, Bozzetti V. Is the intravenous supplementation of amino acid to cancer patients adequate? A critical appraisal of literature. Clin Nutr. 2013 Feb;32(1):142-6. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2012.10.017. Epub 2012 Nov 11. PMID: 23218120.
Deer RR, Volpi E. Protein intake and muscle function in older adults. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2015 May;18(3):248-53. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0000000000000162. PMID: 25807346; PMCID: PMC4394186.
McLain, Trisha A. MS1; Escobar, Kurt A. MA1; Kerksick, Chad M. PhD2. Protein Applications in Sports Nutrition—Part I: Requirements, Quality, Source, and Optimal Dose. Strength and Conditioning Journal: April 2015 - Volume 37 - Issue 2 - p 61-71. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000128