Protein Needs For Women: How Much Is Enough — And What's Too Much?
Staying on top of protein needs is essential, no matter your sex. However, women could have more difficulty doing so, especially during certain life stages. We reached out to experts doing cutting-edge protein requirement research to learn about the subtle nuances between the sexes and how much protein women really need for optimal health.
Top insights at a glance
- The RDA on protein (0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight per day) is the bare minimum amount you need to avoid a nitrogen imbalance. For optimal health, most women should consume 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
- Protein quality is just as important as protein quantity. Women should look for whole foods protein sources that contain at least 2.5 grams of leucine per serving to ignite muscle protein synthesis. Animal proteins tend to be a higher-quality source of leucine.
- Historically, most research on protein needs has been done on men, but that's starting to change. New studies are finally being conducted on women, and they're finding that we may benefit from consuming more protein during certain phases of the menstrual cycle and during perimenopause/ menopause.
- Protein needs are highly varied and individual. The exact amount of protein you need to thrive depends on your weight, activity level, genetics, and a variety of other factors. Those with kidney damage may need to follow a lower-protein diet.
Protein needs for women
The amino acids in protein are essential building blocks for many parts of the female body—from our muscle tissues down to our cells. Protein is consistently being turned over in the body, and it's up to us to replenish it through foods or supplements.
"There's this continual demand for protein, and if that demand isn't met, the body has to go seek it," Chad Kerksick, Ph.D., director of the Exercise and Performance Nutrition Laboratory at Lindenwood University, tells mindbodygreen.
Skeletal muscle is the main reservoir of protein, Kerksick explains, so when we're not getting enough protein, we start to lose muscle tissue. This is something we want to avoid since having low muscle mass is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline1, insulin resistance2, high inflammatory markers3, and more.
As for what constitutes "enough" protein, it depends on your body size and composition. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight4 per day. This is the minimum amount of protein a sedentary person needs to meet their nutritional requirements and avoid a nitrogen imbalance, so it's conservative.
The experts interviewed for this article agree that the average moderately active adult will need to consume significantly more protein—somewhere in the range of 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight, or 0.54 to .90 gram per pound. (More on what this actually looks like in food terms below.)
It's a pretty wide range, and where you fall on it hinges on a number of factors—including, early research finds, your sex. There are a few periods of a woman's life when they'll need to adjust their protein intake to keep up with their body's needs, including:
- The menstrual cycle: "There are initial thoughts that our needs change across the menstrual cycle," Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, Ph.D., a researcher and professor of Exercise Physiology & Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells mindbodygreen. "During the luteal phase, there seems to be greater protein turnover5, which would require greater protein intake." This is an emerging area of research that Smith-Ryan's lab is actively involved in. Though it's difficult to study fluctuations across the menstrual cycle (especially when you factor in hormonal birth control), their early investigations6 have found that women do seem to metabolize more protein amino acids during the luteal phase and would benefit from higher protein intake during these days of their cycle.
- Pregnancy: Protein needs also increase during pregnancy as you grow more tissue and muscle, explains Minghua Tang, Ph.D., a nutrition researcher and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado. Breastfeeding women will also need to consume more protein to balance out what they lose in milk (which is high in protein, fat, and lactose).
- Perimenopause and menopause: As we get older, our muscles become less sensitive to the stimulatory effects of amino acids (a process called anabolic resistance7). Increasing your intake of protein8 once you hit 65 or so—as well as staying active and doing resistance training—can help prevent age-related muscle loss. "We know that male and female protein needs increase as we get older, but what we're identifying is that it likely happens earlier for women," says Smith-Ryan. Perimenopause9—the transition into menopause that starts as early as age 35 in some women—alters our hormones and body composition in a way that may increase our protein requirements10.
- Training periods: Physical activity levels also affect protein needs. After a bout of heavy exercise (especially resistance training), we need more protein to rebuild the muscles that we just worked. "A lot of people recognize the need to eat after exercise," says Smith-Ryan, "but what a couple of our studies11 have shown is that pre-exercise timing might be more important for women." In one study out of her lab11, eating protein in the hours leading up to a high-intensity resistance training workout helped enhance fat loss and increase training volume in a group of adult women.
How to calculate how much protein you need
To fall within the 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram range, a 160-pound woman will want to eat between 87 and 144 grams of protein per day.
If you'd rather not count down to every last gram, leading protein and amino acid requirements researcher Don Layman, Ph.D., previously told mindbodygreen that getting around 100 grams a day is a solid goal for most women. "We find from a metabolic standpoint, working predominantly with women, that if they get below 100 grams per day, they lose most of the benefits of protein: fatty acid metabolism, insulin sensitivity, weight loss, satiety," Layman said on the mindbodygreen podcast.
Breaking up your protein intake throughout the day will give your body a steady supply of those amino-acid building blocks. Consuming around 25 to 30 grams of protein during breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and eating a protein-rich snack or two, will fulfill your daily requirements. "We should strive to get some type of protein feeding every three to four hours or so," says Kerksick.
Keep in mind that you might want to eat slightly more protein during periods of heavy activity, during your luteal phase, or once you reach perimenopause.
A note on protein quality and amino acid composition
As for what to eat to meet this target, aim to get as much protein from whole foods as possible. Getting protein from a variety of sources throughout the day (plant and sustainably sourced animal) is also a smart move. This is because plant proteins, though packed with fiber and phytonutrients, usually don't have adequate amounts of all the amino acids your body needs—particularly leucine.
Leucine is an essential amino acid that initiates muscle protein synthesis, or the production of new skeletal muscle, when combined with strength training. As Layman's work demonstrates, it takes about 2.5 grams of leucine12 in order to kick-start the muscle-building process for five to six hours. If you don't reach this leucine threshold during each meal, you're leaving some of the key benefits of your protein on the table. Animal proteins tend to have a more favorable leucine composition13 than plant proteins.
Protein for weight loss
"In general, as long as you are cutting your calories, you will lose weight. That's the whole idea of energy balance," says Tang. In caloric deficit, eating a higher proportion of protein can help you lose more fat and less muscle, due to the way protein helps preserve lean mass (when paired with weight training). Protein also tends to be very satiating14, so it can help you become full on fewer calories. See here for a complete guide to using protein to lose fat.
Be sure to pair your higher-protein diet with resistance training, and get plenty of sleep—as sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce muscle protein synthesis.
Can you eat too much protein?
Getting most of your protein from highly processed sources isn't so healthy either. Consume minimally processed and nutrient-rich plant and animal protein sources (ideally ones that are organic/regeneratively grown) to protect your cardiovascular and metabolic health.
"For chronic kidney disease patients unable to regulate protein metabolism and fluid balance in the body, too much protein can be harmful," functional medicine physician Gabrielle Lyon, D.O., previously told mindbodygreen. Those with kidney health issues will want to talk to their doctor about their specific protein requirements.
On the flip side: Objections to a higher-protein diet
Some physicians believe that most women in the developed world already get enough dietary protein and don't need to worry about hitting the 100-gram threshold. They argue that, especially in older adults, a higher intake of animal protein can actually accelerate aging.
This is due to the high amount of the amino acid leucine in animal proteins, which may speed up the aging process due to its effect on mTOR, a signaling system involved in muscle protein synthesis. Indeed, there is some research to show that elevated mTOR levels increase cancer risk16. However, it's important to note that eating a serving of protein causes mTOR to go up and down in a controlled, natural rhythm—it doesn't lead to chronic elevation. So the argument here isn't particularly strong.
There is also solid evidence showing that those with less muscle mass (as estimated by grip strength) tend to age at an accelerated rate, making eating for muscle protein synthesis essential as we get older.
Some cardiovascular doctors also argue that eating high-protein diets increases heart disease risk. There's solid evidence to show that red meat consumption17 (particularly processed red meat) is associated with a higher incidence cardiovascular disease, yes, but the impact of other proteins is less convincing. A 2020 meta-analysis in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases found that an increase in total protein showed no clear association with risk of all-cause mortality or cardiovascular disease18.
The mindbodygreen POV
Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle and regulating key body systems. There's also compelling research to show that consuming more than RDA on protein can help women gain strength, combat inflammation, and avoid insulin resistance. The arguments against a high-protein diet are not applicable to everyone.
For this reason, we believe that most active women will want to consume 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Note that a high-protein diet can certainly be unhealthy if it's composed of highly processed meats, fast food burgers, and not much else. When introducing more protein into your diet, it shouldn't come at the expense of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, etc.
This doesn't apply to you if:
We're not saying that every woman out there needs to get 100 grams of protein a day: there are certainly exceptions.
Those who are vegan or vegetarian, for example, may have trouble reaching this number without animal products and choose to set their own protein goals. As mentioned earlier, those with kidney issues will also want to work with their doctor to decide what amount of protein is right for them. Food needs are highly individualized, and ultimately your ideal protein intake will be the one that helps you feel your best.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much protein does a 150-pound woman need per day?
While it depends on the person, a 150-pound woman will want to eat around 81 to 135 grams of protein per day, with 100 grams being a nice midrange to aim for. Women who are pregnant, perimenopausal, or very active might benefit from increasing their protein intake.
How many grams of protein should a woman have a day to lose weight?
It depends on your weight, age, and body composition. But to lose fat while preserving muscle, eating a high-protein (over 136 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound woman) diet may be helpful as long as it's paired with resistance training. But talk to your doctor before you make any drastic changes in your diet.
The amount of protein women need to consume depends on their age, activity level, and body composition, but it usually falls around 100 grams a day. Emerging research suggests eating a higher-protein diet may also help women lose weight and get through the menstrual cycle and perimenopause with more ease. No matter who you are, it's important to split your protein intake throughout the day—starting with a protein-rich breakfast.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.