Co-founder of Sparkle Wellness
“How much protein should I eat?” is a very common question that doesn’t have a simple or straightforward answer, especially for women because it really depends on what life stage you are at, your activity levels, which phase of your menstrual cycle you are in, your body weight, and your goals.
We’ve roped in Dr. Mani Kukreja, who is the founder of Livagewell, an integrative health and wellness practice, to help us understand how much protein women really need to attain optimal health.
Why is protein so important? “Protein is an essential macronutrient as it helps build and repair tissues, regulates hormones and neurotransmitters, and stimulates the skeletal muscles,” states Dr. Kukreja. “Therefore your body continually demands for protein, so it’s through your diet and supplements that you can replenish this need.”
She adds, “A diet too low in protein can lead to loss in muscle tone, hair loss, hormone imbalances and faster aging. Regardless of age, maintaining an appropriate protein intake is essential to being healthy.”
You may have encountered the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for protein which is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This amount is the minimum you need to keep from getting sick. Dr. Kukreja gives an average example, “For someone who weighs 65 kilograms (or 143 pounds), they would need approximately 52 grams of protein per day.” This translates to about 10% of an average active adult’s total daily calorie intake.
You can calculate the amount of protein suitable for your body weight using this online calculator.
So what amount of protein do you really need to thrive? It makes sense to increase your daily protein intake above the RDA and Dr. Kukreja proposes a range of consuming 0.8 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, depending on your needs.
Dr. Kukreja recommends, “Keep in mind you want to calculate your protein needs based on your ideal body weight, so it may be more or less depending on whether you’re trying to gain or lose mass.”
Calculating how much protein you would need can fall within a wide range, so we encourage you to consider which life stage you are at. Dr. Kukreja gives an example, “Women above 65 need a minimum of 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to maintain proper muscle mass to avoid malnourishment or injury. As we age, two of the biggest threats to our lives are frailty and obesity, and those can lead to falls and metabolic diseases. After 65, we become less responsive to protein as an anabolic stimulus for muscle growth.”
Another key stage in a woman’s life where you need to increase your protein needs is when you are pregnant, as you are growing more tissue and muscle. Breastfeeding women need to balance what they lose in producing milk by increasing their protein intake.
Perimenopausal women (this transitional life stage can start as early as 35) begin to lose muscle tone and gain weight as their hormones go through a shift so their protein needs also need to change.
Menstrual cycle phase
Early studies show that where you are at in your menstrual cycle may dictate how much protein you need as well. During the luteal phase — the time after ovulation and till your period starts — you are more insulin resistant so filling up on more good quality protein, fats, and fiber can be a healthy way to feel full for longer and to keep cravings at bay.
The more intense your workouts, the more protein we need to rebuild the muscles we worked. According to this research study on the protein needs of pre-menopausal women, recreational and competitive female athletes undertaking aerobic endurance need 1.28-1.63 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, those doing resistance training (weight-lifting) need 1.49 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, while those who do interval or intermittent training (HIIT) require 1.41 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, for a 60-to-90-minute session.
Dr. Kukreja recommends this practice, “Know your post-exercise refuelling window. Consuming protein after exercise matters to muscle protein synthesis and is different depending on your age and sex. Pre-menopausal women need 30 grams of protein post-workout and have a 90-minute window to re-fuel, while post-menopausal women need even more at 40 grams.”
If you have additional needs such as weight-loss or wanting to improve muscle tone, increasing your protein needs can make a lot of sense.
This research study has found that a high protein diet (two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day and above) could help with losing weight. And this Harvard Health Publishing article underlines this thinking as well, “If you increase protein, dietary arithmetic demands that you eat less of other things to keep your daily calorie intake steady.”
If you would like to focus on toning or building muscle, eating high-quality protein within two hours of exercise helps to stimulate the skeletal muscles to build new tissue, as this other study found in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition.
For those who suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease who are at risk of consuming too much protein, Dr. Kukreja recommends a lower protein intake of 0.8 to one gram per kilogram of body weight.
After throwing these numbers at you, what do they really mean and how do you apply them to daily life?
Let’s start with a simple example, one boiled chicken egg gives you six grams of protein, so if you have two eggs for breakfast, you get 12 grams of protein. If you are an active healthy person aiming for 75 grams of protein per day, you would be aiming to get an average of 25 grams of protein per meal. So two eggs will make up half your protein intake for one meal.
A standard serving size of meat and fish is three ounces (or 85 grams) which translates to the size of your palm, so that means you get about 20 grams of protein in an average portion of salmon and 30 grams of protein in a similar-sized piece of steak.
How about non-meat based protein foods? One measuring cup of plain Greek yogurt (13 grams of protein) is equivalent to the size of a clenched fist, while a standard serving size of almond butter is two tablespoons (seven grams of protein) which is about the same as a heaping dinner spoon’s worth.
Before you ramp up your daily protein intake, Dr. Kukreja cautions, “Don’t interpret eating more protein as eating more meat. Although beef, chicken, and pork (as well as milk, cheese, and eggs) may supply high-quality protein, so can many plant foods such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, and vegetables.”
A varied diet with colourful produce and switching up different types of protein can help you meet your daily protein needs. Dr. Kukreja emphasizes, “A person does not need to consume foods containing all the essential amino acids at each meal because their body can use amino acids from recent meals to form complete proteins. Eating a variety of protein throughout the day is the best way for a person to meet their daily protein needs. It’s also important to consider the other nutrients that invariably come with protein-rich foods.”
On busy days, Dr. Kukreja likes to recommend supplementing with essential amino acids (EAAs) to keep stimulating the muscle protein synthesis, “EAAs are the amino acids that your body can’t make on its own, so you must get them from your diet or supplementation.”
Plain Greek yogurt and high-protein collagen peptide powders are two of Dr. Kukreja’s top ways to refuel after exercise.
She continues, “If muscle gain or toning is your priority, you might want to consider the convenience of protein supplements like Muscle Boost, which not only tones muscles by way of building muscle strength, it also increases lean muscle mass, while burning fat mass alongside resistance training.”
How much of your daily protein intake can be made up of collagen peptides? Although they are high in protein, collagen peptide supplements still lack one key amino acid, called tryptophan. What is helpful is that this research study shows up to 36% of your daily protein intake can come from collagen peptide supplements without compromising your amino acid requirements and you can safely reap the benefits of these supplements that optimize joint, skin, bone, and muscle health, on top of a balanced diet.
Lastly, Dr. Kukreja advises, “Always reach for high-quality protein foods like lean meat, tofu, plain yogurt, nuts and seeds as part of your daily diet as they play such an important role in keeping your muscles strong, regulating hormones, and promoting weight management.”