Protein is big business in the food industry.
That’s been the case for years. The sector earned a reported $5.83 billion in 2022 from sales of powders, bars and other high-protein supplements to customers looking to buff up, lose weight, or simply live a healthier lifestyle. And the interest is only growing: One brand-tracking firm found that online searches for terms like “high protein” reached a five-year high in early 2023.
“We are kind of in this protein craze right now where all these foods have protein added,” says Sharon Collison, instructor of clinical nutrition at the University of Delaware.
But is the protein craze worth the hype? Or is it just another nutrition fad?
It’s complicated, nutritionists say. Protein is a necessary part of any balanced diet. But it is also possible to take in too much. And there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how much protein you might need in your own meal plan—the answer depends on variables like your age, gender, and activity level.
What’s more, they say, the science of protein is constantly in flux. "If you talk to a hundred authorities, you're going to get a multiplicity of answers," says Hope Barkoukis, who chairs the department of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "It's evolving and it's really interesting."
Why do we need protein?
Protein is a really important component of a proper diet.
“Protein plays a crucial role to our physiology,” says Jessica Corwin, lead registered dietician at Corewell Health, a hospital group in Michigan. Protein-rich foods provide amino acids that the body uses to build and repair tissues, power your immune system, and even help regulate your hormones. Protein also helps you build muscle and fills you up at meals.
Protein doesn’t do its work in isolation, though. Nutritionists say that if you get plenty of protein but skimp on other sources of nutrition, your body will simply burn the protein instead of putting it to work doing all those other useful things.
How much protein do you actually need?
Different people need different amounts of protein. The question of just how much protein a person needs in their diet is “one requiring a bit of nuance,” Corwin says. The recommended daily allowance is based on your body weight: About 0.36 grams for every pound that you weigh. That’s about 54 grams of protein a day for a 150-pound person. (A quarter-pound hamburger can contain roughly 20 grams of protein.)
It’s not just your weight that determines how much you need. Gender, health status, activity level, and age all play roles too. "You have to look at the whole picture of where the person is,” Barkoukis says. Adult men, who often have larger bodies with more muscle mass, typically need roughly 56 grams of protein a day, while women need just 46 grams—unless they’re breastfeeding, in which case the number shoots up to 71 grams a day. (The American Pregnancy Association recommends as much as 100 grams a day for pregnant women.)
Older adults also need additional protein in combination with a good exercise regimen. "As one gets older—as you move from your 20s to your 90s—every single year you're going to lose 3 to 8 percent of your muscle mass,” says Barkoukis. "Your muscle mass is going to determine your ability to maintain independent functioning.” Some researchers, then, recommend that people over 65 get as much as 83 grams a day.
Athletes, of course, are going to want and need protein more than most people to build and repair muscle tissue that’s key to their careers. “It’s all about good nutrition, and it’s about performance,” says Natalie Webb, a nutritionist who has worked with NBA players on their diet regimens.
Is it possible to get too much protein?
Among athletes and other active people, though, there is often a myth that “the more protein, the better, and nothing else is as important,” says Collison. But athletes, like everybody else, have their limits on how much protein is actually useful. “I'll often explain to them that two grams per kilogram of body weight is more than enough,” Collison says of her clients. “Any more than that is just not going to help them in any way.”
In fact there can be harm in consuming protein, says Webb, who now serves as the associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Hartford. That’s especially true when it comes to supplements that so many athletes are fond of using. They’re packed full of nitrogen, a key component of the amino acids that serve as the building blocks of protein. But getting too much nitrogen can put a strain on the body.
“Whether you get an excess amount of nitrogen from having too much protein from a food—or more likely from a supplement—that nitrogen has to be metabolized, it has to be broken down, and then the excess is excreted out,” she says. “And it places a big burden on your kidneys when you have an excess amount of nitrogen.”
That can be a particular problem for people with or at risk of diabetes, which already takes a toll on kidney function.
What are the best sources for protein?
Another reason supplements might not be necessary: “Protein is in every food group except fruit,” Webb says.
Whole foods are generally healthier than a packaged product you can buy off the shelf, even if you’re looking to increase your protein intake. “If you're taking it just as a supplement—just protein, or just amino acids—you're only going to get that nutrient,” she says. But nutrients “work together as a team.” It’s important to get protein as part of a broader mix.
The benefits of variety include the types of protein sources. Meat is an obvious source of protein, but “thankfully we can find protein in a multitude of plant-based sources, including lentils, tempeh, tofu, and beans,” Corwin says.
Barkoukis agrees. "Variety is the best,” she says. “Beans are an amazing powerhouse." But not all protein sources are alike. Although animal and plant proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, she notes that they are not always present in adequate amounts in a standard serving size.
That means it can be more work to get the proper amount of protein from a plant-based diet. “You really have to make an effort if you're a vegetarian or vegan, to choose foods and portions to meet those protein goals,” Collison says. It’s not just the types of protein, but amounts. While that hamburger might have 20 grams of protein, a half-cup of black beans has just seven.
So how do you figure out what you need?
One thing that annoys nutrition experts? All the bad information out there, often coming from influencers with a lot of enthusiasm but not as much of a scientific background. “I listen to people providing nutrition information and sometimes it's harmful information, even though they have good intentions,” Webb says.
If you’re looking for guidance on how much protein to get, or how best to shape your overall diet, experts point to reputable online resources like the federal government’s MyPlate website or EatRight from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And many health insurance plans cover dietician visits. “Registered dietitians can really not only help treat disease, but just help prevent disease and enhance quality of life just by improving your diet,” says Collison.
Figuring what’s best shouldn’t be too complicated, though.
“I think what matters most is that you build a diet which contains a source of healthy fat as well as a wide variety of plants at every meal. Once this is your foundation, we can experiment with the protein content throughout your day,” Corwin says. “Check in with yourself. How do you feel afterwards? How long do you feel full? How does that set the stage for your day? You know you best.”