If you’ve ever hung around a gym for more than a few minutes, you’ve likely heard conversations—joking or serious—about protein, or seen people toting shaker cups full of some sort of muscle-building concoction.
Protein isn’t just for bodybuilders and muscle heads, though. After all, it’s one of three key nutrients in your diet.
Protein is responsible for keeping you healthy, says Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D., professor of nutrition at Boston University. “Protein gives you the building blocks you need to create cells that build things like muscle, hair, and skin.” And that muscle isn’t just the kind you see from the outside—it keeps your internal organs functioning, too, she says.
The amount required to keep your bod functioning properly is about 0.8 grams of protein per every kilogram of bodyweight, according to the USDA. That means a 130-pound (60kg) person would only need 48 grams of protein per day—the equivalent of one 7oz steak. Could that really be enough?
“The USDA is concerned with keeping you alive and healthy,” says Mike Israetel, Ph.D., sports physiologist and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization. “If you want to enhance your body composition or if you have a high level of physical activity, then you’ll need more protein than their recommendation.”
So, how much of this macronutrient do YOU need? Identify which of the following four groups sounds most like you:
For an average individual without any chronic conditions who wants to maintain a healthy nutrient balance, the amount recommended by the USDA is suitable. It’s enough to maintain proper bodily function, help ward off diseases, and power you through the government’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week.
If you’re participating in high-volume cardiovascular exercise, like distance running, cycling, or rowing, you need a higher protein intake to maximize your performance. Exercise doesn’t just burn fat—it burns muscle tissue, too. And if you’re not consuming enough protein to offset that loss, you could end up slowing yourself down unintentionally.
That’s why Israetel recommends doubling the USDA’s protein recommendation and aiming for 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. “This will help insure that you can maintain endurance without losing muscle,” he says. For a 130-pound (60kg) person, that’s 96 grams of protein each day.
People who strength train frequently and want to build muscle need a bit more protein than endurance athletes do. Not only do you need to preserve the muscle mass you have during exercise, but you also want to gain more on top of that, explains Israetel. He recommends aiming for two grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight—that’s the USDA’s base recommendation multiplied by 2.5. For a 130-pound (60kg) person, that’s 120 grams of protein each day.
If you’re looking to lose weight without sacrificing muscle mass, you need the most protein of all—3 to 3.5 grams of protein per kilogram of your bodyweight. This extra protein will not only help you hang on to your lean muscle, but also keep you satiated when on a lower-calorie diet, says Israetel. For a 130-pound (60kg) person, that’s 144 to 168 grams of protein each day.
We get it, that’s a lot of numbers to remember. But here’s the good news: You’re probably already getting much more protein than you think, without even trying. “On average, American men and women consume about 100 grams and 70 grams of protein per day, respectively,” says Salge Blake.
The only problem: You’re probably consuming too much of it at once. “Americans tend to bank most of their protein at dinner,” she says. Our bodies can only process around 30 grams of protein at a time, so we may miss out on some of the macro power by eating a huge portion of it in one meal, she explains.
Instead of gorging on a large helping of meat in the evening, try eating protein regularly throughout the day by aiming for 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal. If you’re really upping your daily protein, incorporate the same amount into your snacks, as well, says Salge Blake.
The best news of all: If you’re a healthy individual with a regularly-functioning metabolism, there are no known negative side-effects to over-consuming protein, says Israetel. (Except maybe the meat sweats.)
Save this infographic to make sure your protein intake is always on-point for your goals: