"How much protein do I really need?" This is a typical question I get during a routine nutrition counseling session. With the ever-growing popularity of high protein fad diets on the market promoting weight loss consumers are often confused as to how much protein their bodies actually need.

So, first, let's start with why our bodies need protein. When we eat protein our digestive system breaks it down into amino acids, which are then absorbed into our bloodstream. After this process occurs, our bodies turn on metabolic pathways that lead the creation of new muscle tissue. Muscles burn calories, therefore the more muscle we have, the more calories we will burn at rest, making it easier to lose or maintain our weight. This is why protein has become such an important component in weight loss diets.

So, how much is enough? The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is equivalent to 0.36 grams per pound of body weight each day. So, for a 150-pound person that would be equivalent to 54 gm of protein per day. While this number may be appropriate for a sedentary healthy young adult, this number changes depending on activity level, type of activity being done, and age. If you are participating in intense weight lifting, for example, your protein needs might bump up to 0.81 grams of protein per pound of body weight, or 121 grams per day for the 150-pound person, more than double the RDA. Current research is showing that the RDA for protein needs to be increased, especially for middle-aged and older adults.

The amount of muscle our bodies generate from the protein we eat decreases as a natural part of the aging process. If left unchecked without an intervention including appropriate protein intake and weight bearing exercise, our muscle mass will start to decrease as we get older. This is partially why as we age our calorie needs decrease. To help avoid our bodies' natural tendency to decrease muscle mass as we age, one of the things that can be done is to eat the right amount and type of protein at the right time.

The amount of protein needed in grams per day that can help slow down muscle loss is around half of your body weight. For example, the 150-pound person should be consuming around 75 grams of protein per day instead of the 54 grams the RDA would give that person. However, consuming the amount all at once has proven to be ineffective as well. There seems to be a "magic number" of protein needed at each meal to be most effective. This number is around 30 grams of protein per meal, which is equivalent to the amount of protein in 4 ounces of cooked meat. While this might be easy to do for dinner, when most people eat the bulk of their protein for the day, it may be more difficult to eat that much protein at breakfast and lunch. If 30 grams is difficult to achieve at breakfast and lunch, aim for at least 20 grams of protein for these meals.

The type of protein matters also. Leucine, an essential amino acid, is known to help our bodies build muscle better than any other amino acid. The highest sources of leucine are: eggs, dairy, meat, poultry and fish. Including a high leucine source of protein into each meal will help prevent muscle loss.

Leucine content is very high in whey, one of the two proteins found in milk. This is why whey protein powder is used so often by body builders to gain muscle mass. However, whey protein powder may offer benefits not only to body builders, but to older adults as well. It is a convenient alternative for those trying to get their needed 20-30 grams of protein in at breakfast. Just one scoop of whey protein powder usually contains around 21 grams of protein, when added with milk, which has 8 grams per cup, can get close to the magic 30 grams quite easily.

However, whey protein powder is not the only answer to increasing breakfast protein intake. Other high leucine sources of protein such as eggs or egg whites can be just as effective. It would take 6 egg whites to equal the same amount of protein found in 1 scoop of standard whey protein powder. Use caution when buying protein powder. Often other additives claiming to help build muscle will be included in these powders. Some of these ingredients can be harmful, and some are just unnecessary. If you are buying whey protein powder, make sure you buy 100% whey and check to make sure there are no other additives included.

Lastly, timing of protein intake seems to be important in addition to type and amount. Immediately after strength training exercise is when the most muscle will be generated, so protein should be consumed within 30 minutes to 1 hour following strength-training activities. Current research suggests your body only needs around 20 grams of protein post-workout for maximum muscle growth. The remainder will be either burned off or stored.

Even if you need to increase the protein in your diet, remember: protein is important, but it is only one piece of a balanced diet. Carbohydrates and fats are both needed in addition to protein to lead healthy, active lives.

To learn more about how much protein, carbohydrate and fat you need to optimize your health, contact a Registered Dietitian to set up an appointment.

Rebecca Lee, RD, LDN is the Registered Dietitian at the EJGH Wellness Center. She can be reach at (504) 849-6801 or rmlee@ejgh.com.