Jun 19, 2015 | Nutrition Education

Protein: Needs and Timing

How much protein do you actually need? How does your body use it? It can be confusing. But knowing both how much your body needs – and how your body uses it – can help you make the best food choices for your health.

Protein Recommendations

If you look on the shelves of your grocery store, you probably notice one of two things written on the package – “gluten-free” or the protein content. Protein is definitely the nutrient du jour, and people are OBSESSED with getting enough.

But is that warranted? How much is enough? How much is too much?

When it comes to protein recommendations, there are two main ways that we talk about it:

  • 0.8g/kg/day (or 0.36g/lb/day)
  • 10-35% of your total calories

You’ll notice that both of these involve math, and that they might give you very different answers. Let’s take a woman who weighs 150 pounds and eats about 2000 calories per day as an example. Using the first equation, she needs about 54.5g of protein. If you use the percent of total calories range, she needs to get between 200-700 calories from protein. With 4cal/g, that means 50-175g of protein. That is a HUGE range!!

How do we make sense of all of this?

The major difference in the two recommendations is that the first calculation refers to what your body needs to maintain itself. Consider this a bare minimum. The second range is to ensure that you’re getting a good variety of nutrients, and not crowding out fat or carbohydrates from your diet by focusing too much on protein. The ranges are designed to prevent chronic disease.

Studies like NHANES show that the average American consumes 1.2g/kg/day of protein – or about 1.5 times the low-end needs. Which would indicate that we’re doing fine, and don’t need to worry about it. In other words, NHANES might tell us to chill the fork out when it comes to protein.

Timing Matters

Here’s the rub, though. Most of us eat very little at breakfast, while dinner is protein-centric. We have very skewed distribution of our protein intake throughout our day. Your body does not store protein. I’m sorry to say that’s not what your muscles are. Simply eating more protein is not the way to build more muscle (oh how we wish!).

This makes the nutrient different from carbs and fat, which can be stored for long-term use. So you could (hypothetically) eat all of your carbs for the day in one meal, and your body would use it as it needs it. Same is true of fat. As much as I enjoy some healthy fats, a meal of just avocado or just olive oil doesn’t exactly make my mouth water. But the body is designed to store and use fat as needed.

Protein, on the other hand, requires a meal-by-meal approach to help in the necessary growth and repair activities. Your body needs the nutrient to be currently available (i.e., recently consumed) to be usable. Which starts to make a case for a “per meal” recommendation, instead of a total daily recommendation.

General consensus based on the research is that your body can only absorb and use about 25-35 grams of protein at one time. Of course, this depends on your body – size, health status, energy requirements, etc. So despite all the variables and the fact that it’s based on research (not real life), it’s a good place to start.

Let’s go back to our example of a 150-lb woman eating about 2000 calories per day. Based on the total daily recommendations, her range is 54.5g to 175g of protein. If we assume 3 meals per day, getting in the max at each meal, a goal for her is 105g (3 meals x 35g per meal). That falls squarely in the recommended range, and feels realistic for her.

Tune back in for part 2!

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I’m Katie Goldberg (AKA The Pregnancy Dietitian), mom of 2 little humans, health coach, and registered dietitian nutritionist. I can guide you through the research and best practices (and avoid all the B.S.) to help you confidently nourish your body and your baby during this unique season of life.

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