Keeping the quality of your diet high should always be a priority and that includes getting enough of the three macronutrients that supply your body with nourishment, carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Carbohydrates and fat are used as an energy source for your body. Protein is only an energy source during times your body is under stress, such as starvation or extreme exercise.
A macronutrient of particular concern to athletes and bodybuilders is protein since the amino acids in protein are important for muscle repair. However, even sedentary humans who never go to the gym need enough protein in their diet.
Why is protein so important for health and well-being? It’s an essential nutrient for humans. Protein constitutes about 30% of muscle tissue in the human body, and can also be found in skin, hair, and nails, but you need it for other functions too. For example, you need protein to:
- Build healthy cells and body tissues
- Make hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in the blood
- Make enzymes that allow chemical reactions in the body to take place
- Produce hormones that control various bodily function
- Build antibodies that protect against infection
- Repair the muscle you just worked after a workout
During times of extreme exercise or starvation, protein can serve as a fuel source, but under normal conditions, it is not a major source of fuel for exercise, but it’s critical for muscle repair afterward.
Protein also helps control appetite. In fact, protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients, and eating a diet that contains adequate protein may, based on some studies, helps with weight control. Each gram of protein contains around 4 calories, in contrast to fat, which contains 7 calories per gram. Compared to eating a meal high in ultra-processed carbs, a meal higher in protein will keep you fuller longer. Studies show that diets higher in protein may help with weight control.
How Much Protein Does the Average Adult Need?
The recommended amount of protein per day for an adult varies is 0.8-1 gram per kg of body weight. Most people already get more than this amount of protein in their diet since the Western diet is fairly high in protein already. However, athletes and people who lift weights need more than a sedentary person. A quick way to determine how much protein you need if you’re sedentary is to multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36.
Now you know how much protein a sedentary person needs, but how much protein do you need if you exercise? If you’re an active person or a workout enthusiast, then you need to consume more protein than a sedentary person. Most men get enough protein but females sometimes fall short if they’re restricting calories.
Why do you need more if do strenuous workouts? When your muscles engage in strenuous exercise from activities like running or lifting weights, repeated muscle contractions cause muscle damage that needs to be repaired. Protein supplies the amino acids your body uses to repair those damaged muscles.
Depending upon the frequency and intensity of your workouts, you may need up to double the amount of protein that an inactive person does.
More protein isn’t better. The body does not need extraordinary amounts of this macronutrient to stay healthy and depends on physical activity to use the extra protein effectively.
Here are some protein guidelines put forth by the National Academy of Sciences for daily recommended intake for adults based on activity level:
- 8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight if you’re sedentary
- 2 grams per kilogram if you’re lightly active (exercise one to three times a week)
- 4 grams per kilogram if you’re moderately active (exercise three to five times a week)
- 6 grams per kilogram if you’re very active (exercise or work out six or seven days a week)
How To Get Enough Protein in Your Diet
Many bodybuilders guzzle a protein shake after a workout, but you don’t necessarily need a protein supplement since you can get adequate protein from dietary sources. When you think of protein sources, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come to mind, but plant-based foods also contain protein, even vegetables. However, your best bet for getting plant-based protein are:
- Soy-based foods, like tempeh and tofu
- Seeds like chia seeds, flaxseed, quinoa, and hemp seeds
- Seitan (wheat meat)
Except for soy and quinoa, most plant-based foods are incomplete proteins, meaning they lack some of the essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make. However, you can get all the essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant-based protein sources.
People Over 60 May Need More Protein
Studies suggest that people over 60 years of age may need more dietary protein than a younger person to avoid losing muscle mass and becoming frail, especially physically active ones. Older adults suffer from anabolic resistance, meaning their muscles don’t respond as well to signals that tell them to grow and repair. Consuming more protein may help counter this. At the very least, older adults should get the recommended 0.8 milligrams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight if they don’t exercise. Men and women over the age of 60, if physically active, may benefit from up to 20% more.
The Bottom Line
These are general guidelines for how much protein you need if you’re physically active but check with your doctor before eating a very high protein diet. For example, people with poor kidney function may have to limit the amount of protein in their diet to prevent a further decline in kidney function.
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