A high-protein diet is not essential for building muscle, but you might be wondering “How much protein should I eat to gain muscle?”
It’s an important question because protein is an essential part of any healthy diet — but how do you know if you’re getting enough? Proteins are known as the building blocks of life: In the body, they break down into amino acids that promote cell growth and repair. A protein deficiency can weaken the heart and respiratory systems, cause muscle loss and stunt growth. Protein may even help reduce the risk of some diseases when properly incorporated into your diet.
Unfortunately, figuring out the exact amount of protein you need to eat in a day isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.
The Protein Basics
The recommended dietary allowance of protein — otherwise known as the minimum amount an average sedentary adult needs to consume to stay healthy — is 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams for men. Depending on your body weight, that number may need to be slightly higher or lower, but a good rule of thumb is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
When You Need More Protein
If you exercise regularly, you may want to consider eating slightly more protein to help your muscles recover — between 0.5 and 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Increasing your protein intake can also be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight. Since protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, it can help you feel fuller longer, which can make reducing your calorie intake easier to achieve.
Finally, eating enough protein is especially important as you age and muscle or bone loss becomes more of a risk.
Not All Protein is Created Equal
While your body needs protein to function properly, some sources of protein are better for you than others. For instance, eating too much red meat — especially processed meat — can increase your risk of heart disease. Instead, it’s best to choose lean protein sources like poultry, fish, beans, eggs or nuts.
Non-Meat Sources of Protein
There are many vegan protein sources available for those following a plant-based diet. Eating a combination of these foods daily can help provide complete protein and keep meals interesting. Here’s a list of plant-based options that are packed with protein.
- Greek yogurt contains 23 grams of protein per cup.
- Foods in the legume family are good sources of vegetarian protein, and peas are no exception: One cup contains 7.9 grams—about the same as a cup of milk.
- Two cups of kidney beans, for example, contain about 26 grams (more than 3 cups of cow's milk, which contains 24 grams).
- Firm tofu (soybean curds) contains about 10 grams of protein per ½ cup.
- Edamame beans (immature soybeans) contain 8.5 grams of protein per ½ cup.
- Tempeh contains about 15 grams of protein per ½ cup.
- Cooked lentils contain 8.84 grams of protein per ½ cup.
- Cooked chickpeas are high in protein, containing around 7.25 grams per ½ cup.
- Peanuts are protein-rich, full of healthful fats and may improve heart health. They contain around 20.5 grams of protein per ½ cup.
- Almonds offer 16.5 grams of protein per ½ cup.
- Quinoa is a grain with high-protein content. Cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein per cup.
Remember this: Incomplete proteins — like whole grains, nuts and produce — can join together and produce a complete protein, packed with all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own, so be sure to consume various sources throughout the day.
Best Time of Day to Eat Protein
The protein you eat is most helpful to your body when eaten at certain periods throughout the day.
- Morning: When you wake up in the morning, your body has already used up most of the nutrients you ate during your previous meal. Consuming protein first thing in the morning is a great way to get your energy back and get your day started on the right foot. Try adding eggs, milk, yogurt or cheese to your breakfast for an easy protein boost.
- Snacks: If you find yourself getting hungry between meals, a protein-dense snack might be just what you need to tide yourself over. Try a handful of almonds or a serving of Greek yogurt.
- After a workout: Eating protein within 30 minutes of completing your workout helps your muscles heal and build strength. Casein protein is especially effective for post-workout recovery, so try cottage cheese or a shake made from casein protein powder.
Proteins are essential nutrients for the human body. They are one of the building blocks of your body’s tissue and can also serve as a fuel source. For more tips on getting the right amount of protein in your diet, our guide “Eating Healthy on a Busy Schedule” can help.