Carbs and fats have all had their controversies, but no one can deny the body benefits of protein — especially when consumed after exercise. Protein-rich foods deliver all the nutrients necessary to repair and replenish our muscles after a strenuous sweat session, while helping us feel more full and satisfied so we’re less likely to overindulge in unhealthy foods throughout the day.
The tricky part is figuring out how much protein to consume to maximize the body benefits. Here are five factors that influence how much protein to add to your daily diet.
1. Your activity level is high.
Protein isn’t just for marathon runners and CrossFit devotees. The powerful nutrient does every body good. Not only do protein-rich foods build lean muscle and make you feel satiated longer, they also give your metabolism a boost, as protein takes more energy for your body to break down and digest than carbohydrates.
Whether you exercise or not, all adult males should aim to consume at least 56 grams of protein a day, while adult women should get 46 grams.
2. You lift weights.
Different workouts stress muscles in different ways, creating unique nutrition needs depending on your fitness routine. “Research shows there is more significant muscle damage after a physical activity like resistance training,” says Marie Spano, a sports dietitian in Atlanta, Georgia. “As a result, you’ll want to consume an extra 20 to 25 grams of high quality protein on days you weight lift to encourage the muscle repair and growth.” Not sure what that looks like? Fill your quota with three scrambled eggs on whole grain bread.
3. You prefer cardio.
Endurance activities like walking, swimming or jogging don’t put as much strain on muscles, so adding another 10 to 15 grams of protein should suffice — which you can easily get by eating a cup of Greek yogurt and fresh berries or by making a shake with ALOHA protein powder. If your endurance activity is very strenuous, like trail running or training for a marathon, you may want to consider increasing protein to levels of the strength training guidelines, adds Spano.
4. You’re over 50.
Double your protein. Turns out older adults need twice the amount of protein as younger adults to efficiently build and maintain muscle, a study in the Journal of Physiology suggests. “Ordinarily, physical activity breaks down muscle, then our immune system removes the old protein and deposits new protein,” says Spano. “As we age, research shows we become less efficient at building this new muscle, a condition known as anabolic resistance, so you need to up your protein consumption as you get older to get maximum new protein and growth.”
If you’re over 50, aim for at least 40 grams of high quality protein after strength training — instead of 20 — and at least 20 grams after endurance training versus 10 to 15. Need some meal ideas? “Try a 6-ounce piece of grilled chicken with a glass of milk,” says Spano. Other smart snacks: Beef jerky or sliced turkey and cheese.
5. Your protein is plant-based.
If you’re not a meat lover and skeptical of the weird artificial ingredients commonly found in store bought protein shakes, hitting your daily protein quota can feel like a challenge. Luckily, there are some awesome alternatives like ALOHA, an organic plant-based protein made from pumpkin seed, pea and hemp seeds. Add two scoops of the nature-made, vegan powder to a regular smoothie to get 18 grams of protein — plus a powerful punch of healthy antioxidants, vitamins, minerals fiber and omega-3s.
“Generally speaking, animal proteins are considered a complete protein — meaning they contain all essential amino acids necessary to make new proteins — whereas vegetable proteins may be lacking some,” says Spano. That means you may need to consume more vegetable protein to achieve your total protein goal. “Where you’d consume 20 to 25 grams of whey protein, you’d want to double it — maybe go up to 30 or 40 grams — with vegetable proteins like rice, pea or soy, which are still exceptional protein options,” says Spano.