Have you noticed that protein is one of the more divided nutrition topics as of late? Everyone has their own opinion on how much, when, and what kind of protein you should be eating. Don’t get me wrong—I always encourage my clients to take charge of their health and do what feels right for their bodies. But I also know how confusing all the contradicting information can be. Here’s the truth: there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to protein intake. How much your body needs ultimately depends on your stage of life, current exercise level, state of health, and more.
Most of us know that protein is essential for building and repairing muscle, but its roles within the body go way beyond this function. Protein sources make up the building blocks of various bodily functions and components like enzymes, tissue, hormones, hair, skin, neurotransmitters, and more. The general recommendation for most adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. (Keep in mind: this is the minimum recommendation to avoid being sick—not necessarily the amount needed for optimal health—a concept I covered in a recent post.) As an example, this means the average 130-pound individual should consume at least 47 grams of protein each day. In the hospital setting, however, ill patients are prescribed anywhere from 20 to 300 percent more protein than the standard recommended amount, depending on severity. I experienced this very concept when I had cancer—increasing my protein intake was vital to my healing!
Protein needs change in several other instances, too. In addition to times of illness, it is crucial to adjust intake as an athlete or fitness enthusiast, when pregnant, when breastfeeding, and as we age. Let’s talk about each of these differences in protein needs and why they’re so important.
Athletes/Highly Active: Protein is such a vital part of recovery for the highly active. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day, dependent on the level of training. Here’s what this could look like: A 120-pound fitness instructor who teaches classes four days per week spending a good number of hours moving each day could aim for a daily protein intake of around 75 grams. A 200-pound professional athlete who attends high-intensity training six days per week could aim for about 180 grams of protein each day in-season. The timing of protein intake for athletes is important, too. Eating a source of protein within two hours of exercise is most beneficial for muscle growth and repair.
Pregnancy: During both pregnancy and breastfeeding, additional protein is needed for tissue growth and development in both mother and baby. No need to fret: most moms-to-be reach the recommended intake of an added 25 grams per day without even realizing it! It must be that mother’s intuition.
Aging: As we age, our protein requirements decrease until we hit 65 due to the reduced growth rates we experience. As infants, we grow so quickly that protein requirements are highest just after birth. The recommended minimum protein intake for infants at 7-12 months is 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. From ages 1-3, this decreases to 1.05 grams and further decreases until late adolescence, reaching 0.8 grams per kilogram until age 65. At 65, the minimum intake increases to around 1.1 grams to support good health. For those 65+ and have an acute or chronic disease, this need increases even further to about 1.5 grams per kilogram. To simplify, this means a 140-pound 67-year-old who has no acute or chronic illnesses should aim for at least 70 grams of protein per day.
Illness: Increased protein intake during illness is the extra fuel needed for your body to heal itself in the miraculous way it can. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had to ensure I was getting nearly double that of my previous intake (1.5 grams per kilogram)! In a recent study examining the effects of protein intake on hospitalized COVID-19 patients, those who took in higher amounts of protein while hospitalized were significantly associated with better survival. This result makes sense, given a vital piece of nutrition care in hospitals is ensuring patients are receiving adequate protein based on their health status. For pulmonary disease patients, protein needs are increased from 0.8 to around 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. For critical illnesses like burns or sepsis, requirements are increased to about 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
While adequate protein intake is essential, the type of protein you’re taking in is important, too. I recommend consuming a plant-based diet as much as possible. Don’t fall for the myth that it’s hard to consume enough protein on a plant-based diet, as there are so many wonderful plant proteins available. I personally practice a flexitarian diet, which consists of about 80 percent vegan food and 20 percent high-quality animal products like lamb, wild-caught salmon, ghee, and collagen.
If you’re looking to make the transition to a more plant-based diet, here are some of my tips. Another great way to jumpstart this lifestyle is by trying my S.O.U.P Cleanse, featuring five days of plant-based nourishment!