How do I know if I am eating enough protein? A member of Hyatt Training recently asked this question, and we think the answer is a great one to share with our community.
So, how do I know if I am eating enough protein? The short answer: start by educating yourself on a bit of nutritional science (nothing too complicated, just read on). Then, pay attention to what you’re eating.
But before I tell you how to do just that, let’s address a few basics: what is protein, and why is it important?
What is protein?
We’ve all heard of protein and know it’s in things like meat, poultry, and fish. But what really is protein and what does it do?
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients found in the foods we eat (the others being fat and carbohydrate). It’s made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for most of the tissues in our bodies.
Why is it important?
Unlike the other macronutrients, our bodies don’t store lots of extra amino acids. Protein is always being used, recycled, or excreted as waste. This means we need a steady supply of protein, replenished through our food intake.
If we don’t ingest enough protein, our bodies will start to steal amino acids from important tissues, like muscle. Without enough protein, people can become seriously malnourished, and even die.
Cell structures, hair, fingernails, muscle, bone, internal organs, and even many hormones are all made of protein.
Simply put, we need protein to survive, let alone do things like get stronger, build muscle, and heal body tissues.
Too little, too much?
There is a pretty large range of acceptable protein intake. Intake depends on many factors like age, body weight, biological sex, activity type and level, and overall energy (calorie) needs.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight (0.8 grams/kg body weight). For a 150-pound person, this equates to 54 grams of protein per day. However, it’s important to note that the RDA was developed to avoid malnourishment.
Eating that amount of protein may provide basic nutritional adequacy to keep you alive, but you’d likely not be thriving, and almost certainly would have a harder time reaching many health and fitness goals.
Your protein intake should increase above the RDA for a number of reasons, including if you weight train, exercise regularly, are trying to lose fat or gain muscle, are young and growing, or are older and losing muscle due to aging.
On the flip side, there is currently no established upper tolerable limit (UL) for protein. Studies have shown people can safely consume 35% of their daily calories from protein without harming their bodies.
For a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, that’s 175 grams of protein. To put that in food terms, a 1-cup/140 gram serving of chicken breast is about 40 grams of protein.
How much protein do I actually need?
A good rule of thumb I use for the most of my clients is to aim for eating 0.8 grams/lb of body weight each day. For a 150-pound person, that’s 120 grams of protein, or about three 1-cup/140 gram servings of chicken breast.
If you have been significantly under-eating protein, a great initial goal is to get your protein intake to 100 grams per day.
It can be challenging to eat enough protein if you aren’t used to it, as foods with high protein are highly satiating, keeping you feeling full for longer. You can increase your intake from there, depending on your goals and tolerance.
If you are actively trying to lose fat or build muscle, it’s even more important to eat at least 0.8 grams/lb of body weight, or even higher, up to 1 gram/lb of body weight daily.
Back to the original question, how do I know if I am eating enough protein?
To know if you are eating enough protein each day, you’ll need to do some basic tracking. Instead of worrying about weighing and measuring everything you eat–unless this serves your goals–just implement the hand portion method from Precision Nutrition.
Consider each portion of protein to be about the size and thickness of the palm of your hand. Every time you eat a meal, count the number of palm-sized protein portions you’re eating. Write it down. Do this for 3 days of your usual eating to get an idea of how many portions of protein you eat.
Most moderately active adults should be consuming 3-6 palm-sized portions of protein per day. If you’re within that range AND eating protein from a variety of sources, you’re doing just fine.
Tips for eating enough protein (or increasing your intake)
- Build each meal around protein. For breakfast, this can include eggs, Greek yogurt, chicken or turkey sausage, or cottage cheese. Or, try adding protein powder to these tasty overnight oats. For snacks, add some nut butter to apple slices or celery sticks, or sliced turkey breast on a rice cake topped with cucumbers and avocado.
- Swap out some common favorites for more protein-rich alternatives. Swap regular yogurt for Greek yogurt, which contains nearly twice the protein. Choose quinoa over rice or pasta. It’s nutty and delicious, contains more protein, and tastes great hot or cold (even on top of a salad).
- Prep your protein for meals and snacks ahead of time. Cook protein in bulk on the weekend (throw some extra chicken breasts on the grill!). Eat it all week long atop salads or even cut in strips for a snack–try dipping in hummus for a tasty protein-boost.
- If you’re still struggling to get your protein intake to an adequate level, consider supplementing. I like to make sure clients understand this should be a last resort, as getting your nutrients from whole, unprocessed foods will always be best (find lots inspiration for healthy, whole, unprocessed foods here). If you opt to supplement, choose a protein that is easily digestible, has clean ingredients, is third-party tested for additives, and contains at least 20 grams of protein per serving.
Want more info?
If you want to take a deeper look at your protein intake, or other elements of your diet, reach out and inquire about Hyatt Training’s nutrition coaching. Our coaches can determine your individual protein needs, answer all your nitty-gritty questions, and help you build a clear path to your goals. We’ve intentionally set pricing at a reasonable level to make it accessible for those needing extra support to reach their goals.
Questions or ideas?
Submit your content topics or fitness/nutrition questions for our Community Conversations, and get some expert education in return!
Author Elana Witt is a personal trainer and nutrition coach at Hyatt Training. She believes all people possess the ability to get stronger and feel better, no matter where they’re starting from. Through learning correct, functional movements, she wants each of her clients to better understand their body and their capabilities while feeling empowered to achieve their goals. Elana is a NASM certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition level 1 coach. Learn more about Elana, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
Hyatt Training is a collective of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more fitness related posts like this one, follow this link.