You've probably heard that proteins are the building blocks of the body. But just how much protein do you need? And when should you be getting it?
The quick and easy answers? There aren't any. When it comes to health and nutrition, a lot of factors are at play, but some basic guidelines – considering bodyweight, activity level and goals – can steer you in the right direction.
Let's start simple. An average adult needs at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight every day, according to Becci Twombley, director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Southern California. To convert your bodyweight from pounds to kilograms, divide by 2.2. So, a man who weighs 165 pounds would need to consume 60 grams of protein per day.
For most Americans, hitting the recommended protein level for basic body maintenance and strength isn't a problem. An ounce of pistachios has six grams of protein. A cup of yogurt has about 10 grams, and a four-ounce hamburger has nearly 30.
However, people in pursuit of growth – their own or their child's – can use more protein. Active young adults, pregnant and nursing women, and athletes of all types should ramp up their intake.
"A really good estimate is somewhere between 1 and 1.2 grams per kilogram," says Twombley, who helps plan the nutrition and recovery of 700 USC athletes. "In a practical situation, I've never been able to have our athletes get the results they are looking for if they eat less than 1.2 grams per kilogram."
That's 50 percent more than the average male, and strength athletes can go even higher. For example, Twombley's long-distance runners eat 1.2 grams per kilogram, but her football players are closer to 1.8.
"The more muscle you have, the more protein you need," she says.
The smartest thing you can do is listen to your body, Twombley says. If her athletes are fatigued or easily injured, she knows that protein is the key to recovery. If they complain of constant hunger, protein is often the answer. Even though they're eating a lot of food to meet their energy demands, they're quickly burning through the carbs. More protein will help keep their bodies feeling satiated.
However, Twombley notes that protein is used most efficiently when consumed in portions of about 20 grams at a time. Because the body can't store protein as efficiently as it stores carbs and fat, it's best to spread protein in small servings throughout the day. “This means that the typical American way of eating a 10-ounce steak or two large chicken breasts may not play into our normal physiology. Adding protein rich snacks like one ounce of pistachios between meals may be more effective,” she says.
However, athletes should pay particular attention to their post-workout meals. Going through the effort of breaking down your muscles without providing the fuel to rebuild them is counterproductive.
"You have a 30-minute window to really replenish your body," says backcountry snowboarding icon Jeremy Jones. "At the end of a long day, getting a protein source like pistachios in my system right away is kind of step one of my recovery."