The word “protein” is derived from the Greek word “protos,” meaning “first in rank or position” – and for good reason. Protein serves so many important functions in the body that it’s vitally important to meet daily needs, which can vary quite a bit from person to person.
Your daily protein needs depend on many factors, like how much you weigh and how much muscle you have—not just whether you’re male or female. But you might not know that if you did a simple search on the Internet.
You’ve probably read that most people eat more than enough protein to meet their needs, or that the protein needs of the “average” woman is about 46g per day, and the average man needs about 56g. But keep this in mind: these guidelines that have been established by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine are set at levels to simply meet the basic needs of most people.
How Much Protein Is Right for You? Is One Guideline Correct?
Does a “one size fits all” model for protein make sense? Calorie needs differ from person to person, so why not protein? After all, people come in all different sizes, and their body composition is highly variable. It stands to reason that protein needs could vary a lot, too.
One guideline from the Institute of Medicine recommends that we eat 10 to 35 percent of our total daily calories from protein. This guideline helps a little—a least it attempts to tie protein needs to calorie needs. But the percent-of-calories range is pretty wide, and most people would be hard-pressed to figure it out anyway.
So, how can you estimate out how much protein your own body needs? Here are two ways.
METHOD 1: Calculate Using Your Body Weight
Since protein is so important in maintaining your lean body mass (basically, everything in your body that isn’t fat), the suggested amount that you should eat every day depends, in part, on how much lean mass you have.
Ideally, you’d get a body composition measurement done (some home bathroom scales even do this for you), which would tell you how much lean body mass you have. Then you could easily determine the amount of protein suggested for you.
That would be 0.5 to 1 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. If using the metric system, that’s about 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass.
METHOD 2: Calculate Using Your Lean Body Mass
Of course, not everyone has access to body composition analysis. And if you don’t, you can estimate your protein needs based on your current body weight. It’s not a perfect method. It doesn’t take into account how much muscle mass you have, but it does at least account for differences in body size.
Here’s how to calculate your protein needs:
- In pounds: multiply your body weight by 0.7
- In kilograms: multiply your body weight by 1.5
The number you get is a reasonable target for the amount of protein, in grams, that you should eat each day.
So, a woman who weighs 140lbs (64kg) should aim for about 100g of protein a day. A 220lb man (110kg) should shoot for at least 150g of protein.
With either method, the recommended amount of protein is more tailored to your needs than general recommendations based on gender alone. Of course, if you have a specific
athletic goal in mind, such as strength training or endurance, your needs might vary somewhat, and you can find more detailed information in my guide for calculating macros for athletic performance.
How to Calculate the Amount of Protein in Typical Foods
Now that you’ve got a rough idea of how much protein you should be eating every day, you’ll want to estimate how much you’re actually eating. I find it easiest to estimate the amount of protein in a meal in 25g units, and the amount for snacks in about 10g units.
Here’s why. Common portions of many protein foods we eat at meals conveniently have about 25g of protein, and protein snacks tend to fall in the 10g range. So, it makes it easy to keep track. For example, 3 ounces of cooked fish or poultry has about 25g of protein, and a snack of a single-serve carton of yogurt, a protein bar, or a handful of roasted soy nuts would have about 10g of protein.
If you’re a woman aiming for about 100g of protein a day, you can easily do that by taking in 25g (one unit) at each meal, and have a couple of protein snacks. If you’re a male aiming for about 150g a day, you can simply double up your protein units at a couple of meals in order to hit your target.
Practical Tips to Help Measure Your Protein Intake
Here are my top tips and recommendations to help you track your protein intake.
Make sure to read nutrition labels so you can more accurately keep track.
For more accuracy, weigh your cooked proteins a few times so you get familiar with the amount of protein in your usual portions.
Use an app to encourage daily tracking.
If you need to up more protein, try meal replacement or protein shakes, which you can tailor to your personal needs with additional protein powder or other protein add-ins like yogurt, cottage cheese, tofu, or nut butter.
Don’t just focus on protein – your overall dietary balance matters, too. So be sure your daily diet includes plenty of healthy carbs (from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans) as well as some good fats from nuts, avocado, and vegetable oils.
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Susan Bowerman earned a B.S. in biology with distinction from the University of Colorado, and received her M.S. in food science and nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a registered dietitian, holds two board certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a certified specialist in sports dietetics, and a certified specialist in obesity and weight management, and is a Fellow of the Academy.