How much protein do we actually need?

It’s a key question for athletes and in recent years, it’s also being asked by a broadening section of the world’s population: How much protein should people ideally consume?

Stuart Phillips
Stuart Phillips Professor, Director, Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE), McMaster University Department of Kinesiology

There is, of course, no single answer. Current science does tell us, however, that optimal protein consumption patterns are likely to depend on a number of factors, with the key ones identified thus far being age, physical activity, protein sources and meal amount. In any case, the condition of skeletal muscle is a vital issue for people at all stages and from all walks of life.

Let’s examine the likely protein needs of each life stage – based on research findings over the past few decades. And while we’re doing that, let’s also take a critical look at current Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) used in the US and many other countries, and how well these reflect or do not reflect such findings.

Early life
Children are programmed to grow – and their bodies are expert at maximising protein synthesis for whatever food forms they consume. With all that growth, however, they need a very high amount of protein per kilogram of body weight. As the fastest-growing individuals in terms of percentage increase in body mass, infants have the greatest need (the DRI for protein intake states 1.52g per kilogram of body weight per day for infants), while toddlers are considered to need somewhat less, at 1.05g/kg/d. 

Where children are concerned, these values are probably quite accurate, in part supported by evidence from regions of the world where it has been possible to measure the effect of adding different protein levels to the diets of children recovering from malnutrition. 

If the extent to which they are able to keep their bedrooms tidy were a measure of dietary requirements, most teenagers would appear to be in constant energy deficit. From a protein requirements point of view, however, they are still growing, albeit at a slowing rate – so it’s estimated that around 0.95g/kg/d is adequate for a typical activity profile.

Research tells us that healthy humans who lead ‘normal’ lifestyles, need the least protein of any age group – just 0.8g/kg/d. For the critically ill who need extra support either to recover or whose diets need constant supplementation, the DRI lists higher levels of protein from 1.2g/kg/d to 2.2g/kg/d. 

Perhaps the most studied group, however, is those who participate in intense resistance exercise – anything from weight-lifting to heavy manual labor. Study results are varied, to say the least, ranging from no measured effect from increased protein levels to significant support for increased skeletal muscle protein synthesis and improved body composition. 

Overall, however, there’s a general consensus that high-quality protein supplements and carefully planned ingestion schedules are key to building and re-building muscle mass at the limits of the body’s capability. Powerlifters, for example, are likely to benefit from intakes of around 1.6-1.8 g/kg/d, broken into around four daily meals. And if such athletes are in energy deficit, I believe they might find further benefit from protein supplementation up to 2.2g/kg/d. Beyond this point, however, supplementation is far less likely to provide positive gains in muscle mass

An age-old problem
What about older people? The median age in many countries, led by Japan, Germany and Italy, is increasing. Along with an aging population, a new mentality has emerged – one focused on ensuring good quality of life, characterized by a healthy mind, a healthy body and a good level of mobility. 

Working against this ideal, however, are age-related declines physical activity, muscle mass and strength, the sum of which is known as sarcopenia. And studies suggest that decreased strength/muscle mass means increased risk of early death, all-cause or cancer-related, especially for those over 60 years of age. Maintaining muscle mass and strength, therefore, is key to the quality of life in its latter stages.

A combination of physical activity and  protein consumption will likely slow down sarcopenia in aging populations. But a large body of data also indicates that older persons could benefit from consuming significantly more protein than the  0.8 g/kg/d the DRI suggests for the over-65s. And that’s a disturbing finding, when you consider that older people are likely to ingest less protein than younger ones, due, for example, to reduced appetite with age.

Seen from another perspective, as people age, it seems their bodies respond less vigorously to protein ingestion (as is also the case for people of all ages with type-2 diabetes). Elderly men’s muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise, for example, has been shown to be maximally stimulated by around twice the amount of protein required to achieve the same effect in younger subjects! In all, such findings should be a real wake-up call for the elderly and for health professionals who guide their dietary choices. Analyses of data from a number of studies lead us to recently conclude that older people consume around 1-1.2 g protein/kg/d.

Which protein?
Whether you’re a professional athlete or just someone who’d like to continue playing casual golf into your twilight years, the type of protein you use to improve your life is of vital importance. Here, milk proteins – and whey protein, in particular – may be a smarter choice than soy or other plant-based proteins, for example. Milk’s effectiveness as a protein source is partly due to its combination of whey and casein proteins – and consuming whey causes amino acid blood levels to rise more quickly than is the case for soy or casein. Whey also provides increased synthesis of muscle proteins when at rest compared with soy or casein, probably triggered by its high levels of the amino acid leucine.

In my first post on the Whey & Protein Blog, I addressed the persistent myths that a high dairy or high protein diet may endanger the kidneys, the liver or bone health – so I won’t go into those issues here, but I’d recommend taking the time to understand those issues, as they may, in fact, be standing in the way of improved health for a broad section of the population.

Good to know
The “How much protein?” question is certainly a fascinating one. And the answers are still difficult to rely upon as guidance for the general population. For example, the vast majority of studies in this field include only male subjects – although there is some evidence that women can moderately improve their body composition through whey protein supplementation, too. And the effect of dietary choices is known to be highly individual – with study results usually reported as averages that may not be occur in any one person.

For now, it may be best to err on the side of caution, encouraging both older persons, sedentary lifestylers and fitness fanatics to consume a little more protein, whatever the source may be. After all, we (probably) only get one life – so let’s live it as long and as strong as we can!

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