How Much Protein Do You Need & When Should You Eat It?

Every single one of my clients is on a personalized dietary protocol. 

Some are addressing gut health issues with a low-FODMAP diet for IBS, SIBO or GERD. 

Some are transitioning to a whole-foods diet to lose weight.

And some are improving health conditions like autoimmune disease or low-thyroid function through diet. 

If there is one commonality amongst most of my clients it is confusion surrounding protein intake. 

Before starting nutrition counseling, most clients were not eating balanced meals.  Most were eating carbohydrate-loaded breakfasts (or little for breakfast) with a moderate serving of protein for lunch and their biggest serving of protein for dinner. 

What is wrong with this scenario?  Meals that do not include adequate servings of protein and fat will set you up for hunger and fatigue within a couple of hours.  Carb-heavy meals will spike your blood sugar (also known as glucose) and then cause it to plummet shortly thereafter.  This drop in blood glucose sends a signal to the brain that you are hungry and need more food.  Not only will you be more likely to snack but it can increase your cravings for more carbohydrates only for the cycle to repeat again.  

When this cycle happens too often, excess blood glucose can lead to inflammation across the body.  This manifests in many ways such as belly weight gain, gut inflammation, acne, joint pain, and increased cholesterol levels, to name a few. 

Protein is Important

As we just discussed, meals with protein can help keep blood glucose levels steady.  And you may know that muscle is comprised of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.  We also use amino acids to make enzymes, neurotransmitters and hormones – really important biological compounds essential to bodily functions. 

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Of course, how much protein depends on numerous factors such as your age, your gender, your activity level, your health conditions and so on.

Protein needs range from a minimum of 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight for healthy but sedentary people to a maximum of 2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight for elite athletes (1). To convert your weight in pounds to kilograms use this formula: Weight in pounds/2.2 = kilograms. So 150 lbs = 68 kg.

Who May Have Higher Protein Requirements?  

Those who may need more than the minimum 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight include:

  • Older populations require more protein to help retain muscle mass.
  • Chronically ill or injured populations require more protein to repair muscle and tissue (depending on the condition).
  • Athletes and those wanting to build muscle require more protein to build and repair muscle.
  • Pregnant & lactating women need more protein to meet the demands of the growing baby.
  • Those wanting to lose weight so you don’t also lose muscle mass in the weight loss process.
  • Vegans and vegetarians have higher protein needs because plant sources of protein are not as digestible as animal based proteins.

You may have higher than average protein needs but be mindful not to exceed your protein requirements.  Just like excess carbohydrates and fat, excess protein can also be converted to fat. 

Who May Have Lower Protein Requirements?

Those who may need to stick with the lower end of the protein requirements include:

  • Those with osteoporosis and kidney conditions

When to Eat Protein?

We want to retain the muscle we have or build muscle, right?  In order to stimulate “muscle protein synthesis”, which is a fancy term for building muscle, we need to ingest between 20 – 40 grams per meal (1).   So it’s best to spread out your daily need for protein throughout the day.

What does 20+ grams of protein look like?  

Mix and match these protein sources to create a meal with 20 – 40 grams of protein depending on your needs:

  •  Organic chicken or turkey breast – 25 grams per 3 ounce serving
  • Fish like wild salmon, sardines, tuna, halibut, cod, etc. – 21 – 24 grams per 3 ounce serving
  • Grass-fed beef steak – 26 grams per 3 ounce serving
  • Greek yogurt (unsweetened) – 23 grams per cup
  • Cooked lentils – 18 grams per cup
  • Beans (navy, black, chickpeas) – about 15 grams per cup
  • Hard cheese like cheddar & Swiss – 8 grams per ounce
  • Nuts – range from 6 – 9 grams per ounce
  • Nut butters –range from 6 – 8 grams/2 tablespoon serving
  • Eggs – 6 grams each

Don’t forget there are smaller amounts of protein in grains and vegetables, so those foods can help you meat your protein needs. 

Spot Check Your Diet

Tracking your food intake via My Fitness Pal or Cronometer can be a good way to see just how much protein you are eating.  And for making sure your breakfast has enough protein. Yes, it’s a pain but it is a worthwhile exercise when starting a new food plan. 

Real Results

Sara was referred to me from a friend.  My goal to lose body fat.  I had been on diet plans such as Isagenix and Jenny Craig.  In both cases I lost weight during the diet but 6 months later I gained it all back.  They were temporary fixes that had no long-lasting impact and I never looked any better.

When I started with Sara two months ago, I was not educated on power of proper nutrition.  I used to work out in the morning and then had a giant coffee thinking if I cut out breakfast, I would lose weight. 

After being educated by Sara I became more motivated in my workouts.  I had healthy and large protein filled meals for breakfast.  I learned about the value of a proper protein diet. 

Over the past 6 weeks I have lost bodyfat.  I eat as much or more than I did before.  I feel more energetic and look better.

— JD, Saddle River, NJ

Resources:

  1. Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1

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