Last month, I reviewed the basics about protein, including why we need it, minimum requirements, and where to find good sources. (Refer to September’s To Your Health section for the full article.) Now to answer the question: who may need less, and who may need more? How much protein an individual needs differs from person to person. Unfortunately, there is no one size that fits all. The Institute of Medicine recommends protein intake at a range of 10 to 35 percent of total calories, or roughly 0.8 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight for an adult. This is quite a wide range, but it makes sense considering we all come in different shapes and sizes and our bodies have unique needs. Even one individual adult over the course of a lifespan may have a wide variation in protein needs depending on his or her stage of life, health status and health goals.

Who May Need Less?

Pregnancy and Kidney Disease — Pregnant women and those with pre-existing kidney disease may need to decrease their protein intake or eat on the lower end of the protein range. It may seem counterintuitive, but high protein diets (near 35 percent of calories) are not advised for pregnant women because their bodies’ ability to convert ammonia (a toxic product of protein breakdown) into urea (nontoxic) is compromised. (Protein is, of course, crucial to a baby’s growth.) Those with pre-existing kidney disease should avoid high protein diets because of their damaging effects on the kidneys.

Who May Need More?

Weight Loss — Protein has been shown to help with weight loss in the context of caloric control and physical activity. Higher protein intakes have been shown to decrease appetite and therefore decrease the amount of calories consumed. Studies show that protein has a more satiating effect (making you feel full and satisfied) than fat or carbohydrate. This effect occurs both during and between meals. Protein intake increases metabolism, which means that your body will burn more calories as compared to eating carbohydrates and fats. Lastly, eating protein during weight loss can help preserve the lean body mass that often accompanies the loss of fat during this time.

Blood Sugar and Cardiometabolic Markers — Higher-protein diets can help stabilize blood sugar. Having steady blood sugar levels is important for everyone, but especially for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes. Eating protein at breakfast is important for blood glucose regulation and can help avoid potential blood sugar roller-coaster rides the rest of the day. Eating protein throughout the day is also very helpful. Some people on higher-protein diets also benefit by improving their cardiometabolic markers such as fasting blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol, and C-RP (a marker of inflammation).

Athletes — What about athletes? Protein can help with athletic performance and post-workout recovery. Protein helps the body build new muscle as well as maintain existing muscle tissue. Most physically active adults can get all of their protein needs met with whole, real foods. Professional athletes, however, may need to supplement with extra protein in the form of supplements if they cannot get enough in whole food form from their diets.

Older Adults and Chronic Illness or Disease — Sarcopenia is the involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function as we age. We lose about 3 to 8 percent of our muscle mass per decade after the age of 30. Acute injuries or chronic illness can also lead to chronic muscle wasting and tissue breakdown, called cachexia. Some examples of triggering conditions include cancer, AIDS, heart failure, inflammatory bowel disease, and COPD. Sarcopenia and cachexia can increase the risk of falls, injuries, illness, infection, decrease quality of life, and even lead to death if not addressed.

While sarcopenia and cachexia are multifactorial issues too complicated to address here, it is clear that physical activity is an essential part of the solution. Nutrition, in particular protein, can also play an important role. Eating protein helps prevent and reverse muscle loss by stimulating muscle protein synthesis. This is especially true when we consume essential amino acids, or building blocks of protein. Eating 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal seems to be ideal for maximizing protein synthesis.

Emotional Stress — There is some evidence indicating a link between chronic emotional stress and tissue breakdown, in particular collagen proteins found in our connective tissues, such as joints, tendons, ligaments and skin. When we experience chronic stress, the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, rises, which seems to affect collagen production, but the information here is limited.

Many of us naturally crave the right amounts of protein that we need to survive and thrive. For others, however, this signaling mechanism may not work as well; their appetites for protein do not necessarily dictate how much protein their bodies need. These people, including the ones listed above, would benefit from taking a second look at their protein intake to make sure they are covering their own unique needs.

Salmon Cakes

1 14 oz. can wild salmon
2 slices toast, chopped fine*
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
salt to taste
red pepper flakes
1/2 onion, chopped fine
1-2 Tbsp. coconut oil or ghee (for pan)
* Any bread-crumb substitute will work, such as quinoa flakes, quick oats, etc.

Drain and mash the salmon. Add all ingredients except the oil. Let sit for a few minutes. Form into patties and set aside. (Note: if mixture is too dry, add water. If mixture is too wet, add more bread/flakes.) Heat pan and add oil. Once melted, add cakes. Cook for about 5 minutes or until lightly browned on each side. Enjoy plain or serve with lemon juice, guacamole, salsa, or homemade mayonnaise/tartar sauce.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be taken as medical nutrition therapy or individualized nutrition counseling. Readers seeking individualized nutrition information should seek counseling from a licensed professional.