Q: How much protein do I need? A: That depends.

By Mary Van Doren

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Your age, gender and weight all help answer the question: ‘How much protein do I need?’

It’s one of the hottest health crazes going these days: Protein, protein, protein. Protein has become the “magic bullet” of nutrition in the minds of the general populace, so much so that according to Health.gov, nearly 60% of Americans are actually consuming more protein than they need.

So when you ask, “How much protein do I need?,” it’s an important question.

The answer, unfortunately, isn’t simple. For one thing, scientists and nutritionists are beginning to have second thoughts about how much is enough. And as with most scientific endeavor, there’s no consensus.

Protein has many benefits in the diet. It’s the primary source of amino acids, which can’t be synthesized, and are crucial for growth, development, and health maintenance.

What’s more, eating more than the recommended daily allowance has been shown in studies to promote healthy blood lipids, weight management, satiety, and long-term bone mineralization.

The current recommended daily intake, considered adequate for nearly all healthy American adults, is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. An adult male weighting 200 pounds therefore should be eating about 72 grams of protein per day.

However, according to analysis of a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, most American adults – including vegans – eat nearly twice the recommended amount, and teenage boys and men in particular should reduce overall intake of protein and eat more vegetables, while teenage girls and the elderly are often at risk of eating too little.

So “how much protein do I need” is something of a loaded question.

How much protein do I need to build muscle?

If you’re an adult under the age of 65, and you’re trying to build muscle by working out, you’ll need more than the recommended daily intake. Doctor John, an MD who is an Expert on JustAnswer, suggests that someone exercising five days a week should increase calories, particularly protein, since exercise, even walking, can cause some muscle breakdown and the protein is needed for rebuilding muscle.

However, more is not more: Eating 300 grams of protein a day won’t help you build more muscle than someone whose consumption is 150 grams per day, and at the same time, because protein makes you feel fuller when you eat, you’re robbing yourself of other necessary nutrients, such as whole grains, fats, and fruits and vegetables.

The bottom line: Bodybuilders live by the rule of 1 gram per pound of body weight. If you’re simultaneously trying to lose fat, however, the number increases to 1.2 to 1.5 grams.

How much protein do I need to lose weight?

The current pro-protein craze is largely centered on losing weight, as seen in the popular Atkins and paleo diets. And it’s true that some studies back up the view that high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets promote weight loss, prevent regaining weight and help to preserve lean muscle.

As mentioned above, proteins make you feel fuller, helping you to curb your appetite. In addition, protein helps you lose weight because it boosts your metabolism, and requires more calories to burn protein than any other nutrient.

The bottom line: Most experts recommend 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight for an adult getting regular exercise, and just 0.5 to 0.7 grams for a sedentary adult.

How much protein do I need to lower cholesterol?

Proteins – that is, the wrong proteins – can actually raise your cholesterol. High-fat meat, full of saturated fats and usually a large part of a protein-heavy diet, is the main culprit here. At the same time, other types of protein, such as fish, beans, poultry, nuts, and low-fat dairy, are shown in some studies to help lower cholesterol.

Dr. Arun, an Expert on JustAnswer, recommends these foods to help lower cholesterol:

  • Red meat in low frequency and amounts
  • Minimally processed seasonally fresh foods
  • Less than five eggs per week
  • An abundance of plant foods; fruits, vegetables, potatoes, breads, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds
  • Olive oil as the principal source of dietary fat
  • Fresh fruits as the typical daily dessert

In short, you can follow a high-protein diet if you want to lose weight, as long as you keep fatty proteins such as red meat to a minimum.

The bottom line: If you’re eating the recommended daily allowance of 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and the average 2,000 calorie diet, make sure the protein you’re eating composes only 22 grams of saturated fat and 2 grams of transfat per day.

Other views on protein: The good, the bad and the ugly

An overview of recent studies on protein consumption is turning the conventional wisdom on its head. Protein: A Nutrient in Focus, points out that study subjects with the best weight-loss results ate about 75-105 grams of protein per day.

What’s more, those grams of protein weren’t eaten mostly at the evening meal, which is how many people consume their protein. The authors point out that the body has a limited ability to store excess protein/amino for later anabolic use, and recommend spreading out those grams by eating 25-35 grams per meal.

However, the authors note that more studies are needed for this conclusion to become definitive, and many scientists and doctors already have concerns about protein consumption. Dr. Scott, another expert on JustAnswer, says that too much protein can overwhelm the kidneys and liver. “I have seen young people taking too much protein and supplement that end up with heart dysfunction and kidney failure,” he says.

Also, some studies suggest an association between habitual high protein intake and a heightened risk of Type 2 diabetes. And another study suggests that low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in cancer and overall mortality in those younger than 65.

According to the authors, these results not only suggest that low protein intake during middle age is preferable, but that a high-protein diet is only necessary for older adults, who can optimized health and longevity with moderate to high protein consumption.

And some doctors point out that the muscle-building properties of protein  – especially animal protein – that makes it so desirable can also cause cells to multiply faster, which is fine in early life when a person is still growing, but dangerous as you get older, when cancer becomes a risk.

What about protein supplements?

At last we have a topic on which there is a consensus. Just about everyone agrees that the powders and supplements that so many people are adding to their diets as some kind of magic pill, are not only unnecessary, but possible dangerous.

First, there is concern that because most people are actually getting enough protein through the foods they eat, adding even more through supplements can cause a build-up of protein in the body that scientists don’t thoroughly understand yet.

What’s more, consumer groups warn about the potential contamination of these products, which are unregulated. A Consumer Reports test of 15 protein powders and drinks in 2010 found arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in some of the products tested.

But what does all of this mean for the average person?

Here’s the bottom line for all of it:

  • Consider gradually lowering your protein consumption as you age.
  • Eat your protein across three meals a day.
  • Don’t rely too heavily on animal-derived proteins.
  • Avoid supplements and stick to natural foods.

And as always, if the question “How much protein do I need?” still concerns you, you can seek personal guidance from a health expert on JustAnwer.com

Do you believe more protein is always better, or that the current protein craze is overdone? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.