Kim Yawitz, RD
Have you ever noticed how fitness enthusiasts are so gung ho about protein shakes, egg whites, and ground turkey? It’s because dietary protein is really important for building muscle and losing fat! Now, I do think some meatheads take the protein fixation a bit too far, but I can also tell you that lots of people don’t get enough protein. If you’re wondering, “How much protein do I need in a day?” you’ve come to the right place.
In this post, I’m going to share three easy ways to know how much protein you need and share the pros and cons of each approach so that you can better determine how to estimate your own protein needs.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Having started my dietetics career in a hospital setting, I just want to start by saying that I find the government recommendations for protein intake to be too low for most active adults.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If you’re not down with the metric system (or just not a math person in general), that’s equal to about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. To break that down even further, that’s a piddly 54 grams per day if you weigh 150 pounds.
If we’re being honest, I eat more than that for breakfast some days.
And, to be fair, the RDA is the minimum amount you should eat to avoid nutrient deficiencies. It’s not the goal for someone who wants to feel and look better.
So let’s assume you’re also an active person who wants to gain muscle and/or lose fat. If you can’t trust the government guidelines, then how much protein do you need?
The truth is, it depends on your health history, your activity levels, and your goals. And while this post is about quantity, I’d be a bad dietitian if I didn’t at least mention that protein quality is equally important for health.
Recent studies have linked high protein diets with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. This topic is somewhat controversial and needs to be studied more. However, I always recommend that my clients eat a well-balanced diet consisting mostly of whole foods and that they eat a mix of plant- and animal-based proteins.
A nutrition coach can help you to determine a good starting point and to adjust your intake to meet your goals.
That being said, I’m 100% confident that we can do a little better than 0.36 grams per pound, per day. Here are 3 ways to estimate.
Beginner: The Palm Method
Got a hand? Super–you’ve got all you need to implement the Palm Method right away!
Here’s how it works. You’re going to hold your hand up in front of your face and take note of the approximate diameter and thickness of your palm.
At each meal, you’re looking for 1-2 palm-sized portions of protein (one if you’re fairly petite, two if you’re larger or very active). Snacks are roughly 1/2 to 1 palm-sized portion of protein.
Is it as precise as other methods? No. But it’s a good starting point, and it doesn’t require counting macros or calories. You also don’t need fancy food scales or measuring cups. It’s actually a pretty solid approach if you just want to be healthy and lose a few pounds.
This method is great for restaurant meals, parties, and travel. And, it might be as precise as you ever need to get! If you’re just starting to play with your protein intake, I’d recommend trying this method for 2 weeks or so and then adjusting if you feel like you’re not hitting your goals.
Intermediate: The Percentage of Calories Method
Does the Palm Method feel a little too chill for you?
No biggie! You can also estimate your protein needs based on your target calorie intake. I recommend 25-30% of calories for active adults.
Here’s how to do it:
- Multiply your daily calorie goal by 0.25 or 0.3 (or, 25-30%)
- Divide that number by 4, as protein has 4 calories per gram.
- The quotient is your daily protein target.
Want to see that in action? Let’s assume you’re aiming for 1600 calories per day, with 30% of calories from protein:
1600*0.3 = 480
You’re aiming for 120 grams of protein per day (and FYI, this is nutritional grams, not grams by weight).
The primary upsides are that this approach promotes a balanced diet, and it’s also a bit more precise than the hand method.
But, there are a couple of downsides. First, the percentage approach assumes you are eating at an appropriate calorie level for your height, weight, age, and activity level. Eating too much will result in weight gain while eating too little could result in muscle loss.
And from a practical standpoint, the percentage method means that you’ll likely need to track calories and protein intake in an app like MyFitnessPal. Tracking can be very effective for weight loss, but it’s not for everyone. It’s tedious, it can lead to food obsession, and lots of people haven’t mastered the basics (eating mindfully, meal planning, etc.) enough to really do macros well.
That said, the percentage method is a decent option if you have some experience manipulating your calorie and nutrient intake.
Advanced: The Grams Per Pound Method
The final method for estimating protein needs is simple to calculate, but more challenging (in my experience) to execute.
Assuming you’re a healthy, active adult who wants to lose some fat and build some muscle, you’ll just multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.7-1 gram. That is your daily protein target (so, 105-150 grams per day if you weigh 150 pounds).
You’ll want to aim for the higher end of that range if you lift heavy weights, and if you’re trying to lose weight.
Sounds pretty easy, right? So why do I say this one is more difficult than the other two methods?
Like the percentage method, the grams per pound method works best if you carefully measure and track your food intake. This typically means weighing your food on a scale, then entering everything you eat in an app.
Then there’s the matter of actually eating the protein. Depending on your food preferences, it can be really hard to eat close to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day! Having used this approach personally in the past, I can share that I almost never hit my goal without careful planning (plus at least one protein shake per day).
If your experience is similar, you can try to work up to it over time. This might mean eating 0.7 grams per pound per day for a week or two if your goal is 1 gram per pound, then increasing to 0.75 grams per pound per day once 0.7 grams feels easy, and continuing to increase until you reach your goal.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, if you’ve been wondering “How much protein do I need?”, you now have some idea of where to start.
But if you’re still stuck, I’d be happy to help! Click here to schedule a free 15-minute exploratory call.