Eating enough protein is for more than just body-builders. Recent research shows that protein is especially important for adults as we age. Muscle mass can begin to decrease as early as in your thirties. A condition called sarcopenia occurs when there is a progressive loss of muscle mass and strength. In older individuals, this can decrease stamina, impair ability to perform daily tasks, and increase risk of falls and bone fractures. There is no single cause, but inadequate protein intake may be a key contributor to this condition.
Despite popular perception, most Americans do not over-consume protein. In fact, few Americans even consume the amount recommended by MyPyramid food patterns. Most foods contain some protein, but the amount and quality varies. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt are considered high-quality protein foods. Vegetables supply smaller amounts of protein, but plant-based foods also lack some of the amino acids—building blocks of protein—that our body needs to produce essential proteins. Higher protein plant foods include legumes (beans and peas) and nuts and seeds. If you are vegetarian, the key to getting all the amino acids you need is to eat a variety of plant foods each day.
How Much Protein?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that protein should supply about 15 to 35 percent of your total calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, this is about 75 to 175 grams of protein. Another approach is to figure your protein needs based on your body weight. On average, most people need a minimum of 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight, but recent research suggests even this is not enough. If you are active or if you are recovering from illness or injury, you may need up to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. The optimal amount of protein per meal that has been shown to protect against sarcopenic muscle loss is 25 to 30 grams of high-quality protein per meal. This is equivalent to about 4 ounces of lean meat, fish, or poultry.
Protein in common foods:
3 ounces of cooked beef, chicken, poultry: 25 grams
3 ounces of cooked fish or shellfish: 21 grams
1 cup of milk or yogurt: 8-10 grams
1 ounce of cheese: 6-8 grams
1 egg: 6 grams
½ cup of cooked legumes (such as kidney or pinto beans): 8 grams
1 ounce of nuts: 6-8 grams
2 tbsp of peanut butter: 6 grams
1 oz of tofu: 2 grams