“How much protein do I really need to be eating, and what should I eat to get it?” 

I hear this question from new lifters a lot, especially from women. 

Many women (including me!) initially start lifting to change the way they look, and tend to dramatically underestimate how much protein they need, and in fact to eat too few calories in general. No surprise: we’ve heard for our entire lives that less food and endless cardio are the keys to the body we want.

Another big problem: the general dietary recommendations for the population at large call for significantly less protein than is actually necessary when we’re actively trying to add muscle. This holds even more true for people over age 50. (Sadly, for the most part, the medical establishment doesn’t emphasize the catastrophic effects of sarcopenia or the importance of muscle-building and nutrition, protein in particular, to support that process as we age.)

Why does eating protein matter so much?

When you eat protein, your digestive process breaks it down into its component amino acids. Your body then uses those to construct NEW proteins that become muscle tissue. This process is called muscle protein synthesis, or MPS.

As we get older, our bodies become less efficient at MPS. It’s a matter of simple math. Older bodies require more amino acids than younger bodies to make the same amount of muscle. That means older people who are trying to add muscle need to EAT even more protein to source those building blocks.

Want to change your body composition and shed some fat along with gaining muscle? Here’s an added bonus: protein is very satiating. That means eating more of it can make it easier to handle a caloric deficit.

How much protein do I really need?

People who strength train generally require from 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily to support the building of muscle. People over age 50 should aim at the higher end of that range (some research suggests going even higher).

Let’s use myself as an example. At age 55 and 138 pounds, or about 62.5 kilos, I eat about 125 grams of protein a day. (If you happen to use the metric system like most of the world, you’re at an advantage here! For the rest of you fellow Americans, use this calculator. You can also Google something like “138 lbs to kg” to convert your weight to kilos.)

Once they calculate it, that number intimidates many people when they first start focusing on a higher-protein diet. When you’re newer to this process, eating that much protein can seem impossible. But trust me, it’s doable! You just have to learn about the wide variety of protein sources available. Then you can start fitting them into your day. 

What should I eat?

So, let’s get tactical. What can you eat to get the amount of protein you need? Here are some general guidelines and ideas.

If you’re vegan, you’ll want to skip to the plant-based protein section below. If you’re vegetarian, skip to the eggs section.

Meat and fish

The most obvious source of protein, the one people think of first, is animal protein: meat (I include poultry in that category) and fish. 

If you’re managing calories, you’ll have an easier time if you focus on leaner options:

  • Chicken or turkey breast
  • Skinless chicken thigh (more fat than breast but still relatively lean)
  • Lean cuts of beef and pork
  • Bison, venison and other game meats
  • Lower-fat fish like tuna, cod and tilapia
  • Shrimp
  • Dried meat like turkey sticks, turkey or lean beef jerky and biltong (cured, air-dried meat).

Other types of meat and fish of course also contain lots of protein, but also come with more fat. Salmon, for example, is very high in protein, along with a considerable amount of unsaturated fat.

Important note here: Dietary fat is not the enemy, and in fact your body needs it. However, it’s calorically dense. One gram of fat provides more than twice the calories of one gram of either protein or carbohydrates. That can make it problematic if you’re trying to manage caloric intake. (Plus, the saturated fats in certain types of meat may have some cardiovascular risks.)

If you’re not managing calories or fat intake, adding protein to your diet will be simpler. But even if you do focus on leaner options, you don’t have to live on chicken breast and broccoli! You can still have lots of variety in your animal proteins and eat many of your favorite dishes. Try substituting leaner options like chicken or turkey bacon and sausage for the fattier pork varieties. Choose 90% lean ground beef instead of beef chuck, or use ground turkey, chicken, or bison. 

Eggs

Eggs are another excellent source of protein, but as with meat, take care with whole eggs if you’re trying to manage calories, because egg yolks contain a lot of fat. Egg whites, on the other hand, are almost pure protein, so if fat content is a concern, focus on those. These can be purchased in pasteurized form and consumed raw (I toss some in my morning shake; the flavor and texture is almost like water); scrambled alone or added to whole eggs; or used in other ways.

Dairy

If you tolerate it well, dairy also provides lots of protein. Once again, whole milk products also contain a lot of fat, so be judicious with things like cheese, whole milk, and full fat yogurt if you’re watching caloric intake. Low-fat milk, Greek yogurt and Icelandic skyr are all great options, as well as part-skim mozzarella/string cheese and cottage cheese.

Do remember to account for the sweeteners in flavored yogurt/skyr if you’re concerned about extra calories. I find it’s often more efficient to purchase the plain variety and add my own sweetener, because I actually need much less sweetness to enjoy my yogurt than what manufacturers tend to add. There are also a lot of intentionally less sweet options available on the market now, if you want to manage the added carbs.

Whey vs. casein

One note here: dairy products contain two different types of protein: whey and casein (KAY-seen).

If you know the nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet and her tuffet, you’ve heard of whey. Whey is that cloudy liquid that sometimes separates out and sits on top of plain yogurt and cottage cheese. Whey protein accounts for about 20 percent of the protein in milk and it digests very quickly.

Most of the protein in dairy products is the other type, casein, which digests much more slowly. 

These digestion times matter, because ideally we want to consume faster-digesting proteins in the time window before and after strength training. Rapid digestion makes those component amino acids available faster so our bodies can immediately get to work repairing the muscle we’ve damaged during our training. Plus, food sitting in your stomach and digesting when you’re trying to exercise doesn’t feel very good! 

On the other hand, a slower digestion process can work to your advantage sometimes. For example, we actually build a significant amount of muscle while we’re sleeping, and having protein slowly breaking down in our system during that process can be helpful. Research has found that consuming casein before bed appears to increase muscle-building, especially in older people.

Personally, I prefer to limit most of my dairy intake close to training to pure whey. I reserve yogurt and milk for other times of day, and sometimes I intentionally save cottage cheese for a bedtime snack because it’s especially high in casein protein. 

All of that said, if you’re just getting started eating higher protein, don’t worry too much about timing. By far the most important issue is getting enough protein throughout the day. If that means eating high-casein cottage cheese right after training, so be it!

Plant-based protein sources

Meat, dairy and eggs are by no means the only sources of protein; you don’t have to choose between being vegan and being strong! However, you may have to work a little bit harder to get the nutrition you need. 

Most animal products contain 6-7x the amount of protein of even the highest-protein plant sources. Our bodies absorb animal protein more readily than plant protein, and animal protein contains more leucine, one of the most important amino acids for muscle-building.  

Another potential challenge with getting protein from plant sources is that they also contain carbohydrates (and sometimes fat)—as opposed to lean meat, which is almost pure protein—so  managing overall calories can be trickier, if that’s a concern. 

None of this means you have to eat animal products to get strong. You just have to be intentional to make sure you’re getting enough protein, and focus on good sources of leucine, such as beans, peas and lentils. Soy products and leafy greens also contain leucine, as does the wheat gluten used to make seitan. 

In addition to straight-up beans and obvious bean-derived products like tofu and tempeh, vegans can look to other products such as high-protein or whole wheat pasta and gram flour (made from chickpeas). Substitute high-protein grains, like kamut, amaranth and quinoa, for rice. Oats and hemp seeds are also high in protein. Ezekiel bread, which is a higher-protein form of bread made with sprouted grains that’s also high in fiber and other nutrients, is quite popular with bodybuilders who not only need the protein but also want to keep calories low.

Don’t go nuts

One common misconception is that nuts and nut butters are a good source of protein. If you’re plant-based, you’ll see many nuts listed as good leucine sources. 

Nuts do contain a lot of protein and leucine, especially for a plant-based food. However, they typically contain much more fat than protein.

For example, 100 grams of pistachios contains about 20 grams of protein, and 1.6 grams of leucine. Awesome! But that same handful of pistachios also contains a whopping 45 grams of fat.

I can’t stress enough that consuming dietary fat is neither good nor bad, and I’m not demonizing nuts for their fat content. How much fat you eat, just like how much protein and carbohydrate, simply needs to map to a proper distribution of macronutrients—more commonly called “macros”—to meet your nutritional goals.

The takeaway should be that nuts are a terrific way to include healthy fats in your diet, with the bonus of some extra protein. However, they’re not a great way to get significant protein into your diet if you’re trying to manage calories.

You can, however, use products like PB Fit, which extract most of the fat from peanut butter and leave the flavor and the protein. What’s left is a great source of plant-based protein: two tablespoons provides nine grams. I love this stuff! You can reconstitute it with water to approximate nut butter, but I find it a little bitter and prefer to use it in shakes and other recipes.

Protein powders and supplements

Many people who eat higher-protein diets to help build muscle use supplements to hit their target. There is an incredibly wide variety of protein powders and shakes out there to choose from, sourced from both animals and plants.

Most protein supplements derive from dairy, although a growing number of plant-based options have hit the market in recent years. And when people talk about protein powder, they’re usually referring to whey protein, which is made by separating the whey from casein and purifying it. However, casein supplements are also available (and handy!).

Powders

Protein powders generally contain somewhere around 20-25 grams of protein per scoop. Most also contain flavorings and sweeteners, but there are some unflavored varieties out there (which happen to be my personal preference).

Regardless of what’s in them, powders require adding at least water or some other liquid if you want to consume them as a drink or shake. You can also add the powder to other things like oatmeal or baked goods (but be aware it may change the texture of what you’re eating, especially if you heat it, so if you want to use it that way, prepare to experiment and look up recipes to find what works.)

Ready-made shakes

Some people prefer ready-to-drink protein shakes and supplements like Fairlife Core Power or Muscle Milk, which contain anywhere from 20-40 grams of protein. This is a more expensive but also more convenient option, especially if you’re traveling; you can usually find at least one brand in most convenience stores and supermarkets. 

Just check the label, because these drinks are not all created equal. Some are almost entirely protein, while others contain more fat, and in a few cases added sugars and carbs. Some are dairy-based; some are plant-based.

Personally, every morning (assuming I’m not traveling and have access to my blender) I construct my own shake using plain whey isolate powder and I use things like frozen fruit, cocoa powder, peanut butter or PB Fit, and Nutella to add flavor and sweetness. I prefer this approach because it gives me maximum flexibility to control and vary the flavor, as well as to add or subtract carbs and fats based on my current goals and caloric targets. 

How do I choose a protein supplement?

If you’re planning to use dairy-based protein supplements, make sure you’re looking at the label to identify whether you’re getting whey or casein protein. I recommend keeping both around the house, because they have different uses as well as different properties (casein has a much thicker, more gelatinous texture and again is a slow-digesting option).

Vegans obviously will want to avoid dairy-based supplements. And, not everyone tolerates whey protein well; it makes some people feel gassy and bloated.

Never fear; if you’re vegan or if whey makes you feel sick, there are lots of plant-based protein supplements made from things like pea, rice and soy protein. 

I’d have to do a whole other post to even start covering all of the protein products available on the market. If you have no idea where to begin, there are lots of websites that provide reviews of protein shakes and powders. Just watch out for manufacturer marketing and look for objective sources. Labdoor is an excellent source of information about both quality and value that I rely on any time I’m trying to decide which supplements to consider. 

Small changes yield big results

If you’re not currently eating much protein, the challenge of getting enough may seem daunting. But you can do it!

It may be easier to start slowly, one meal at a time. How?

  • Normally eat a croissant or muffin and coffee for breakfast? Add or substitute some Greek yogurt or a protein shake.
  • Love meat sauce or tacos? Substitute lean turkey or beef for the ground chuck or pork sausage you normally use.
  • Try roasted chickpeas or pea-based snacks instead of chips (most supermarkets carry one or both, and you can also make your own, they’re delicious).
  • Substitute chicken or turkey bacon or sausage for the pork variety (more protein for the same amount of calories).
  • Try plain yogurt instead of sour cream on your soup or taco.
  • Mix baby kale and chard into your tossed salad and toss in a bit of shredded chicken breast or half a cup of canned beans.

Small changes like these can add a surprising amount of protein to your diet. Eventually you’ll want to start focusing on the bigger sources we’ve discussed, but it’s fine to start small. Just start!

If you’re an experienced high-protein eater and have tips, hacks, or recipes that might help someone newer to the process, please drop a comment to share them with other readers!

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