Macronutrients, more commonly referred to as macros in the fitness realm, are the three main nutrient categories of food. Between the three—carbohydrates, protein, and fat—it is protein that gets the most discussion when it comes to fitness. That’s because if you don’t eat enough protein, you won’t be easily able to build muscle. Muscle is composed of protein itself, so that makes perfect sense.
Protein needs vary depending on a person’s activity level, as well as how everyone’s unique bodies respond to different macronutrients. The standard recommendation by the FDA is for everyone to eat 50 grams of protein a day, provided they’re eating a total of 2,000 calories (, but it isn’t quite that simple; the amount of protein you need for your lifestyle could be very different from that recommendation.
For input on exactly how much protein people need according to how much activity they get, and how protein needs change depending on what kind of activities a person does, we spoke to De Lune co-founder and registered dietitian nutritionist Courtney Mayszak.
How Active Are You?
Those with a daily life that involves a lot of sitting and not much movement can be considered less active. If you don’t exercise often, work at a computer, and don’t do much walking, you can probably consider yourself a fairly sedentary person. If you fall within this category, the FDA-recommended daily protein intake is probably a good benchmark. “Sedentary people need around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, so about 54 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound person,” suggests Mayszak.
(Ed. note: Of course, depending on your weight and physiology, you may need to adjust this amount. Speak with a physician to determine what’s appropriate for you.)
If you’re normally inactive but you do find yourself occasionally doing more, you’ll want to increase your protein intake at those times. Mayszak says that “most people already link muscle-building exercises like weight lifting with increased protein needs, which is true,” but that “any activity that would leave you feeling sore afterwards requires protein to repair muscle damage, which helps muscles grow bigger and stronger in the process.” For any time in life that you’re more active, just follow the guidelines for the moderate or very active lifestyles below.&
Pretty Active or Moderately Active
People who walk regularly, exercise at least occasionally, and/or stand on their feet or move around for work fall into the pretty active, or moderate category. If this is you, protein intake is more important than for people who are less active. Mayszak thinks that “moderately active people need 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per kiloggram of body weight (68-82 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound person).” That’s between 20 and 25% more protein than is needed for someone who is less active.
If you have a moderately active lifestyle, you might work out but not do serious muscle building work, such as weight lifting. For those lighter activities, Mayszak says that “less intense cardio-based exercises lasting under an hour usually don’t require additional protein.” However, the timing of when you eat protein is important. She says that it’s important to be mindful of how and when you’re eating, and notes that “eating carbohydrates and protein in about a 4:1 ratio 1-2 hours after working out is helpful for replenishing glycogen stores and repairing muscles.”
If you’re an athlete or an avid exerciser, meaning you work out most days of the week for at least a short amount of time, you fall within the label of very active. For this group of people, protein needs are, unsurprisingly, the highest. Mayszak suggests that “people with very active lifestyles need anywhere between 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (82-122 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound person).” Specific needs, however, depend on the activity. “Research supports using the lower end of that range (1.2-1.4 grams) for endurance athletes, and the higher end (1.4-1.8 grams) for athletes trying to increase their muscle mass,” she adds.
Even if you aren’t a serious athlete, though, you could need additional protein. “Research shows short, intense bursts of activity like High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can also deplete protein stores, as can endurance activities like long distance running or swimming,” says Mayszak. That means that it’s important to consume a sufficient amount of protein to replenish your body’s supply of it.
The Best Sources of Protein
Based on the guidelines above, you should have a fairly clear idea of how much protein to eat depending on your lifestyle and the particular types of exercise you do. But what exactly should you eat to get your daily dose of protein? Mayszak suggests “Greek yogurt, eggs, beans, chicken, and oily fish like salmon and tuna are great protein sources no matter one’s activity level.” Other great sources of protein include lean cuts of beef, cottage cheese, almonds, pork tenderloin, and tempeh. To give you some ideas of how much of those foods you should eat, it’s helpful to have an idea of how much protein they contain. Here are some examples.
- Greek yogurt: 17 grams per one single serving container
- Eggs: 6 grams of protein per large egg
- Beans: 20 grams per ½ cup raw (at least 1 cup cooked)
- Chicken: 38 grams per cup, cooked
- Salmon: 40 grams per ½ fillet serving
- Tuna: 43 grams per ½ fillet serving
- Lean beef: 48 grams per steak
- Cottage cheese: 25 grams per cup
- Almonds: 12 grams per 20 almond serving
- Pork tenderloin: 30 grams per four ounce serving
- Tempeh: 30 grams per cup
When to Eat Protein
Getting enough protein is vital to being able to build muscle and have the energy you need, but when you eat it is also important. “More active people should just be sure to go easy on protein immediately before a workout,” says Mayszak, because “protein is digested more slowly, and the work needed to digest it may divert oxygen away from muscles.” You should go “heavier on protein after the workout—either by itself or with a carbohydrate—to enhance muscle repair and growth.”
The amount of protein you need to eat varies greatly depending on your lifestyle. Sedentary people can follow the FDA’s guidance of about fifty grams per day, while very active athletes need about twice that amount. There are many high quality sources of protein, ranging from plant based sources to animal based, to help you ensure you are always getting enough of what your body needs.