How much protein do we actually need?

This article has been written and reviewed by a Registered Dietitian, Samantha Cassetty.

There are two ways to look at protein needs–there’s the amount needed to prevent a deficiency, and there’s the amount needed for optimal health.

At the low end, people need 0.8 g of protein per kilogram body weight. However, to optimize muscle strength and help with appetite regulation, it may be beneficial to have more. Depending on activity levels, a better range is between 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram body weight, with the upper end for athletes.

One thing that often gets missed in the conversation about protein is protein distribution. So, eating enough protein isn’t the same as eating enough at each meal.  Although protein needs can vary, most adults could benefit from eating about 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal. You can achieve this if you’re deliberate about it, but it’s much higher than a typical breakfast of oatmeal or avocado toast.

Do most Americans get too much protein?

Protein requirements are set to prevent deficiency, and by that definition, most people either meet or exceed that amount. However, older adults, meal skippers, and people who follow restrictive diets may be at risk of getting too little protein.

What are the dangers of too much protein?

The main danger is if you have poor kidney functioning. In that case, you may need to be on a lower protein diet because too much protein could worsen your condition. 

Also, the source of your protein matters quite a bit. If you’re eating a lot of red or processed meat, you may be at increased risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer. It’s also important to consider what you’re NOT eating if you’re overconsuming protein. For example, are you eating excessive protein but skimping on veggies or whole grain carbohydrates? In this case, you might be missing out on fiber and other nutrients that are needed for long-term health.  But if you’re varying your protein sources and eating an otherwise healthy diet that’s rich in plant foods, and if you’re healthy, many of the concerns about too much protein are overstated.

Is there a difference in how protein from animals vs plants is absorbed?

With a few exceptions, most plant proteins lack one or more of the amino acids that animal proteins have. You can still get everything you need on an exclusively plant-based diet, but it’s crucial to meet your calorie requirements and to vary your protein sources during the day.

So, if one meal is missing something, you’ll get it from another meal. Your body can store amino acids for a short period of time, so you don’t have to worry about combining different proteins at each meal; that’s an outdated concept. However, it’s still helpful to include a few unique plant protein sources at a meal so you reach the overall target. For instance, instead of a big plate of chickpeas, you could have a smaller portion with some quinoa, veggies, and nuts or seeds.