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Confused About How Much Protein You Need?

Confused About How Much Protein You Need?

Recent headlines have covered the link between processed meat, red meat, and cancer. In case you missed it, the World Health Organization (WHO) has now officially classified processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” and according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), eating 50 grams of processed meat a day increases your chances of getting colorectal cancer by 18% and eating 100 grams of red meat a day increases your chances by 17%.” (For more information, check out our post “Processed Meats and Cancer Risk.”)

If these headlines have you thinking about cutting back on meats, but you’re concerned about getting enough protein - don’t worry! Most Americans are consuming more meat and protein than they actually need and there are plenty of alternative protein sources out there that will get you to your recommended intake. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans consumed about 30% more than the recommended amount of meat in 2013, but fell short on meeting fruit and vegetable intake recommendations. This is of concern because the extra protein may be coming from meats high in saturated (unhealthy) fats. This can lead to increased levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increased caloric intake. Excess meat consumption may also replace eating the fruits and vegetables we don't get enough of - vegetable consumption is 65% of the USDA's recommendation and fruit consumption is only about 45%.

So, how much protein do you actually need on a daily basis? The current guidelines for how to calculate your recommended daily intake of protein can be confusing. The USDA recommends that 10-35% of daily calories come from protein (for adults age 19+). This large range can mean anywhere from 200-700 calories from protein a day (based on a 2,000 calorie diet). Another way to understand your protein requirements is to use MyPlate’s ounce equivalents. For women ages 19-30, MyPlate recommends intake of 5.5 ounce-equivalents of protein daily. For women ages 31+, that number reduces to 5 ounce-equivalents daily. Men require a bit more protein with recommendations of 6.5 ounce-equivalents daily for ages 19-30, 6 ounce-equivalents for ages 31-50, and 5.5 ounce-equivalents for ages 51+. These protein guidelines “are appropriate for individuals who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity, beyond normal daily activities. Those who are more physically active may be able to consume more while staying within calorie needs.”

You may be wondering...what's an ounce-equivalent? Below is what MyPlate counts as an ounce-equivalent from the protein group:

  • 1 ounce of cooked meat, poultry or seafood
  • ¼ cup of cooked beans, legumes or soy based products
  • 1 egg
  • ½ ounce of nuts or seeds

As an example, a 40 year old man can consume 3 ounces of cooked ground beef, ¼ cup of cooked chickpeas, and 1 ounce of almonds to meet his daily protein recommendation of 6 ounce equivalents.

Here's the confusing part...if you add up the calories from protein from these sources, this 40 year old man would not meet his daily protein intake based on the USDA’s recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet. The combination above roughly contains 31.5 grams of protein (see this infographic for a breakdown) which is approximately 126 calories--about 6% of his 2,000 calorie diet. This is clearly below the USDA’s recommended range of 10-35% of calories from protein (confusing, I know). However, he's likely getting enough protein in his diet if he is eating a diet balanced with whole grains and vegetables, since these contain protein but are is not considered in MyPlate's protein group.

If all this information has confused you, there is a relatively simple formula dietitians use to calculate daily protein requirements that factors in an individual's body weight and physical activity level. Protein needs are calculated in grams of protein per kilogram of body weight needed daily (g/kg/d). Activity level is factored in with increasing protein needs for more strenuous and higher levels of physical activity.

For adults (ages 19+) of average or sedentary activity levels, a factor of 0.8 g/kg/d is used. On average, this is about 56 grams of protein/day (g/d) for men and 46 g/d for women. Since energy output in pregnant and lactating women is greater, protein needs increase to 1.1 g/kg/d or on average 71 g/d.

Adults who exercise on a regular basis such as recreational athletes, also require increased protein and should use a factor of 1.1-1.4 g/kg/day. For endurance athletes, like long distance runners, and power and strength athletes (weightlifters or sprinters), protein needs increase to 1.2-1.4 g/kg/day and 1.2-1.7 g/kg/day, respectively.

To calculate your protein needs, simply divide your weight in pounds (lbs) by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms (kg) then multiply by the appropriate g/kg/day based on your activity level (0.8-1.7) to get your recommended daily intake of protein in grams.

For example, the calculation for a sedentary 130 lb person would go something like this:

  • 130 lb/2.2= 59 kg
  • 59 kg*0.8 g= 47 grams of protein/day

Now that we've covered that, check out our infographic to see the protein content of plant based protein sources and how they compare with more typical animal-based products.

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