How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

How much protein do you really need?

Unless you manage to somehow avoid all health-related news, you probably hear a lot about protein these days.

And the obsession is real: it seems that you can’t even walk into a convenience store without seeing a large assortment of protein bars, snacks, etc. In fact, just about every type of convenience food including cereals, pasta, and even ice cream (yes, really) have versions labeled as high protein.

Among dieters, protein is constantly being promoted as the secret to weight loss, and diets like Paleo and The Zone emphasize protein as a central part of their nutrition plan. Even Weight Watchers recently changed its point system to reflect the importance of including protein in your regular meals.

But how much protein do you really need? The truth is that there is no one definitive answer—just like total calorie intake and workout frequency, it depends on your own personal goals.

General Protein Guidelines

Many people who don’t prioritize protein in their diets cite the basic recommendation to consume .8 grams per kilogram (or about .36g per pound) of body mass. This means a 150 lb (68kg) person would aim to eat about 54 grams of protein per day.

Yet what this recommendation isn’t clear about is that this is the minimum amount of protein needed per day to prevent protein deficiency and to keep your body functioning properly. It’s not necessarily optimal, and definitely doesn’t take into account other factors such as achieving top athletic performance, weight loss, muscle gain, etc.

That’s why this standard recommendation doesn’t make sense for most active (or even fairly inactive) people. In fact, if you’re looking for a general rule of thumb for how much protein to eat as a relatively active, healthy adult, I (along with much of the fitness community) recommend closer to 2.2g per kilogram, or around 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.

But that’s just a starting point. If you want to get even more intent-specific, we’ll take a look at different goals and the recommendations for each.

If You’re Trying To Lose Weight

If you’re trying to lose weight, you undoubtedly want to focus on losing extra body fat—not your hard earned muscle. Because of that, it’s incredibly important to keep your protein levels high so that your body can maintain as much muscle as possible even while restricting your calories.

As a bonus, keeping your protein levels high when dieting will help fill you up and keep you full longer—making dieting a little less painful.

Your protein needs: 1-1.5g protein per pound bodyweight

Suggested macronutrient breakdown: 30% protein / 40% carbohydrate / 30% fat

If You’re Trying To Build Muscle

When most people think about what it takes to build muscle, they tend to focus only on protein, downing protein shakes whenever they get the chance. Yet the truth of muscle building is that while there’s no doubt that protein is important, you actually need to focus more on carbohydrate consumption (especially post-exercise) and just consuming more calories in general to stimulate muscle growth.

Your protein needs: 1-1.5g protein per pound bodyweight

Suggested macronutrient breakdown: 25% protein / 55% carbohydrate / 20% fat

If You’re An Endurance Athlete

If you run long distances, compete in triathlons, or regularly go for 50 mile+ bike rides, you can pretty safely consider yourself an endurance athlete.

Since your body is going through a lot of fuel (a.k.a. burning calories) during long bouts of exercise, in general this means you’ll need higher stores of carbohydrates than you would if you were mainly strength training or doing HIIT workouts. And higher carb = less protein.

Your protein needs: .6-.9g protein per pound bodyweight

Suggested macronutrient breakdown: 20-25% protein / 55-60% carbohydrate / 20% fat

If You’re a Strength Athlete

If you mainly lift weights, perform calisthenics or gymnastics, or do short, quick HIIT workouts (or a combination of all of those), you’ll need a bit more protein to maintain and build muscle and keep body fat levels down.

Your level of protein may vary depending on your body type: if you’re naturally broad and thick, you’ll most likely need a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet, and if you’re built more muscular and athletic you’ll be able to handle slightly more carbohydrates and less protein. If you’re naturally thin and have trouble putting on muscle, you’ll most likely want to eat similar to an endurance athlete.

Your protein needs: 1-1.5g protein per pound bodyweight

Suggested macronutrient breakdown: 30-35% protein / 25-40% carbohydrate / 25-40% fat

Best Protein Sources

Here are some of the best protein choices, no matter what dietary restrictions you have:

Fish and Meat

  • Lean meats such as ground beef, turkey, chicken, bison, and venison
  • Fish such as salmon, cod, and tuna

Vegetarian

  • Eggs
  • Egg whites
  • Dairy such as cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, cheese, milk, etc.
  • Whey, egg, or casein protein powders

Vegan

  • Tofu, tempeh, and other meat substitutes (the less processed the better)
  • Beans, peas, and other legumes
  • Pea, hemp, soy, or vegan protein powder blends

Remember, food is fuel!

20 thoughts on “How Much Protein Do You Really Need?”

  1. Hallelujah- this is the best information about protein breakdown in the diet based on athletic goals and profiles. Thanks, as always!!

  2. On the Vegan side I’m wondering if an attempt to use beans as the main protein source could put one over the targeted carb percentage?

    • Randy, there’s no question that it’s harder to keep your protein high as a vegan. You should be fine to rely on beans and other sources of vegan protein, but yes, your carbs are more likely to be higher when doing this. You might need to experiment a little with the ratios, but you should be fine with slightly more carbs and less fat than mentioned in the above ratios.

      Using vegan supplements can also help, but of course you don’t want to have supplements make up too much of your diet.

  3. Hi there,

    Great info on the macronutrient breakdown for each type of activity.
    My question is, what if we do both strength and endurance training and are interested in losing weight?

  4. Most thought out information about protein needs I’ve come across. Thanks! I guess everybody has to still experiment themselves to find their optimum, but these are very sound recommendations.

  5. Hi,

    I think it is seriously bad for your body longterm to have such high protein ratios as you suggest. We were not designed to eat high protein ratios- our bodies survive on carbs- high nutrition carbs admittedly- plants and whole grains.

    If you read a lot of vegan bodybuilding and fitness websites- i do as I am vegan- they all promote 80 per cent carb/10 protein/ 10 fat macros or certainly no less than 60% carbs- and they have some amazing bodies and fitness results, and long term health benefits and good for the planet too. There is already too much meat and fish being consumed for long term sustainability.

    In terms of calories and plant based protein it is indeed hard to get macros and calories right if you eat too many beans- tempeh and tofu and soya products are the only way to add a lot of protein or protein shakes.. don’t forget nuts and seeds also have protein too but nuts in particular have high calories and fat.

    One great vegan fitness protein is veganfitnessmodel.com – very low on protein!

    Hope this might persuade some to rethink their protein requirements and think holistically about their bodies as well.

  6. Hi Krista

    Just wondering what your views on protein for a Muay Thai boxer are?

    Generally all the above come as part of the training, needing to lose weight to get lean and be light for the fight, build strength and muscle (tussling with an opponent requires this) and endurance for last 5 very intense rounds where you need to be at your strongest performance wise especially nearer the end (you can lose a fight after winning the first three rounds but losing the last two because you’ve run out of steam).

    Kind regards

    James

    • Hi James
      Currently in Thailand and watching quite a few Muay Thai fights. Have seen quite a range of body shapes here- in fact the more powerful looking ones seem to win over the really rangy looking ones- they have the strength to deliver a good punch and a great kick I think (I Muay Thai train myself but would never go in the ring).

      As I know- the training sessions can be long – 2 hours- and tiring- but the fights are actually only 15 minutes of intense effort.

      Personally I would advise using a good carb/protein recovery drink after a fight, and up your carb intake during the training sessions-I’m thinking of endurance cyclists here and what they do to keep going over a long time period- they carb up- every 90 minutes or so- but I really don’t think you (or anyone) need to stack on protein as much as you might be told.
      See my previous comment re over protein use and long term effect on the body- I should add I work in a nutrition related business but I am not a nutritionist.

      • Hi Melanie

        Thanks for your reply. I’ve been training Muay Thai for the last couple of years in the UK and Thailand but never thought about competing until this year, a couple of my friends compete in Muay Thai and MMA. The seem to live on porridge and blueberries at breakfast then chicken/turkey and salad pretty much all the rest of the time, supplementing as you say with protein shakes if needed.

        They’ll train 3 hours every evening from technique, pad work and sparring,. This doesn’t include running 3-4 times a week with hill sprints.

        As someone who has run half marathons carb intake was quite important, especially when fighting off fatigue afterwards, however 15 minutes of intense Muay Thai battles can be like those 13 miles, so there’s a need for endurance plus staying focussed. Clearly need dynamic strength and explosive power for kicks and punches. All these things are obviously covered in training, but the diet has to match otherwise there’s a lack of development in the body and it won’t last.

        I agree, seen some very strange shaped fighters down the years. The stranger the shape usually ties in with the inability to go the distance and it ends up more like a brawl or the better conditioned fighter prevails.

        Whereabouts in Thailand are you? I’ve trained previously on Samui and more recently in Chiang Mai (the latter being my favourite so far).

        Thanks for your feedback, I’m also interested in your views on the veganism side of nutrition too.

        James

    • Your protein levels should definitely be on the higher side since you’re trying to maintain muscle while losing fat. But don’t go too low on carbs since you need those to help you win the fight!

  7. Thanks for this. I have heard again and again Americans get enough or even too much protein. But what you say about minimal amounts and athleticism makes sense. I’m a vegetarian who does HIIT and cardio, so this is good to see. I’m not really an athlete by any means, but do think about protein intake TRUE needs, as again I’m a vegetarian, sometimes vegan and harder to do.

  8. And I love your site Krista. I point many people to it and will continue to do so. I can’t remember how I found it myself.

  9. Great breakdown Krista. I’ve noticed that most people tend to eat too little protein, particularly if they’re trying to lose fat. But for men focused on gaining mass, I see the opposite problem a lot- magical thinking around protein, and focusing excessively on getting enough protein rather than getting enough total calories. Is this something you’ve noticed too?

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