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How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

You eat a balanced diet — grains, veggies, fruit, dairy, fat, protein — but when it comes to that last one, are you sure you’re getting enough? If you’ve been eating the same amount for years and years, you may need to up your intake.

Signs You Need More Protein

It can be hard to tell if you’re getting enough protein daily, but there are some signs you can watch for. If you’re having trouble staying alert, you may need to eat more. “Protein stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurochemical that helps us focus,” explains Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian and founder of Active Eating Advice.

Another indication? You’re hungry between meals. Protein helps with satiety, so you feel fuller longer.

“Also, if you’re failing to see change in muscle and you’re lifting regularly, you may need more,” says Bonci. “In order to build muscle, you need to be giving your body enough protein to help with muscle protein synthesis.”

If you’re experiencing any of these issues, it may be time to re-examine what you’re eating.

Dietary Recommendations

The U.S. dietary recommendation for protein is 26 ounces per week. However, that is a generalization and doesn’t take into account age or activity level.

“As we get older, it’s important to have approximately .5 grams of protein per pound of body weight [per day],” says Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine. “So if you weigh 120 pounds, 60 grams per day would be your target.”

If you’re strength training, are extremely active, or you’re trying to lose body fat, you may even increase your protein consumption to 1 gram per pound of body weight per day, Anding says. “The benefits for older women are substantial. Women who increase their protein intake can help minimize muscle loss associated with aging known as sarcopenia.” Active women who have more protein in their diets have also been known to see positive benefits to their body composition.

The Best Protein Sources

So what are the best ways to increase the protein in your diet? Some foods to consider:

  • Milk
  • Cheese/cottage cheese
  • Eggs
  • Poultry
  • Fish/shellfish
  • Soy
  • Beans
  • Nuts/seeds

Bonci recommends having some protein at each meal and snack. “Instead of having cereal and milk, have Greek yogurt with cereal sprinkled on top,” she says. Or “put edamame in your salad or instead of having pretzels as a snack during the day, try roasted chickpeas and peanuts.”

Can You Overdo It?

It is unlikely that you will add too much protein to your daily diet, says Bonci. “Unless you’re filling your plate with just chicken, fish, or eggs and no grains, fruits, or veggies, it’s really hard to have too much. A good goal is to stick to a hand-size amount — 20 to 30 grams per meal — and add veggies and a potato, corn, rice, or pasta to make up the rest of your plate.”

Photo: Rachel Park

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