Whether you’re trying to build muscle, lose weight, live longer, or some combination of these goals, you need to be eating protein — and if you’re like 40% of adults in America, you’re probably not getting enough.
Protein is hugely important to your entire body. In fact, the only thing your body contains in larger quantities than protein is water! The majority of this protein is, unsurprisingly, found in your muscles; however, there’s a considerable amount of protein in your nails, hair, teeth, and bones, as well.
As you’ll see, protein is not only important for overall health, but also for achieving your weight-loss and longevity goals. Read on to better understand what protein is, why you need it, how much to consume, and how prioritizing protein in your diet will help you stay metabolically healthy, minimize disease risk, and enhance your quality of life.
Why Is Eating Protein Important?
Dietary protein — which can be found in nearly every food but is most plentiful in foods like meat, eggs, and dairy — is essential for building every structure in your body, including (but not limited to!) healthy, metabolically active muscle. Unlike fat and carbohydrates, protein is not stored in your body; there’s no onboard reserve to tap into when your supplies are low. Therefore, if you don’t consume enough protein for your needs, your body is forced to choose between healthy cellular function or maintaining your hard-earned muscle mass. In these situations, your body will most often prioritize the immediate needs of your cells and break down your muscle to get the protein it needs.
Breaking down muscle is bad news, and not only because you need your muscles to move through the world. Healthy working muscle is metabolically protective and regulates your blood-glucose levels, helping to prevent glucose spikes and burning up to 75% of the glucose you eat. Therefore, it’s no surprise that reductions in muscle mass are shown to precede metabolic health decline, disability, and disease. Furthermore, healthy muscle may also help to regulate your immune system, providing protection against chronic or infectious disease. Muscle keeps you healthy in more ways than one, so you need to make sure you’re supplying it with the protein it needs!
How Much Protein Should You Get Daily?
The National Institutes of Health Food and Nutrition Board recommends that adults consume 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg), or 0.37 grams per pound (g/lb), each day. This Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is sufficient to meet basic living requirements in 97–98% of people, but if you want to build and maintain healthy, strong muscles, it’s wise to aim higher than the RDA — especially since up to 40% of adults fall short of that baseline.
If your BMI is greater than 30 kg/m2 and you are not a competitive athlete or bodybuilder, a good daily protein intake target is 1.2–1.6 g/kg. Alternatively, if your BMI is under that threshold and you are over 50 years old, exercising regularly, and/or trying to lose weight, you may want to aim for slightly more than double