How Much Protein Should I Eat for Optimal Fitness?

Protein powder and black plastic container
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Protein is a macronutrient, which means the body requires a large quantity. It also provides a powerhouse of health benefits. This doesn't mean you need to purchase buckets of protein powder or fill the fridge with pounds of lean meat. Recommended protein intake is different for everyone, based on age and intensity of daily physical activity, among other factors. 

More is not always better when it comes to protein intake. An overabundance is typically unnecessary to maintain a healthy body. Unfortunately, protein marketing has caused many bodybuilders, athletes, and active individuals to consume more than the daily requirement. Although all macronutrients need to be considered for optimal fitness, it's important to understand protein intake and its function. 

The Function of Protein

Protein is made up of a chain of amino acids with numerous health benefits for our body. Each protein molecule has a specific job. Protein is responsible for the structure, function, and regulation of the body's cells, tissues, and organs.

Protein is an important component in every cell of the human body. Our hair and nails are mostly comprised of protein. Protein is required to build and repair tissue and to regulate enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein plays an important role as a building block for bones, blood, skin, cartilage, and muscle.

Protein isn't stored by the body and can only be used as an energy source when there is not adequate glucose or fat to draw from. The other essential macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats, provide the energy required for life and exercise. Because protein is primarily obtained from the food we eat, many believe consuming large amounts all day long is the solution for optimal fitness. This is simply not true. 

Protein Requirements

Protein requirements are often misunderstood due to successful marketing claims of its ability to create lean muscle mass. The focus should be on the quality and quantity of protein consumed on an individual basis.

Protein intake above the recommended daily allowance remains a controversial subject and under constant review. The position stand from the Committee of the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends “protein intakes of 1.4 - 2.0 g/kg/day for physically active individuals is not only safe but may improve the training adaptations to exercise training.” This statement is based on individuals engaging in regular exercise and eating a nutrient-dense, balanced diet. Research also indicates active individuals and athletes may benefit from additional protein intake. 

Meet Your Own Needs

Protein requirements vary for each person. While many people want to believe that eating tons of chicken, downing protein shakes, and eating protein bars is going to magically put muscle on their body, that isn't the case. Resistance training is what creates lean muscle. Protein's job is to repair the damage this training creates. It's the symphony of exercise and protein intake combined that makes muscle growth happen.

Currently, according to the Institute of Medicine, the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. An adult, non-active male weighing 160 pounds would require 58 grams of protein per day, for example. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for children is 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. It is 0.8 to 1.5 grams for the elderly, and 1.2 to 2.0 for athletes. 

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  1. Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007;4(1):8. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-8

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