Proteins serve many vital functions in the body. The amino acids they are made of are the building blocks for muscle, enzymes (which facilitate chemical reactions), and cellular structures which perform most of the body’s essential functions. Despite the importance of proteins in the body, the ideal amount of dietary protein is a much debated subject.
How Much Protein?
The FDA’s recommended daily intake for protein is 65 grams per day. Some bodybuilding types recommend up to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight (aka 400 grams for a 200 lb man).
Lets break those numbers down a bit. The FDA’s recommendation of 65 grams per day is based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. Since protein is about 4 calories per gram, that equals 260 calories, or 13% of your daily caloric intake. That leaves 1740 calories that you must take in from carbohydrates or fats.
On the other extreme, 400 grams of protein is about 1600 calories of energy. Of course, it’s safe to say that the average bodybuilder probably isn’t eating a 2000 calorie diet, so we can’t really say what percentage that might be, but it’s obviously much higher than 13%.
It’s safe to say that, for most people, the answer lies somewhere in between these two poles. The FDA recommendation equates roughly to the amount required for the body to function – the bare minimum. The question is, how much is required for ideal function (and physique). The answer depends on several factors.
Athletes, whose strenuous physical activities result in constant damage to the muscles, require increased consumption to facilitate the repair of tissues. No protein, no muscle repair. Athletes who under-eat protein will suffer from decreased ability to recover from exercise and eventual decreases in performance. The same is true of anyone who exercises regularly with at least moderate intensity. The higher the intensity, the higher the protein needs.
Physique-conscious individuals also have special protein needs. Certainly, most people in this category are already exercising at fairly high intensity, which elevates their protein requirements. Also, since muscle growth is often a sub-goal of anyone working on a physique change, increased protein consumption is also advisable to support muscle hypertrophy (growth). However, for these individuals, protein also serves another important purpose: dietary displacement. Every calorie that might have been consumes as a starchy or sugary carb (think bread, pasta, rice, sweets, soda) than you replace with protein is a calorie that isn’t spiking your insulin levels and increasing fat stores. In fact, protein (and fat) tends to be much more filling than these types of carbs, so diets which displace carbs with protein tend to be lower in calorie overall.
So really, how much do I need?
I’m not really a big fan of counting calories or macronutrients. I prefer setting good nutritional habits and letting them work their magic. Eat mostly lean meat and vegetables, and the ratios just tend to work themselves out into healthy, physique-enhancing levels. If I was pinned down though, I’d say 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is a good starting point for any active person’s daily intake.
Where can I find protein?
Meat, eggs, beans, and dairy are excellent sources of protein. Nuts are also pretty good. You can also buy protein supplements made from many sources to augment your intake.
How does your intake stack up? Leave it in the comments.
For more info on protein and the other macronutrients, check out this post.