If you comb the internet for the answer to the question, “How much protein should women consume?” you’ll be bombarded with facts about the protein needs…of men. With research suggesting that there are some subtle differences between protein needs based on sex, it’s important for women to understand what their bodies need for optimal health and performance.
In this article, we’re going to share with you the facts about protein for women, including how much you need, when to consume it, what types of protein are best, and how to know if you’re getting enough.
Why You Need to Consume Enough Protein
Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are the three macronutrients essential for human life. While protein deficiency is rare in the US and other industrialized nations, many people still do not consume enough protein for optimal benefits.
Eating plenty of protein has been found to:
- Encourage muscle growth and maintenance
- Reduce cravings and increase satiety
- Accelerate post-injury recovery
- Boost metabolism
- Lower blood pressure
Because of these benefits, getting enough protein is of particular importance for:
- Athletes or anyone with an active lifestyle
- The elderly (as muscle mass decreases with age)
- Those who are dieting
Protein Guidelines for Women
Protein needs for women are largely dependent upon lifestyle. Sedentary women need the least, women bodybuilders and strength trainers the most, and endurance athletes and active women have needs that fall somewhere in between.
According to Rice University, the ideal daily protein intake for these groups is:
- Sedentary women: 0.4 g/lb body weight
- Active women:4-0.6 g/lb body weight
- Bodybuilding women:6-0.9 g/lb body weight
You may notice that each of these recommendations is less than the 1 g/lb body weight that you’ll often hear touted in the male fitness realm. There are two things to understand here. The first is that women need around 25% less protein than men. Additionally, research suggests that this 1 g/lb body weight is too much, even for male athletes.
There are other factors that can impact how much protein you need. You are likely to need more protein than you normally would when you are looking to lose weight, build muscle, or heal from an injury. However, it’s unlikely that you would need more than 0.9 g/lb body weight daily, even in these circumstances.
When Women Should Consume Protein
In order to get the biggest benefit from your protein, it’s about more than just how much you eat; it’s also about when you eat. You should try to:
- Space your protein out over the day: By eating protein throughout the day, you can reduce food cravings and give your body the tools that it needs for muscle synthesis.
- Consume protein following your workout: Researchers have found that women who consume protein after exercise experience the greatest benefit (for men, protein consumption before exercise is more important).
- Add supplemental protein between meals: If you do strength training, consuming a supplemental source of rapidly digestible, high quality protein between meals can help to support muscle maintenance and growth.
Can You Get Too Much Protein?
Yes, you can get too much protein. If you consume far more protein that your body requires for an extended period of time, you may increase your risk of certain diseases, such as kidney disease.
Additionally, evidence suggests that adding more protein past an optimal amount will not do more to help you lose weight or add muscle. What this tells us is that you should be careful not to consume excess protein for a long period of time.
How to Tell if You’re Getting Enough Protein: Nitrogen Balance
All foods that you eat are composed of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, but only foods with protein contain nitrogen. Because of this, it’s easy to determine if you’re consuming enough protein.
Nitrogen balance is a measurement of the nitrogen that you take in through protein-rich foods and supplements minus that which your body uses. There are three states that your nitrogen balance can be in:
- Negative nitrogen balance: If you have a negative nitrogen balance, you’re not consuming enough protein. You won’t be able to gain muscle, and you may lose what you already have as your body cannibalizes its tissues to obtain the amino acids that it needs to function.
- Neutral nitrogen balance: A neutral nitrogen balance means that you are consuming exactly what your body is using. When you have a neutral nitrogen balance, you are unlikely to lose or gain muscle mass.
- Positive nitrogen balance: When you have a positive nitrogen balance, you are consuming more protein than your body is using. If you’re wanting to build muscle, you will want to have a slightly positive nitrogen balance.
As a rule, it’s best to be at a neutral or slightly positive nitrogen balance. If you’re working to build muscle, lose weight, or recover from an injury, a positive nitrogen balance is best.
You can easily measure your nitrogen balance by purchasing a nitrogen test kit that measures the level of nitrogen in your urine. This can be a great way to determine if you’re consuming adequate protein.
The Best Sources of Protein
It’s best to get most of the protein that you need through your diet with nutritious whole foods. Some healthy high-protein foods include:
- Wild-caught fish
- Organic chicken
- Free-range eggs
- Greek yogurt
- Tempeh or tofu
- Legumes (beans and lentils)
Protein powders can serve as a good source of supplemental protein for times when you aren’t able to eat a complete meal, when you’re on a diet, or when you have increased protein needs (such as after a workout or an injury). In fact, research has found whey protein powder to aid in weight loss, likely through curbing appetite and reducing excess calorie consumption.
Women’s protein needs are unique, and for athletes and those looking to lose weight, it’s important to ensure that you’re getting the protein that your body needs. Eating a diet full of protein-rich whole foods and supplemental whey protein can help women athletes and dieters achieve the results they’re after.
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