Protein: Updates on Recommended Levels and Timing of Intakes

In the latest issue of my Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition Newsletter, I read in interesting article with some updates to the current protein recommendations.

To start, it is important to understand that one of the main functions of protein in the body is to build and maintain muscle mass.  Without adequate protein each day, we will begin to lose muscle which ultimately will lead to declines in strength and metabolism.  In addition to taking in the appropriate amount of protein, it has been known for some time that the quality and timing of intakes also affect our muscles.

How Much Protein Do We Need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) standards set for protein levels were developed to establish a minimum amount that would be adequate to meet the needs of most healthy people.  The RDA for protein is set at .8 grams protein per kg body weight or .36 grams per pound of weight.  (To calculate your protein needs, you can take your weight in pounds times 0.36.)

New research has found that this minimum recommendation may not be enough for most people, and higher protein intakes can help to not only build/maintain muscle but also with the treatment of obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease.

Based on the new research, it would be prudent to aim for a number above the minimum.  However, while adequate protein is important, there is only so much protein your body can use efficiently.  Heavy weight lifters (the group of healthy individuals with the highest protein needs), can really only utilize about 0.77 gm/ pound.

Therefore, based on current research, I came up with a chart reflects an appropriate protein range for individuals at various weights (athletes would likely need to stick closer to the middle to high end of the range, while sedentary people would probably be fine at the low end of the range):

Body Weight

Recommended protein range

120 pounds

54-92 gm

140 pounds

63-108 gm

160 pounds

72-124 gm

180 pounds

81-138 gm

200 pounds

90-154 gm

What are the new recommendations with timing of protein intakes?

It has also been found that our body can only utilize the protein we eat to build muscle for about 3 hours following a meal.  Also, when we are not in the muscle building phase because we just consumed protein, our body is actively breaking down muscle.

Therefore, it is recommended to spread protein intakes out fairly evenly throughout the day.  Additionally, consuming about 30 grams of protein per meal may be optimal to maintain healthy muscles and bones.  So, if someone consumes 90 grams of protein per day, they are going to build/maintain more muscle if they have 30 grams at breakfast, 30 gm at lunch and 30 grams at dinner than if they consumed most of the protein at the evening meal, which is the typical consumption pattern of Americans.  In fact, most Americans consume 10% of their protein at breakfast, 20% at lunch and 60% at dinner (with the remainder at snacks).  This is not ideal for maintaining lean mass or bone health.

So, Does it Matter Where the Protein Comes From?

All protein sources are made up of amino acids, one of which is Leucine.  New research has found that Leucine is an important amino acid which is needed to build muscle.  All high quality protein sources do contain Leucine, but animal products, like dairy, eggs, beef chicken pork and fish contain more Leucine than vegetarian sources such as beans, legumes, nuts, soy products, lentils, asparagus, peas, etc.  Therefore, vegetarians and vegans may need to pay extra special attention to protein intakes to ensure they are getting adequate protein and leucine.

In summary, the latest research gives evidence that protein intakes for good health may be slightly higher than previously thought.  Also, it would be smart to eat at least three meals a day and aim to have a good protein source at every meal.  The following is a chart that lists the protein content of some common high protein foods to get you started.

Type of Food Protein (grams per serving) What is a serving?
Meat (beef, poultry, pork, fish) 21 gm 3 oz (size of a deck of cards)
Egg 6gm 1 egg
Milk and Yogurt 8gm 8 oz Milk, 8 oz Yogurt
Cheese 7gm 1 oz (1 standard slice)
Beans 8gm ½ Cup
Nuts 2-10gm 1 oz
Seeds 5gm 1 oz