Do you have any questions about how much protein you need a day to lose weight, build muscle, or maintain muscle while losing fat?
Or how many grams of protein you should eat for optimal health and function?
If so, you’ve come to the right place. In this evidence-based guide, I’m going to cover everything you need to know about protein, including…
- What Does Protein Do?
- How Much Protein Should I Eat Per Day?
- Where Should I Be Within The Ideal Range?
- Is It Safe To Eat This Much Protein?
- What Are The Best Sources Of Protein?
- What About Vegans And Vegetarians?
- How Do I Eat Enough Protein Without Going Over My Calories?
- What Are The Best Times To Eat Protein?
- How Much Protein Can You Eat At One Time?
Ready? Let’s begin…
What Does Protein Do?
Protein is responsible for the growth and repair of all of the cells and tissues in your body. In fact, your muscles, organs, skin, hair, nails, bones, certain hormones and much more are all made up of some amount of protein.
Protein is also the provider of the essential amino acids, which are amino acids that your body requires but cannot produce on its own. They must be supplied through your diet.
So, in terms of overall health, function and… you know… not dying, eating a sufficient amount of protein each day is crucial.
But what about for goals like losing weight or building muscle? What kind of roles does it play here?
The 4 Biggest Benefits Of Protein
- Building Muscle
Protein is the cliché-as-hell “building block of muscle.” Along with things like water and glycogen, it’s literally a part of what your muscles are made up of. Eating a sufficient amount of it daily is a requirement for building muscle.
- Maintaining Muscle
Not only is protein a requirement for building muscle, it’s also a requirement for maintaining muscle during scenarios where muscle loss is common… such as while losing weight. As I’ve explained before, it’s extremely common to lose muscle mass while trying to lose body fat. Fortunately, one of the most effective ways of preventing muscle loss in a deficit is by eating a sufficient amount of protein each day. This is supported in study after study after study after study after study after study after study.
- Controlling Hunger
One of the main reasons why people gain weight, struggle with losing weight, or find it so hard to stick to a diet of any kind is hunger. Everything from dietary issues, to behavioral issues, to hormonal issues and more all play a role in making us hungry (full details here: Why Am I Always So Hungry?). And what happens when we’re hungry? We eat… often much more than we’re supposed to. As it turns out, protein plays a huge role in preventing this. It’s actually the most filling of the macronutrients. This makes it one of the most important dietary factors in terms of controlling your hunger and keeping you full/satisfied. This has been shown in study after study after study after study after study after study after study.
- Increasing Metabolic Rate
The faster your metabolic rate is, the more calories your body naturally burns each day. The reason I bring this up is because even though protein, fat and carbs all have some degree of thermic effect, protein has the largest thermic effect of them all. This means it will cause the Thermic Effect of Food (aka TEF, aka the calories your body burns during the digestion and absorption process) to increase the most. By how much, you ask? Well, with carbs, TEF is usually about 5 – 10%. With fat, about 0 – 3%. But with protein, TEF is 20 – 30%. Which means, if you eat a food that contains 100 calories from protein, 20 – 30 of those calories will be burned during digestion. This is yet another reason why higher protein diets have consistently been shown to improve fat loss results to some extent (sources here, here, here, and here).
So, in addition to sustaining life and proper function, protein is also a requirement for both building and maintaining muscle, and it also plays beneficial roles in weight loss in the form of controlling hunger and increasing metabolic rate.
It all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
The only question is… how much of it do you need to eat a day to get these benefits?
Let’s find out.
How Much Protein Should I Eat A Day?
Based on all of the research I’ve seen, 15+ years of firsthand experience, 10+ years of helping others, and the various recommendations out there from the people whose opinions I value most, here is what I recommend…
- 0.36 Grams Of Protein Per Pound Of Body Weight
This is the USDA’s official recommendation for protein intake, and I can tell you that virtually no one in the nutrition field considers it to be anywhere close to ideal for getting the benefits we just covered. It’s damn near universally regarded as being too low for anything other than serving as the bare minimum needed for sedentary adults to sustain base levels of health and function. So, if that’s your goal here… if that’s all you’re looking for… then 0.36g of protein per pound of body weight is the lowest number to shoot for. For example, if you currently weigh 200lbs, you’d eat 72 grams of protein a day in this scenario.
- 0.5 Grams Of Protein Per Pound Of Body Weight
This is my new and improved replacement for the 0.36g recommendation you see above. Based on the vast amount of protein research supporting the usage of higher intakes, I consider 0.5g to be a much smarter and much more beneficial “bare minimum” protein intake for sedentary adults to aim for. Why? Because even for people who don’t really care about building or maintaining muscle, losing fat, controlling hunger or increasing metabolic rate, 0.36g is still just laughably low, even to serve as a bare minimum for health and function. Instead, I recommend 0.5g for this purpose, which works out to be a super easy-to-remember “half of your body weight in grams of protein.” So, for example, if you weigh 200lbs, you’d eat 100g of protein each day.
- 0.8 – 1.3 Grams Of Protein Per Pound Of Body Weight
If you’re trying to lose fat, build muscle, maintain muscle or have any similar goal that would be helped by maximizing the benefits we covered earlier, then 0.8 – 1.3g of protein per pound of body weight is what I (and most others in this field) consider to be the ideal range for protein intake. So, for example, if you weigh 200lbs, you’d eat somewhere between 160 – 260 grams of protein per day. And yes, this is the same range we use in my Superior Fat Loss and Superior Muscle Growth programs.
(Note: In the case of people who are very overweight, your protein intake calculations will be overestimated if you use your current body weight due to the excessive amount of fat in your body. So, for obese individuals, I instead suggest using your goal body weight when using the 0.8 – 1.3g recommendation. For example, a 300lb person looking to get down to 200lbs would use 200lbs as their weight when doing the calculation.)
Now let’s answer a bunch of additional questions you probably have…
Where Should I Be Within The Ideal Range?
Based on everything we know today, the 0.8g – 1.3g range is most likely the sweet spot for maximizing the benefits of protein.
That’s why virtually every evidence-based expert in the nutrition field recommends something that falls somewhere within this range.
With that in mind, you may then wonder: is one specific amount universally better?
As in, is something like 0.8g/lb any better or worse than 1g/lb, or 1.3g/lb, or something in between? Good question.
The honest answer is that we don’t know for sure. I know some people like to claim that one very specific amount is universally ideal for everyone, but that’s bullshit.
Why? Two reasons.
- First, because the available research is simply not conclusive enough to make such a definitive statement. Trust me… if it was, I would. But it’s not. The minute that changes, I will come back and update the recommendations in this article. Until then, this range is as specific as we can get.
- And second, because different people have different dietary needs and preferences. For example, some people just prefer eating more or less protein than others (and making your diet as preferable as possible is key to adherence). In addition, some people find that a protein intake in the mid/higher end of this range works better for them in terms of hunger control compared to something in the lower end, while others find that it’s simply too hard, expensive or inconvenient to consistently eat anything more than the lower end. So… it varies.
That’s why there is no universal “best” amount for everyone, and a range like this is the best recommendation I can give.
Where should you be within it? Wherever the hell you want.
Whatever number within this ideal range best suits your personal needs and preferences and therefore makes your diet as Preferable, Enjoyable, Convenient and Sustainable for you as possible (#PECS), that’s how much protein you should eat per day.
Simple as that.
Is It Safe To Eat This Much Protein?
Yes, it is.
There’s plenty of research showing that protein intakes as high as 1.3 grams per pound of body weight (here’s a study) and even 1.5 grams per pound of body weight (here’s a study) have no negative effects and are indeed completely safe for healthy adults.
This is a topic I’ve previously covered here: Is Eating Too Much Protein Bad For You?
The Main Exception
The main exception to this would be people with preexisting kidney disease. In these cases, protein intake should be limited to some degree, the exact extent of which is something only each individual’s doctor is qualified to provide.
But for a typical healthy adult with typical healthy kidneys, the available research has shown that higher protein diets are both safe and significantly beneficial to everything from building muscle, preserving muscle, and losing weight, to blood pressure, diabetes, bone health and more (additional sources here, here, here, here and here).
What Are The Best Sources Of Protein?
Now that you know how much protein to eat a day, you may also want to know what the best food sources are to get that protein from. Here now is a list of the most common higher quality sources:
- Chicken Breast
- Turkey Breast
- Fish (e.g. tuna, shrimp, etc.)
- Beef (the leaner the better)
- Pork (the leaner the better)
- Egg Whites
- Protein Supplements (e.g. whey protein powder)
- Dairy (e.g. low fat/fat-free milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.)
This is by no means the definitive list of every food that contains protein, but it does include some of its most abundant and highest quality sources.
Pick your favorites and/or the ones you tolerate best (e.g. if you have issues digesting dairy, then don’t eat dairy).
I personally get the majority of my daily protein from chicken, turkey, eggs and whey protein powder. Those are my preferred/best tolerated sources. Find your own and do the same.
What About Vegans And Vegetarians?
Yeah, I know. The list of foods you just saw wasn’t exactly “vegan/vegetarian friendly.”
Does that mean I’m against these types of diets? Not at all. The only types of diets I’m against are ones that involve doing something unhealthy, ignoring science/facts, believing in myths and misinformation, or going against your personal dietary needs and preferences.
As long as your diet doesn’t do any of that, it’s fine by me.
Having said that, the obvious downside of being a vegetarian or vegan is that your protein sources are going to be greatly limited, thus making it a lot tougher to eat a sufficient amount each day.
Not to mention, most of the typically recommended vegan/vegetarian sources of protein aren’t what any unbiased person would consider to be good sources.
- Nut Butters
There’s an important distinction that needs to be made between a food being a “good source of protein” and a food being just a “source of protein.”
The foods I listed earlier are good sources. These vegan/vegetarian-friendly foods? They are mostly just sources.
I don’t mean that as an insult. Nor do I mean to imply that vegans/vegetarians are screwed and hopeless in terms of eating enough quality protein each day.
I’m just stating facts here. And comparatively speaking, the fact is that foods on the first list (animal sources) are objectively better sources of protein than the foods on this list (plant sources) in terms of factors like:
- Protein Content
- Amino Acid Profile
- Ratio Of Calories To Protein
In most cases, animal sources beat plant sources in most if not all of these categories. Lyle McDonald has an excellent series of articles (warning: it’s pretty long) covering all of these factors. It starts here if you’re interested.
So What Does This Mean For Vegans/Vegetarians?
It mostly just means that you’re at a bit of a disadvantage in this context, and eating an ideal amount of protein per day is going to be some degree harder for you.
But the good news is that it’s still definitely doable. It’s just going to require a little more effort, planning and food combinations to make happen.
Also keep in mind that there are now plenty of plant-based protein powders available, so that’s another option to consider if you’re having trouble meeting your daily needs with whole foods alone.
How Do I Eat Enough Protein Without Going Over My Calories?
I occasionally hear from people who tell me that it’s hard for them to reach the 0.8g – 1.3g range without going over their intended calorie intake for the day.
When I ask them what sources they’re getting their protein from, they often list many of the vegan/vegetarian-friendly foods we just covered (like beans, nuts, peanut butter and grains) as well as fattier cuts of meat and full-fat dairy.
Well shit… no wonder you’re having this problem.
These “sources of protein” all contain plenty of extra calories from carbs, fat or both in addition to the calories from protein. And that means you will consume a bunch of extra calories for the amount of protein you end up getting.
On the other hand, foods like chicken breast, turkey breast, lean cuts of beef, tuna fish (in water), fat-free dairy, egg whites and protein powder are practically nothing but protein, which means the calorie total is significantly lower for the amount of protein you get.
So, the simple solution in these cases is to eat leaner/lower calorie sources in place of the fattier/higher calorie sources.
What Are The Best Times To Eat Protein?
I have a few answers to this question. Let’s start with the most important one.
The best time to eat protein is whenever the hell you need to in order to reach your ideal total for the day.
Above all else, eating the right total amount of protein is what matters most. The same goes for calories, carbs and fat as well. The total intake for the day always matters more than the specific timing of when/how it’s consumed.
That’s a minor detail in comparison.
Having said that, there are still a couple of times during the day when it would be beneficial to consume protein. At the top of that list would be in your pre and post workout meals (source). For the full details on this topic, check out my guide to What To Eat Before And After A Workout.
Beyond that, consuming a good amount of protein at every meal so your consumption is spaced out somewhat evenly throughout the day is likely the most effective way to do it in terms maximizing the benefits we want (source).
This doesn’t mean you need to eat 6 meals a day or every 2 hours or anything like that. It just means that, whether you choose to eat 3 meals or 6 meals or anything in between, it would be ideal to consume a meaningful amount of protein in each of them.
Although again, your total for the day is always what matters most here, so feel free to make that happen in whatever manner is most PECS for you.
How Much Protein Can You Eat At One Time?
One of the many common diet myths around today is the idea that the human body can only use 20 – 30 grams of protein in a single meal, and that anything more than this goes to waste.
The obvious problem here – besides all of the wasted protein – is that many people would need to eat 5, 6 or even 7 meals per day in order to reach their ideal total.
For example, let’s take a man who weighs 180lbs and wants to eat 180g per day (so, an even 1g/lb).
If they can only eat 30g of protein per meal, they’d be forced to eat 6 meals a day (30g per meal x 6 meals = 180g). This is fine if this person happened to prefer eating 6 meals a day, but what if they preferred 5? Or 4? Or 3?
They’re screwed, right?
Why? Because the idea that your body can only absorb 20-30g of protein at a time is horseshit.
In reality, the human body can use significantly more than 20-30g of protein at a time. How much exactly, you ask? Allow me to quote myself from a previous article…
The answer to this question is… we don’t know. There really is no exact amount.
But the consensus “best guess” is… a lot. As in, the maximum amount of protein you’d ever be capable of consuming in a single meal. Basically, you’d go “holy crap, I can’t eat anymore” long before actually reaching that unknown maximum amount.
I’ve seen others describe this limit as “likely similar to the amount that’s maximally effective in an entire day.”
So yeah, you can feel free to eat whatever amount per meal that you need/want to. I regularly consume 40-60g in many of my meals. The more you consume in a single meal, the longer it will take to digest. That’s literally the only difference. Nothing “goes to waste.” It’s a myth.
Additional details here: How Much Protein Can You Eat Per Meal?
So, that covers pretty much everything you need to know about protein.
The next steps you’ll need to take (assuming you haven’t already taken them) is to figure out how many calories you need to eat per day, and how many grams of carbs and fat.
To do that, check out the guides I’ve already written for each…