How much protein each individual needs is unique and depends on a range of different factors. Protein is an essential component of the diet as it has many functional roles in the body. Most importantly, protein is involved in muscle building and repair. When we stress our skeletal muscle in physical activity or exercise, the muscle fibres begin to break down. Protein is comprised of amino acids and it is these acids that begin the process of repairing muscle damage. With regular exercise and stimulus to the working muscles, there is a constant cycle of muscle breakdown and muscle protein synthesis, leading to adaptations and increased muscle size and strength. The protein we eat helps with muscle protein synthesis and recovery post-exercise. Whether you’re an athlete or highly active individual looking to increase strength or muscle size or are young or elderly where muscle mass assists with injury prevention and overall health, the role of protein in the diet is incredibly important.
How to calculate your protein needs
Protein requirements for the general population are created based on the balance of other nutrients also needed in the diet. The Nutrient Reference Values in Australia recommend 0.84g protein/kg per day for men and 0.75g protein/kg for women, with no set upper limit for protein intake (or a ‘maximum amount’). However, for many athletes and active individuals, higher protein intakes than this may be beneficial to assist muscle recovery needs around exercise and adaptations, helping to improve performance outcomes and body composition.
Benefits of a high protein diet
For those who are active on a consistent basis – such as athletes – research shows that higher protein intakes between 1.8 – 2.0g/kg per day, consumed across 4 to 5 meals is most beneficial for maximising lean muscle mass. In particular, an amino acid called leucine, is involved in the cascade of events that leads to muscle protein synthesis and is an important consideration within protein intake. Research indicates that around 3g of leucine helps to maximise the anabolic (muscle building) effects of protein. This amount of leucine is available in typical moderate portions of protein foods such as meats, chicken, eggs, fish and dairy, but may be in smaller amounts in plant-based protein foods such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and rice. For those on plant-based diets with goals relating to muscle mass, considering the leucine content of protein foods consumed is essential.
How to hit your protein goals across the day
For the average active person, what would this amount of protein look like across the day? To estimate your protein needs, take your current weight and multiply by 1.8 – 2 to find your estimated daily protein requirements. Divide this amount across 4 to 5 meals and this is how much protein to aim for at each meal. As an example, a 70kg person might consume the following meals to reach their daily protein requirements of 126 – 140g per day:
- Breakfast: 2 eggs on wholegrain toast with avocado
- Snack: Hommus and cheese on wholegrain crackers
- Lunch: Chicken & sweet potato salad
- Snack: Fruit & Greek yoghurt smoothie
- Dinner: Grilled salmon with baked vegetables
- Supper: Greek yoghurt with berries