How Much Protein Do We Really Need?

The role of protein in our bodies is both well understood and completely misunderstood. We’ve been told we should eat protein for building up our bodies, and high-protein, low-carb diets are the rage. Body builders and athletes drink protein drinks to supplement their muscle development, and protein powders get sprinkled liberally in everything from yogurt and granola to smoothies. But do we really know how much protein is good for us, and how best to obtain it?

Simply put, proteins are the building blocks of life. Every cell in the human body contains protein, and the basic structure of protein is a chain of amino acids. We need protein in our diet to help our body repair cells and make new ones. Protein is important for growth and development in children, teens, and pregnant women. Hair and nails are mostly made of protein, and our bodies use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein also is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood.

Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is a “macronutrient,” meaning we need relatively large amounts of it. Vitamins and minerals, which are needed in only small quantities, are called “micronutrients.” But unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body does not store protein, and therefore has no reservoir to draw on when it needs a new supply.

How Protein Works in our Bodies

Protein foods are broken down into amino acids during digestion. We need amino acids in large enough amounts to maintain good health. They are found in animal sources such as meats, milk, fish, and eggs. They are also found in plant sources such as soy, beans, legumes, nut butters, and some grains (such as wheat germ and quinoa). You do not need to eat animal products to get all the protein you need in your diet. And contrary to the myth that extra protein builds more muscle, the only way to build muscle is through exercise — extra protein doesn’t give you extra strength.

There are three types of amino acids: Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body and must be supplied by food. They do not need to be eaten at one meal–the balance over the whole day is more important. Nonessential amino acids are made by the body from essential amino acids or in the normal breakdown of proteins. Conditional amino acids are needed in times of illness and stress.

When people eat lots of protein but few carbohydrates, their metabolisms change into a state called ketosis, which means the body converts from burning carbs for fuel to burning its own fat. When fat is broken down, small bits of carbon called ketones are released into the bloodstream as energy sources. Ketosis, which also occurs in diabetes, tends to suppress appetite, causing people to eat less, and it also increases the body’s elimination of fluids through urine, resulting in a loss of water weight.

The amount of protein we need depends on our overall calorie needs. The daily recommended intake of protein for healthy adults is 10 percent to 35 percent of our total calorie needs. For example, a person on a 2,000-calorie diet could eat 100 grams of protein, which would supply 20 percent of their total daily calories.

One ounce (30 grams) of most protein-rich foods contains 7 grams of protein. An ounce (30 grams) equals an ounce of meat, fish or poultry; one large egg; half a cup of cooked beans or lentils; a tablespoon of peanut butter; or a quarter cup of tofu. Low-fat dairy is also a good source of protein, and whole grains contain more protein than refined or “white” products. Other good sources of protein include:

• Turkey or chicken with the skin removed, or bison (also called buffalo meat)
• Lean cuts of beef or pork, such as round, top sirloin, or tenderloin (trim away any visible fat)
• Fish or shellfish
• Pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, split peas, or garbanzo beans
• Nuts and seeds, including almonds, hazelnuts, mixed nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, or walnuts (Nuts are high in fat so be mindful of portion sizes. Eating calories in excess of your needs may lead to weight gain.)
• Tofu, tempeh, and other soy protein products
• Low-fat dairy products

Additionally, the type of protein we eat plays a role in successful weight loss and in our overall health. Consumption of large quantities of processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats have been linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer.

There are other potential risks: The body produces ammonia when it breaks down protein. No one knows the long-term risks of higher levels of ammonia in the body. Also, there is evidence that people who eat high-protein diets typically excrete excess calcium in their urine. Researchers believe that is to counteract an increase in acids caused by protein consumption (calcium buffers, or neutralizes, acids). Too much calcium loss could lead to osteoporosis down the road.

Carbohydrate foods are important, including fruits and vegetables, which are the best sources for vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants — nutrients that help prevent disease. By contrast, animal foods that are high in protein are usually also high in saturated fats, which increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and several types of cancer.

So as is usually the case with diets and our health, understanding how the things we put into our bodies affect our overall health makes good sense. Eating the proper amount of protein is a good thing, but too much of a good thing can become a problem.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!