Every tissue in your body contains protein, especially muscle. When you exercise, your muscles and their proteins break down. Replacing proteins helps your body recover from exercise, repairing muscles and helping them get stronger.
“If you aren’t eating enough protein, you’re going to experience things like physical fatigue, weakness, or pain in your joints or muscles because you’re not adequately supporting tissue growth,” says Sarah Wardlaw, MS, L/ATC, CES, a Mass General Brigham athletic trainer with a master’s degree in nutrition and functional medicine.
Lack of protein can also affect immune function and hormones. Your body also needs protein to help heal injuries and maintain muscle health when you are less active than normal.
Wardlaw helps high school athletes maximize their health and performance and educates students, parents, coaches, and the community.
She offers two formulas for calculating your protein intake and tips for eating enough protein every day:
Several organizations support a formula to help active people understand their protein needs. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
To convert pounds to kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.
|Protein intake (per day)
|100 pounds (45 kilograms)
|54 to 77 grams
|150 pounds (68 kilograms)
|82 to 116 grams
|200 pounds (91 kilograms)
|109 to 155 grams
|250 pounds (113 kilograms)
|136 to 192 grams
Sources: Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine and the American College of Sports Medicine.
Wardlaw recommends that people who are moderately active aim for the lower end of these ranges. Those who aim for the higher end of the range may include:
One important caution is that people with chronic kidney conditions may need to limit protein to protect their kidneys. If you have kidney disease, consult your doctor about protein intake.
Another method calculates protein intake based on your specific daily calorie goal. Wardlaw advises aiming for 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates.
She offers this example:
“You can change this ratio to whatever you need to reach your goals,” Wardlaw says. “Working with your primary care physician or a registered dietician can help you establish and reach those protein and fitness goals.”
Protein is an important part of a balanced, healthy diet that includes a variety of foods, including unlimited vegetables.
To achieve your target protein levels, Wardlaw recommends the following foods:
“Trying to hit your target grams of protein in a day just from whole food sources can be hard,” Wardlaw says.
You may choose to use protein supplements, such as powders, premixed drinks, bars, and gummies. Plant-based protein powders can be particularly helpful for people who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, she adds.
If you’re considering using protein supplements, consult your primary care physician first. Wardlaw also recommends reading labels, finding substitutes for healthy eating, and avoiding products with:
To get enough protein, eat protein-rich foods consistently throughout the entire day.
“Your first meal of the day — hopefully for everyone that’s breakfast — should have at least 30 grams of protein. That’s really important, especially if you’re trying to maximize muscle growth,” Wardlaw says. “Then aim for another 30 grams with each meal. Add protein-rich snacks throughout the day, such as protein bars, homemade protein balls made from protein powder, cottage cheese, or meat sticks.”
Many people who exercise also wonder how much protein after a workout is best. Wardlaw recommends at least 15 to 25 grams of protein within 2 hours after exercise. That helps stimulate muscle growth.