You’ve probably heard it before: protein is the building block of life. It’s an essential nutrient that plays a key role in virtually everything the body does. But how much protein do women need for optimal health? Especially over the age of 40? In this guide, we’ll answer those questions as well as look at the importance of protein in a woman’s diet, the role of protein in muscle mass and weight management, and we’ll make it easy to calculate your personal protein needs. Let’s get started!
Why Protein Intake for Women Is Important
I’ve heard plenty of women say, “I’m not worried about how much protein I eat because I don’t want big muscles.” While I certainly don’t want you to be “worried” about anything that you eat, it’s important to understand that protein is not just about muscles. It’s integral to your overall health.
Protein and the amino acids that they’re made of are literally the building blocks of life1. It’s required for building, maintaining, and repairing tissues in the body, as well as being vital for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. It’s also responsible for making enzymes, hormones, and other critical chemicals in the body.
As women age, our protein needs increase. This is because we start to lose muscle mass and strength and have to be more intentional about doing the things necessary to maintain them. Losing muscle mass with age is known as sarcopenia. Consuming adequate protein as well as exercise that includes strength training for women are just some of the factors that can help slow the progression of sarcopenia and allow us to maintain and build muscle mass2.
In addition, our bone mass density declines as we age. This is due to lower estrogen levels after menopause3. Since protein is crucial for the development of bone strength, we have to make sure that we’re getting plenty of it. This is just as important in our 40s as we start to go through perimenopause and lay the foundation for how we want to age as it is after menopause4.
Factors Affecting Protein Needs for Women
There are several factors that can affect protein needs for women. Here’s a look at what some of those are.
1. Age: Protein needs for women tend to increase with age. In addition to losing muscle mass, our bone mass density declines as we age. This is due to lower estrogen levels after menopause3. Since protein is crucial for the development of bone strength, we have to make sure that we’re getting plenty of it. This is just as important in our 40s as we start to go through perimenopause and lay the foundation for how we want to age as it is after menopause4.
2. Physical activity level: Women who engage in regular physical activity, especially strength training or endurance exercise, may have higher protein needs. This is because exercise causes muscle breakdown, and protein is necessary for muscle repair and growth5.
3. Pregnancy and breastfeeding: During pregnancy and breastfeeding, a woman’s protein needs increase to support the growth and development of the fetus or infant. This is particularly important during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy when fetal growth is rapid.
4. Body weight and composition: Women with higher body weight or those who have a higher percentage of muscle mass may require more protein. This is because protein needs are typically based on body weight, and muscle is highly protein-dense tissue.
5. Overall health status: Certain health conditions may impact protein metabolism and increase or decrease protein needs. Additionally, women recovering from surgery or injury may require more protein for tissue repair and healing.
How Much Protein Do Women Need?
As we’re answering the question of how much protein do women need, it’s important to keep one thing in mind. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the absolute lowest amount of any nutrient that you should be eating. It is the amount needed to prevent deficiencies or to meet basic nutritional requirements. It is by no means the amount needed for optimal health. If you’re reading this, I know that you want to feel better than just okay. You want to thrive and be healthy. That means that I’m going to give you the RDA for protein, but then I’m also going to give you ranges to consider to meet your own health needs.
The RDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound for sedentary adults ages 19-70+. Again, this is the minimum amount of protein per day that you need. This is especially true when you take into account the vast age range included in the recommended amount and the many factors that change over time that influence your daily protein needs. As we’ve already seen, women over 40, especially those who are active, may need more protein, as do those who are trying to build muscle tone and mass or to lose weight6. At least one study puts the ideal protein intake per day for this latter group at 1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight.
On the more aggressive end of the recommended amounts is Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, a functional medicine practitioner and founder of the Institute for Muscle-Centric Medicine. Dr. Lyon says that evidence shows that in order to prevent muscle loss with aging, we should be doubling the RDA and eating anywhere from 1.6-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
Daily Protein Chart
So how do we boil all of that down into useful information about how many grams of protein per day we need? Here’s a simple chart that shows how much protein women should eat based on body weight in pounds. It assumes a minimum protein intake of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight and a maximum of 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.
|Body Weight in Pounds||Minimum Protein Intake (grams)||Maximum Protein Intake (grams)|
(To convert pounds to kilograms, I used the conversion factor of 1 pound = 0.4536 kilograms. The resulting weight in kilograms was then multiplied by the minimum and maximum protein intake values to get the protein requirement in grams. Please note that these are rough estimates, and individual protein needs can vary based on factors like age, physical activity level, and overall health status.)
Possible Risks of Too Little Protein in Diet
There are a number of risks from not getting enough protein. These include the following:
1. Muscle loss: Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair. Not having enough protein in the diet can lead to muscle wasting and weakness.
2. Weakened immune system: Protein plays a crucial role in supporting a healthy immune system. Insufficient protein intake can impair the production of antibodies and other immune system components, making the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
3. Slow wound healing: Protein is involved in the formation of new tissues and cells, including those involved in wound healing. Without adequate protein intake, the body may have a harder time repairing wounds and recovering from injuries or surgeries.
4.Impaired cognitive function: Protein is necessary for the production of neurotransmitters, which are crucial for brain function. Inadequate protein intake may lead to difficulties in concentration, memory problems, and mental fatigue8.
7. Slow recovery from exercise: Protein is important for repairing and building muscle tissue after exercise. Insufficient protein intake can impede post-workout recovery, leading to delayed muscle repair and increased risk of injury.
8. Weaker bones: Protein is necessary for maintaining bone health and preventing conditions like osteoporosis. Inadequate protein intake may contribute to decreased bone mineral density and increased risk of fractures.
9. Blood sugar fluctuations: Protein helps stabilize blood sugar levels by slowing down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates. If protein intake is insufficient, blood sugar may spike and crash more frequently, leading to energy fluctuations, cravings, and an increased risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes9.
Possible Risks of Excessive Protein Intake
While protein is essential, consuming too much can lead to potential health risks. According to Mayo Clinic, more than two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day would be too much10. Consuming excessive protein puts a strain on many of our body’s systems and causes our kidneys and liver to work too hard. People with existing kidney disease should certainly talk with their doctor and work with a dietician or nutritionist to determine how much dietary protein they need.
In addition, relying mainly on animal protein can put you at risk for consuming too much saturated fat. This can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke.
How to Incorporate Protein into Daily Diet
Meeting your daily protein requirements isn’t difficult if you’re eating a healthy diet. The key is to rely on a variety of protein sources throughout the day. You can’t and shouldn’t try to meet your protein needs in one meal. It’s much better to include high-quality protein in each meal and snack. Instead of just eating an apple, add a food that’s high in protein, such as peanut butter (just be sure and stick with the kind that doesn’t have added sugar).
Here’s a look at some of the best sources of protein.
- Lean meats
- Whole grains
Try to diversify your protein sources to ensure you’re getting a wide range of nutrients. Remember, each type of protein source comes with its own set of additional nutrients, so variety is key!
Additional Considerations for Women Who Are Vegetarian or Vegan
If you’re vegan or vegetarian, there’s no doubt that you’ve been asked many times, “How do you get protein?” The truth is, though, it’s not only possible but relatively easy to meet your protein needs through plant-based sources. Some of the best include the following:
- Soy (Such as tempeh, tofu, and edamame)
- Whole grains
The Role of Protein Powders in Meeting Daily Protein Requirements
Protein powders can be a convenient way to get more protein in your diet, especially if you have higher protein needs due to physical activity, or if you find it hard to get enough protein from food alone.
There are many types of protein powders available, including whey, casein, soy, and pea proteins. Each type has its own pros and cons, so it’s important to choose a protein powder that suits your needs and dietary preferences. It’s also important to read nutrition labels carefully. Just as with any other type of food, protein powder should be as minimally processed as possible. If it has a long list ingredients that you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, keep searching. There are high-quality protein powders out there!
Remember, though, protein powders should not replace whole foods. They’re a supplement, meant to supplement a healthy diet, not replace it.
The Bottom Line on How Much Protein Women Need
When thinking about how much protein women really need, it’s important to keep the general guidelines in mind and balance them with your own specific protein requirements. Whether you’re sedentary or active, young or old, your body needs protein. But it’s equally important to remember that more is not always better.
Balance is the key – balance in protein sources, balance in amino acids, and balance in overall nutrient intake. So, embrace diversity in your protein sources, listen to your body’s signals, and enjoy the journey toward optimal health!
If you’re still unsure of your exact protein needs, I would be happy to help you figure that out!
- NIH. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus. Amino Acids.
- Dhillon RJ, Hasni S. Pathogenesis and Management of Sarcopenia. Clin Geriatr Med. 2017 Feb;33(1):17-26. doi: 10.1016/j.cger.2016.08.002. PMID: 27886695; PMCID: PMC5127276.
- NIH. News in Health. Osteoporosis in Aging.
- International Osteoporosis Foundation. The Role of Protein in Bone Health.
- Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S; American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada; American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Mar;109(3):509-27. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.01.005. Erratum in: J Am Diet Assoc. 2013 Dec;113(12):1759. PMID: 19278045.
- Campbell WW, Kim JE, Amankwaah AF, Gordon SL, Weinheimer-Haus EM. Higher Total Protein Intake and Change in Total Protein Intake Affect Body Composition but Not Metabolic Syndrome Indexes in Middle-Aged Overweight and Obese Adults Who Perform Resistance and Aerobic Exercise for 36 Weeks. J Nutr. 2015 Sep;145(9):2076-83. doi: 10.3945/jn.115.213595. Epub 2015 Aug 5. PMID: 26246322; PMCID: PMC4548166.
- Reshape Your Health Podcast with Dr. Morgan Nolte. How to Prevent Muscle Loss With Aging (Sarcopenia) With Dr. Gabrielle Lyon
- Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research. The Role of Protein and Amino Acids in Sustaining and Enhancing Performance. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999. 14, Amino Acid and Protein Requirements: Cognitive Performance, Stress, and Brain Function.
- Basturk B, Koc Ozerson Z, Yuksel A. Evaluation of the Effect of Macronutrients Combination on Blood Sugar Levels in Healthy Individuals. Iran J Public Health. 2021 Feb;50(2):280-287. doi: 10.18502/ijph.v50i2.5340. PMID: 33747991; PMCID: PMC7956086.
- Mayo Clinic Health System. Are You Getting Too Much Protein?.