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Protein check: How much do you really need?

The research is mixed when it comes to daily protein requirements for older adults.

Protein is important for building and maintaining muscle, bone strength, and numerous body functions. But are you eating enough of it each day? “Some older people just don’t get enough protein to meet their bodies’ needs, especially if they are not getting enough daily calories,” says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Protein values in common foods

FOOD

SERVING SIZE

PROTEIN IN GRAMS

Plain Greek yogurt

6 ounces

18

Cottage cheese

½ cup

14

Milk

1 cup

8

Cooked turkey or chicken

1 ounce

7

Tuna, salmon, haddock, or trout

1 ounce

7

Cooked beans

½ cup

6–9

Egg

1

6

Cooked pasta

1 cup

6

Nuts (all types)

¼ cup or 1 ounce

4–7

Source: Brigham and Women’s Hospital Department of Nutrition

How much protein?

It’s unclear how much protein is essential as we get older. “Studies about protein needs in older versus younger adults have produced mixed results. And the optimal amount of protein to preserve lean body mass and overall health is not well studied in long-term research,” says McManus. She recommends following the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein intake, which is 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams for men. “It’s higher for men because they generally have a larger body size, which affects protein requirements,” says McManus. Want to get more specific, based on your weight? Try our protein formula on this page.

Where to find it

Proteins, which are present in both animal and plant food sources, are composed of amino acids. When we digest proteins, we break them up into their individual amino acids, and then our bodies use those components to build new proteins. There are 20 amino acids, nine of which are “essential” for our health. Most animal and plant-based foods have proteins that provide the amino acids we need. Strict vegetarians (vegans) who avoid all animal-based foods can still get all the proteins and amino acids they need, with proper planning.

The richest sources of plant-based protein are legumes, such lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas, and beans—black, kidney, garbanzo, lima, navy, pinto, and white. If you are a vegetarian, you need to eat a wide variety of plant proteins.

Which type of protein is best? Mounting evidence shows that reducing animal-based proteins and increasing plant-based proteins is a healthier way to go. A diet with any type of meat raises the risk of heart disease and cancer, when compared with a vegetarian diet. Red meat is a less healthy source of protein than poultry, fish, or plants—not because of the kind of protein it contains, but because of the saturated fat it contains.

Planning your meals

Once you’ve determined your protein needs, you can look at your meals to see how protein will fit in. You may have to do a little research on the foods you eat to find out how many grams of protein are in an average serving. See our chart on this page for ideas. Just remember that it’s not necessary to make protein the centerpiece of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. “Just get creative. Fit in some protein at every meal,” says McManus. She suggests adding beans to soups and salads, serving vegetables on top of whole grains like quinoa or wild rice, and snacking on whole-grain crackers and hummus or yogurt. 

Personalize your protein goals

How much protein is right for your needs? Current guidelines for adults of any age recommend 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. You can skip the kilogram-to-pound conversion and determine your personal needs by simply multiplying your weight in pounds by 0.36. For example, a 160-pound person would need 160 x 0.36, or 58 grams of protein per day.

Your weight ______ x .36 = ______ grams of protein per day\

Image: Thinkstock

Posted by: Dr.Health

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