How much protein do we actually need?
By Sol Orwell
Dietary protein is always a hot topic for discussion, not only because of the variability of its sources (whey protein supplements, steak, vegetarian sources) but also because of the debate surrounding an optimal overall amount. While the general consensus of ‘eat more protein’ relative to the standard first world diet is held consistent, the degree of how much more protein you need is highly variable, with some recommending another serving of meat and others recommending 3-5 extra scoops of protein each day.
All this discussion on how much protein one should ingest erroneously throws around the term ‘need’ as if this was a topic where perfect consensus was reached in scientific analysis. This is not exactly the case. While we are narrowing down the ideal level of protein to ingest, we don’t have the exact number.
Protein: Need vs. Optimal
‘Need’ is an odd term to use in regards to the diet, as it suggests an absolute that must be met lest something else befall you. It is good to use for things that are definitive and without argument, such as how many points you need on a test to pass it or what speed you need to drive under to avoid getting a ticket.
In regards to protein intake, there is only one instance where we can truly say need, since we know about it beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the amount of protein you need minimally to live a relatively healthy and disease-free life, with lower protein intakes being associated with adverse health effects. This need is only about 50-60g a day, specifically 0.8g/kg lean bodymass.
Anything above that level is beyond the realm of need, but we do have a lot of evidence toward the optimal level of protein. The optimal intake is catered towards creating the best you possible, based on the evidence we have to date.
Anybody who can eat protein and isn’t at risk for a deficiency should be determining their optimal intake.
Since this isn’t a black and white issue, the answer to how much protein is optimal is actually more of a spectrum than a hard definition, with a few caveats to boot.
Spectrum of Protein Intake
The spectrum of optimal protein intake is as follows:
An intake of 50-60g daily (0.8g/kg) is the bare minimum, and you need to consume more than this.
The range between 0.8-1.2g/kg daily is usually seen as better than minimally hitting the 0.8g/kg number, so this range is the ideal minimum for nonactive people
The range between 1.2-1.5g/kg daily is the same as above, but tends to reference either people who are actively losing body fat or athletes. Persons who are both active and trying to lose body fat tend to aim for this range, but at the higher end
The range of 1.5-2.2g/kg (2.2g/kg being 1g/lb) is not wholly proven to be better than 1.2-1.5g/kg, but it seems safe and some people report that they feel better on this level of intake than the former. It is the ideal maximum level of intake
We don’t have enough evidence to draw conclusions on more than 1g/lb at this point in time. The last three ranges are the ones of interest, assuming that you fall into the criteria mentioned. There should be no need for somebody who is wholly inactive to consume 1.5-2.2g/kg protein, and somebody who is highly active should consume more than the 0.8-1.2g/kg range.
Ranges are given because, due to variations in how everybody functions and where they get their protein, a single number cannot be reliably given for every single person.
The term ‘need’ for protein is a bit misleading, and we should strive for an optimal intake, depending on our goals
The optimal intake is almost always higher than what we actually ‘need’ for healthy living
A lower range of 0.8-1.2g/kg is recommended for nonactive people, and a higher range of 1.5-2.2g/kg is recommended for highly active people losing weight.
There isn’t sufficient evidence to properly evaluate protein intakes of over 1g per pound of bodyweight
About the Author
Sol Orwell co-founded Examine.com in early 2011. He’s been collating scientific research on supplements and nutrition since then, and has released a beginner’s guide to supplements, the Supplement Goals Reference Guide.