Despite all the hype about eating more protein—say nothing of all the available protein powders, drinks, and snack bars—many Americans are still not getting enough of this important nutrient.
According to a recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health, & Aging, more than one in three Americans 50 years and older aren’t meeting the recommended daily protein intake. Of those, one-third were up to 30 grams of protein short per day.
Analysis of the results also showed that adults who weren’t getting enough protein had overall poorer quality diets—they tended to eat less of healthy foods like greens, beans, dairy, and seafood, and weren’t consuming enough of other important nutrients like choline, vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin D.
“Despite the protein craze in America,” said study author Christopher A. Tayler, PhD., R.D., “the data shows there’s still a big gap in adults’ protein intake.”
Getting the right amount of protein in your diet is critical to good health, but it’s not only about amounts. It’s also about timing. When and how often you eat protein can also have a major impact on health.
What is Protein?
Protein is a naturally occurring complex substance that consists of amino acid residues joined by peptide bonds. You can also think of it as a macronutrient commonly found in animal products and some plant-based products like nuts and legumes.
A “macronutrient” is one of three that are needed for life: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. These provide energy for the body and are necessary in large amounts for the body to continue to exist.
Protein has several functions. When it’s broken down, it fuels muscle mass, which drives metabolism. It also helps maintain a strong immune system, contributes to satiety (a feeling of fullness), provides structure and support for cells, and transmits messages throughout the body.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is the lowest amount you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements and to keep from getting sick. To figure out how much that is for you, you can simply multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36.
Most scientists agree, however, that this basic level is likely too low for most Americans. According to Harvard Health, a higher daily protein intake can help preserve muscle strength as you age and allow you to maintain a healthy weight. Indeed, aiming for consuming up to twice the RDA of protein per day is considered a good range to aim for as long as you consume the nutrient in healthy foods.
To discover your optimal protein intake, use an online protein calculator like this one, which takes your age, gender, and activity level into account.
Good sources of protein include lean meats, seafood, poultry, beans, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds. You can also get protein in powdered supplements made from whey, soy, hemp, and peas.
7 Benefits of Protein in the Diet
1. Reduced Hunger
If you’re trying to lose weight, getting more protein at each meal can help. Protein breaks down slowly in the body, which helps you feel fuller, longer—even if you consume fewer calories. Protein also lowers levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, so you’re less likely to snack later on.
2. Strong Muscles
Protein is the building block of muscle and is needed to maintain muscle repair and strength. Particularly as we get older, we can start to lose some of our muscle. Combining regular strength training with an increased intake of protein can help you maintain that muscle strength. Protein is also important for bodybuilders and athletes who are trying to bulk up.
When you eat your protein can make a difference. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that spreading protein more evenly across three meals a day helped adults increased muscle strength. Older adults can benefit even from eating a high-protein snack before bed. A 2017 study found that had a positive effect on muscle health in older men.
3. Better Healing
If you injure yourself or catch an illness, protein can help you heal faster. It aids the body in repairing damaged tissues and also boosts the immune system. If you’re low on protein, it could take you longer to heal from a strained muscle or recover from the flu.
Indeed, your immune system is made up of proteins and relies on proteins to be able to function efficiently. Without enough protein, the body’s ability to produce antibodies (that work against bacteria and viruses) is hindered.
4. Strong Skin, Hair, and Nails
Protein is an essential building block for the skin, hair, and nails. It provides structure, strength, and protection from the elements. If your skin is looking tired, saggy, and dull, it could be that you need more protein in your diet. Your hair and nails, too, need protein to stay strong. Split ends and frayed nails may be signs of a protein-deficient diet.
5. Healthy Bones
When it comes to healthy bones, we often think of needing calcium and vitamin D, but we need protein too. Studies have shown that protein has major benefits for bone health and that people who eat more protein tend to maintain better bone mass as they age—reducing their risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
6. Improved Focus
Getting enough protein may boost cognitive function, helping you to focus and concentrate. In a 2020 study, researchers found that protein intake was positively associated with cognitive function. People who ate more protein performed better on certain cognitive tests. In another study that same year, scientists found that lower amounts of dietary protein intake were associated with reduced cognitive functioning.
7. All-Day Energy
If you find your energy flagging halfway through the day, eat a high-protein breakfast. Though carbohydrates are your fastest way to energy, they can also lead you to an afternoon crash. Protein, on the other hand, provides long-term energy, allowing glucose to be released more slowly from the bloodstream. For steady, sustained energy, start with a protein-filled breakfast, then incorporate protein into each meal throughout the day.
Protein is a macronutrient that’s essential for daily functioning, overall health, and well-being. Take steps to incorporate more protein into your diet to take advantage of the many health benefits protein has to offer.