While the many diet debates continue (Should all dairy be nixed? Is low-carb sustainable? Does eating high-fat burn more body fat?), the importance of protein is never in question. After all, protein resides in every cell within the body. And since the body does not hold onto protein the same way it retains fat and carbohydrates, it must be consumed on a daily basis.
“Protein provides the essential amino acids our body needs from food to support cell growth and repair,” says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., author of The Little Book of Game-Changers and host of the podcast Drama-Free Healthy Living. Not only is this macronutrient vital for maintaining body tissues (including hair, skin, bones, and muscles), but it’s also required for numerous other crucial functions, such as supporting a healthy weight and stabilizing blood sugar levels.
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According to the Institutes of Medicine, the current recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. (To identify your individual needs, convert your weight in pounds to kilograms, then multiply that number by 0.8. For example, someone who weighs 150 pounds or 68.03 kilograms, would need a minimum of 54 grams of per day.) Yet while this recommendation addresses what the average person needs to meet their basic nutritional requirements, it’s not the end-all-be-all. Since protein is touted as the main building block of life, there are certain periods throughout life when you might need more. Here are five scenarios in which you’d want to up your intake.
1. When You’re Pregnant Or Breastfeeding
“Recommendations vary, but in order to support fetal growth and development, a woman needs about 20 to 25 percent of her daily calories from protein—which comes out to approximately 70 to 100 grams,” says Cording. As a woman’s average calorie needs increase throughout pregnancy (from 1,800 calories per day during the first trimester to about 2,200 calories per day during the second trimester, and up to about 2,400 calories per day during the third trimester), her protein needs do, too.
Pack your plate: “As a dietitian, I typically encourage food first, but when meeting your needs through food feels difficult, a protein powder can be an easy addition to foods like soups, smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, and even mashed potatoes or pureed vegetables,” says Cording. Otherwise, try to incorporate sources like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, beans, peas, lentils, tofu, and tempeh, as well as nuts and seeds, and nut and seed butter.
2. When You’re In Recovery Mode
“When healing—whether from a burn, a broken bone, or surgery— your body needs more protein to support the repair process,” states Cording. A systematic review of clinical trials published in the World Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery concluded that there is some evidence to support protein supplementation post-gastrointestinal surgery, for example.
However, just how much additional protein you need depends on a variety of factors, including your age, weight, type of ailment, degree of inflammation, and treatment. “This is an important topic to discuss with your doctor,” continues Cording. “Some things, like, burns, require a surprisingly high amount of protein to support healing, whereas other injuries may only require someone to increase their intake moderately.”
Pack your plate: “Nutritional yeast is one of my favorite ways to add extra plant-based protein to a meal. Just sprinkle it on as you would parmesan cheese or incorporate it into a sauce,” says Cording. One scoop (0.7 ounces) of KAL Nutritional Yeast, for example, offers a whopping eight grams of protein.
3. When You’re Trying To Shed Unwanted Pounds
“Yes, increasing protein intake may actually help you lose weight—and keep it off,” says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D.N., author of Finally Full, Finally Slim: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion at a Time.
In fact, a review published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism indicates that protein-rich meals can encourage an increase in metabolic rate and boost satiety. “It can also help reduce cravings,” Young adds.
She generally recommends that those looking to support weight loss start with between 1.0 and 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which would amount to between 68 and 102 grams per day for someone weighing 150 pounds.
Pack your plate: For a quick protein boost, swap out processed snacks for low-sugar yogurt or nuts. (FYI: Greek yogurt contains nearly 20 grams of protein.) Another easy swap: Spoon a dollop of whole milk ricotta into pasta, on top of homemade pizza, or into pancake mix, since half a cup of this Italian cheese offers 10 grams of the muscle-building macro.
4. When You’re Trying To Build Muscle
“Since our muscles are made primarily of protein, eating more of it may help you gain muscle,” explains Young. No surprise here: A systemic review published in the journal Sports Medicine found that protein supplementation (combined with consistent resistance training) enhances muscle mass.
“In order to gain muscle, you need a bit more protein—around 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight or about 0.7 grams per pound,” suggests Young. For someone who weighs 150 pounds, that comes out to 108 grams each day.
Pack your plate: Cording recommends getting creative in the kitchen by tossing a scoop of your favorite protein powder into homemade energy bites or baked goods. “I typically recommend going with an unflavored product to make it more versatile,” she continues. “If someone tolerates dairy well, I may recommend a grass-fed whey protein, but when it comes to the plant-based powders, I find that pea protein powder has a very mild and palatable taste and texture.” For example, one scoop of Garden of Life Certified Grass-Fed Whey Protein offers 24 grams of protein while two scoops of plnt brand Pea Protein provides 25 grams.
5. When You’ve Reached Your Golden Years
A gradual decline in skeletal muscle and tissue, known as sarcopenia, is a natural part of aging. While many people start to notice some muscle loss around age 50, sarcopenia affects everyone by the age of 75. So as your birthday cakes become taken over by candles, you may want to incorporate more protein in your meals as a way to support the retention of lean body mass, says Cording. After examining a series of scientific studies, researchers from the University of Arkansas concluded that a higher protein intake among adults ages 65 and older can be beneficial in counteracting age-related muscle loss.
“Bumping up your daily protein intake to 1.0 to 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight can help achieve this goal,” Cording says. For someone who weighs 150 pounds, that’s 68 to 88 grams of protein per day.
Pack your plate: Consider adding soy to your meals, Cording says. One warning, though: “I would recommend avoiding products that use soy protein isolate, as you’re getting the soy protein but not the full benefits (think fiber, vitamins, and minerals) you get when you consume the whole plant,” she explains. Stick with tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso, and soy milk.