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How Much Protein Do I Really Need?

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Updated October 19, 2013

How Much Protein Do I Really Need?
Photo © Olga Lyubkina
Question: How Much Protein Do I Really Need?
Question: Thank you for your recent article about protein. I'm curious as to why the Food Pyramid Web site (note: this has been more recently chanced to the My Plate site, which has similar recommendations) says that as a 60 year old man who exercises about 45 minutes a day, I should get only 6.5 ounces of protein per day. This would only be about 45 grams of protein. Since I weigh about 200 lbs, I should be getting 74 grams according to the formula in your article. Can you clear up this confusion for me?
Answer: The new Dietary Guidelines attempt to help people meet daily requirements of nutrients by putting together a whole picture of various food groups, based on a person's age, gender, and activity level (in other words, their estimated calorie needs). The different foods fit together like a puzzle - if you change one thing, you throw the rest off (this, in fact, is one of the criticisms of the guidelines). In the case of protein, bear in mind that the "Meat and Beans Group" is not the only one that contains protein. You'll notice that in addition to the 6.5 ounces of meat and beans (the purple stripe), there is a light blue stripe advising 3 cups of milk. If you followed this, you'd be getting an additional 24 grams of protein. Also, although grains don't have a lot of protein, they do have some.

Now, what happens if you are one of the people (most of the world) who is lactose intolerant or don't eat dairy products for other reasons? If you click on the "milk" section of your pyramid, it tells you to use lactose-free products or "consume other calcium sources". Those other calcium sources often will not provide the protein which milk does. Although it doesn't say to add protein, you definitely should. (Also, remember that these protein requirement are minimums, not exact amounts.)

Any number of similar issues could throw off the pyramid. Most of the readers of this site don't do well with as much carbohydrate as is advised, for example. Also, the calorie needs are an estimate - with any individual, or on any given day, actual calorie needs will vary widely.
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