Blog: How Much Protein Do I Need?

May 04, 2024

“How much protein do I need?”

Protein is a topic of much interest lately. It seems like everyone is talking about protein thanks to the rise of the Ketogenic diet and the Carnivore diet. But, how do we answer a patient when they ask us, “how much should I eat?” Today’s blog covers everything you need to know about educating your patients about protein.

Just like so much about nutrition, how much protein someone needs truly depends on the person, their medical conditions and physical activity levels. If you find that you are getting to the specifics of calculating how many grams of protein a person should be eating, you should be referring them to a Registered Dietitian.

Protein Basics

A protein molecule is made up of one or more long, folded chains of amino acids (each called a polypeptide), whose sequences are determined by the DNA sequence of the protein-encoding gene. Proteins provide structure and support for your cells and are critical to forming muscles, skin, hair, nails, bones and enzymes. Protein also plays an important role in satiety and muscle repair and growth. Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids, and while the body can make some of them, nine are considered essential or indispensable, meaning the body can't produce them on its own and must be consumed through food. They include: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Sources of protein:

Animal sources of protein include meat, dairy and eggs. Common plant sources of protein include beans, nuts, seeds, tofu and whole grains. While most animal protein sources contain all nine essential amino acids, most plant sources do not. However, if you consume a variety of plant sources throughout the day, they can function as complementary. Here's a list of common protein sources, in a standard serving size of 4 ounces:

  • Chicken breast – 26 g and 128 calories
  • Tuna (canned) – 24 g and 100 calories
  • Salmon – 17 g and 121 calories
  • Lean Ground turkey – 28g and 120 calories
  • Pork loin: 22g and 122 calories
  • Egg (1) – 7 g and 78 calories
  • Cottage cheese – 11 g and 84 calories
  • Greek yogurt – 10-20 g and 150 calories
  • Tofu – 8g and 60 calories
  • Almonds (1/4 cup) – 8g and 164 calories
  • Lentils (1/2 cup) – 12 g and 140 calories
  • Black beans – 9 g and 114 calories
  • Quinoa (1/2 cup) – 5 g and 120 calories

*These values are approximate and can vary depending on factors like cooking methods and specific brands.

Calculating Protein Needs

Th macronutrients have been nicely broken down for us by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends that 45% to 65% of calories in an adult's diet come from carbohydrates, 20% to 35% from fat and 10% to 35% from protein.

Another method for determining protein intake is to calculate grams of protein per kilogram of body weight based on activity level.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein remains at 0.8 grams per kilogram per day.  However, for patients looking to lose weight and gain muscle, new research shows this amount is not nearly enough to preserve muscle mass (which gradually decreases over time starting at age 30). These findings have not yet been translated into clear recommendations by authorities, hence why you’ll see ranges from 0.8g/kg per day all the way up to 3g/lb per day if you search the internet! New studies suggest anywhere from 1.2-2.0 grams per kg per day based on goals, activity level, and overall health status is appropriate.

Most Registered Dietitians can agree on recommending between 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kg per day. Very active individuals looking to build muscle and elite athletes will need 1.5-2.0g/kg per day. Other populations who may require higher protein include pregnant or lactating women, elderly, individuals’ recovery from surgery, patients with pressure ulcers, those with recent bariatric surgery, and patients with cancer or HIV/AIDS.

Sample Calculation

So, let’s see how I would calculate a patient’s protein needs:

Our patient is a male who weighs 175 (79.5kg), lightly exercises 2-3 days a week and has no comorbidities. If we use 1.2-1.6g/kg this would come out to 95-127g per day, which is somewhere between the Dietary Guidelines for Americans range of 10-35% of total calories. I did an entire podcast episode that walks you through these calculations if you want to know more details. You can listen to it here:


Hopefully, now you have a clearer understanding of protein and how to determine how much your patient needs. However, if you’re thinking, “Colleen, I don’t have time for this” but you really want to answer your patient, a very simple, yet good rule of thumb is suggesting 1g/kg. The math is easy and it’s a good place for a patient to start. For example, if the patient weighs 135lbs (61kg), suggest they aim for a minimum of 61g protein per day. Another example would be for someone who weighs 200lbs (91kg), suggest they aim for a minimum of 91g protein per day. A final educational piece that I think can be helpful for some people is to try to have protein-rich food at all meals and snacks. This helps stabilize their blood sugar throughout the day, increases satiety and helps them meet their protein goals, especially if they are aiming for more than 100g per day.

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