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Protein for Active Lifestyles: How Much is Enough?

Elite athletes aren't the only ones who need their protein. If you run, hike, climb, ski, swim, or play pretty much any sport, you need yours, too.

Not the case.

In fact, your muscles are literally made of protein, and all forms of exercise put them under stress. Research shows that eating protein before and/or after a workout helps tired muscles recover and rebuild themselves, which is how they get stronger. If you want to stay healthy and active, it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough protein. But how much is enough?

Find your protein baseline

Individual protein requirements depend on a variety of factors, but figuring out where to start is super easy. All you need is your weight and a calculator.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for sedentary adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg), or 0.36 grams per pound (g/lb). To get an idea of your protein baseline, just multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. Here’s the calculation for a 160-pound adult:

160 pounds x 0.36 grams protein per pound = 58 grams protein

This is the minimum amount of protein that a 160-pound person needs per day to keep their muscles working without exercise. In other words, that’s the starting point.

Up your intake based on your needs

Athletes of all levels need to eat more than the minimum amount of protein. Unlike the RDA, though, there’s no single number to shoot for. It’s a range. According to current research, most athletes should aim for 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or about 0.5-0.9 grams per pound. (These ranges apply to adults and adolescents alike, so if your kids play competitive sports, take note.)

The numbers may look small, but they make a big difference. If the same 160-pound person from earlier started working out regularly, here’s how much protein they’d need at either end of the range:

160 pounds x 0.5 grams protein per pound = 80 grams protein

160 pounds x 0.9 grams protein per pound = 144 grams protein

That’s a pretty wide spread, so how do you know where you fall?

The short answer is that it depends on your goals. If you’re a jogger who wants to get (or stay) strong enough for longer runs, 0.5 grams of protein per pound is probably plenty. If you’re a serious weightlifter trying to lose body fat without losing muscle, the full 0.9 grams per pound may help you achieve that goal. But most people fall somewhere between those two extremes, and their protein intake will reflect that.

What does that much protein look like?

Studies suggest that protein-rich whole food sources build muscle just as well as protein supplements, but offer additional dietary benefits in the form of vitamins, minerals, and unsaturated fats. You probably already know which of your favorite foods are high in protein, but depending on your dietary preferences and needs, you may be shocked to learn just how much you’ll need to eat.

Let’s take the same 160-pound person for example. If they, for some reason, decided to get all their protein from a single source, here’s how much they’d need to eat to make that happen:

80 grams of protein:

144 grams of protein:

This is not to say that you need to eat 7 cans of tuna or 2 quarts of lentils every day—variety is key! The goal is to know how much protein you get per serving of your favorite foods, so you can mix and match to suit your needs.

The benefits of seafood in a protein-rich diet

Getting your protein from fish like tuna or salmon is a fantastic option, especially if you’re watching your saturated fat intake. Not only are these foods lower in saturated fat—and higher in omega-3 fatty acids—than other animal proteins, they’re also delicious and versatile enough for any meal plan.

Increasing your protein intake does take some getting used to, especially if you’ve never thought about it much. Eating a variety of protein-rich foods from both plant and animal sources gives your muscles everything they need to recover from tough workouts and hard games—so you can do it all again tomorrow.

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