Protein is a subject of debate, and one of the more frequent arguments you’ll encounter in fitness communities. The one consensus, however, is that the USDA’s recommended protein intake is insufficient for an active lifestyle, and most people aren’t eating enough.

There are a couple of things you should know about protein:

  1. It’s what your body is made from, so you definitely absolutely need enough of it.
  2. It’s relatively expensive.
  3. Not all protein is created equal, so you have to eat the right kinds.

A quick and highly simplified lesson in nutrition:

Everything we eat is made up almost entirely of macronutrients: Carbohydrates, fats, and protein. The rest is micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, which our bodies need in regular but very small quantities, and alcohol, which our body doesn’t need at all, but which many of us enjoy anyway. Our bodies use each macronutrient in a different way, and we need to ingest a certain amount pretty much daily in order to maintain optimum function.

Let’s say for illustration the human body is a car. Carbohydrates are gasoline, the fuel we use to run each day. Except the human body can’t store carbohydrates, so for storage they are converted into fat, the body’s gas tank. Protein is all the structural stuff the car is made from: steel, rubber, glass, and so on. The difference is, instead of getting parts replaced every few months like you do with your car, your body is constantly replacing all of its parts little by little, so it needs a constant supply of protein. If you’re active, and especially if you’re trying to build muscle and improve your fitness level, then your “car” is in a constant state of wear and tear, and needs even more protein to be able to make the repairs and upgrades you’re asking for.

[Again, bear in mind this is highly simplified–your body does a lot of other subtle things with nutrients, like using fat to make hormones, and parts of your body–like your bones and your brain–are made from stuff other than protein, but this illustration will suit us for this particular topic.]

To add a layer of complexity, protein is made up of smaller substances called amino acids. Literally, a molecule of any protein is a strand of amino acid molecules, like the cars in a train. The amino acids are what your body really needs, and when you eat protein your body will break it apart to make use of it. Your body needs 20 different amino acids, but normally it can make 11 of those, by rearranging the molecules of any protein you eat. The other nine, called essential amino acids, can’t be made inside the body and therefore must be eaten.

A protein that provides all of the amino acids your body needs is called a complete protein. Animal protein is always complete–if you think about that car metaphor, you’re basically taking apart one car to build another, so you know all the parts are there. Vegetable sources of protein, like beans, grains, lentils, and nuts, are usually not complete; this is where vegetarians find things just a tiny bit more challenging. By combining two different vegetable protein sources–like beans and rice, or lentils and wheat, will fix the problem by providing all essential amino acids. By the way, there are exceptions: Soy and quinoa are both complete proteins that come from plants.

So how much protein should you eat?

The USDA recommends that protein makes up 10-30 percent of your daily calorie intake. That works out to about 46 grams per day for women, and 56 grams per day for men, or about 0.33 grams per pound of body weight. Yes, the USDA likes to think women all weigh 140 pounds, and men 170. They do this for simplicity, but you can see where it’s a less than ideal system.

Most health and fitness experts agree that the USDA’s recommendations are far too low for active adults. Even the European Food Safety Authority (Europe’s version of the USDA) recommends 0.37 grams per pound. This may not sound like a lot, but for that hypothetical 170-pound American man, that works out to an extra 8-oz steak every day.

That’s right, Americans. Compared to your European neighbors, you are depriving yourselves of a steak a day.

The recommendations from fitness experts are dramatically higher, owing to the increased demand on the body. An adult who engages in regular exercise should be eating at minimum 1 gram per kilogram of body weight (about half a gram per pound), and those engaged in strenuous exercise (lifting a lot to build muscle, or training for an endurance race) should push that as high as 1 gram per pound.

What to watch out for

Before you go ordering that second plate of steak at dinner, first of all be really honest with yourself about your activity level. Olympic athletes should be eating at the upper levels of that guideline; if you’re jogging a couple of times a week, or shooting a few rounds of golf, or hitting the gym for a light workout, too much protein will not only pack a wallop on your wallet, it can also be hard on your body.

There is no clear “overdose” for protein, but very high levels of protein intake have been linked to kidney stones, osteoporosis, and gout. You’ve probably encountered reports that protein intake, and especially animal protein intake, raises your risk of various cancers. These studies are dubious, at best, but not conclusively disproven. That said, even the upper level recommended by fitness experts is well within safe parameters. To help reduce risks, those eating high protein diets should make sure they’re drinking plenty of water to help move excess safely through the kidneys.

Aiming to eat higher protein carries other challenges. As mentioned, protein is expensive compared with other macronutrients–this is, in my opinion, the most likely reason we tend not to get enough. You may also find it’s challenging to get enough protein without raising your carbohydrate and fat intake. Depending on your choice of protein source, one or the other tends to come along for the ride. You also need to beware of preparation–even if you choose a particularly lean cut of meat, by the time it lands on your plate there’s a good chance it’s been braised in a sugary syrup, breaded, wrapped in bacon, or drenched in butter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of all things delicious, but they’re not helping your fitness goals.

I joke about eating an extra steak a day, but beef is far from the best source for protein. Take a look at that photo to the left–see that beautiful marbling? That’s a whole bunch of fat, delicious but lurking and ready to sabotage your healthy diet. In reality you want to focus on sources of clean protein (protein that doesn’t come with a lot of fat or carbohydrate) like chicken breast, most pork and fish, and protein supplements.

Yep, I said protein supplements. That tub of protein powder at the store isn’t just for bodybuilders. Mix it into yogurt or a smoothie to up your protein levels, or just shake it up with some water for a quick shake. The ideal way to take in protein is in moderate doses throughout your day, generally 20-30 grams at a time. This not only provides your body with a steady flow of the amino acids it needs, but because protein tends to make you feel full and satisfied, it will help curb cravings that might derail your healthy eating goals.

How to increase your protein intake successfully

Clients I advise to up their protein intake frequently find it more difficult than they expect, so here are some techniques I recommend:

Keep High-Protein Snacks on Hand

Find a couple of protein bars and shakes that you like, and have them around constantly. Keep some in the car, in your purse or jacket pocket, in your desk drawer at work, and in the kitchen. The idea is that when you crave a snack, you grab something protein-focused that will satisfy that craving and also give you a little protein boost. Personally I’m a huge fan of Pure Protein’s canned protein shakes, ThinkThin high protein bars, and Builder Bars from Clif. None of these is a paid endorsement, I just find they are better tasting than most other brands, and provide a lot of protein with relatively little sugar or fat. Other people like Greek yogurt, and bodybuilders swear by pre-cooked chicken breasts. I’ve also recently discovered powdered peanut butter, which is an amazing product that brings all the protein and flavor of peanut butter with only a fraction of the fat–absolutely perfect for a smoothie.

Record and Review

I advise all of my clients to use a nutrition tracker. There are several great ones available for free on your smartphone–in fact, I’ll post a review of my favorites soon. Tracking your nutrition helps in a couple of ways: One, it will help you figure out your problem foods, the ones you overindulge on that aren’t helping you. Two, it’ll help you find the foods you do like that are providing the nutrients you need. Once you identify the high-protein foods you enjoy most, stock up on those and keep them handy.

Always Read Labels

I spent two months eating something called a “Protein Power Pack” from Duane Reade almost every day for lunch before I ever bothered to read the label, and realized its paltry protein content was dwarfed by carbs and fat. Don’t take a product’s word that it’s a “GOOD SOURCE OF PROTEIN” or trust it because it has “Protein” in the name. Turn it over and read the label it’s legally required to wear.

Quality and Variety Are Key

Whether you’re choosing animal or vegetable protein sources, try to focus on clean, complete proteins. Fish is generally better than beef, for instance, because beef brings a lot more fat along for the ride. Nuts and seeds are a fantastic source of protein along with fiber and micronutrients, but they are positively loaded with fat, and while I absolutely recommend them, they should only ever be a small part of your diet. That said, you can only eat so many chicken breasts and salmon filets. It’s important to introduce some variety–edamame can make a nice substitute for pretzels or popcorn, and quinoa stands in nicely for rice. And of course you should let yourself have that steak occasionally, just as long as you’re not overdoing it. Red meat once a week (or less) is best.

Don’t Get Single-Minded

Though you don’t want unnecessary fat and carbohydrates riding along as you try to increase protein intake, you also don’t want to eliminate them from your diet! Yes, high-protein, low-carb diets have become all the rage in recent years, but they are not compatible with a healthy lifestyle or most fitness goals. Your body needs all nutrients every day to function properly. Deprive your body of fat, and you won’t have the hormones you need to stimulate muscle growth and other core functions; reduce your carbs too much, and you’ll not only lose energy, but your body will begin breaking down that muscle you are trying to build and maintain. If you’re getting enough protein, it should be around 30% of your diet, or possibly a bit more at the extreme end. Aim for around 25% of your calories to come from fat, and the rest from carbohydrates.

Do Something With It

Just as your body needs food, it also needs exercise. Experts now recommend 10,000 steps a day for every person just to maintain a baseline for health, and as we age we need exercise to maintain muscle strength, balance, and bone density. Regular cardiovascular exercise reduces stress and depression, improves life expectancy, lowers risk of heart attack and stroke, and has even been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. So get up, get outside, and give your body something to do with all that protein.