Study: What Your Protein Habits Say About Your Health

Many U.S. adults over the age of 50 are falling short of their daily protein needs. But why?

Try to incorporate protein into multiple meals each day.

When you walk into a café and glance at the menu or walk down the supermarket aisle, you'll no doubt notice the emphasis on protein in everything from the salads and soups we order to the Greek yogurt, nuts and other foods we buy every week. With so many reminders of its presence, it's easy to assume that you're getting all the protein you need for optimal health.

But that might not be the case, according to a new study conducted by The Ohio State University and Abbott. The study, based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, finds that one in three adults over the age of 50 have insufficient daily protein intake.

Because we all need protein for important functions like building muscles, tissues, bones and antibodies, not getting enough of it can take a toll on your strength, stamina and energy.

Protein Deficits May Be Greater Than Suspected

A closer look at the study reveals that one-third of people with insufficient protein intake were up to 30 grams short each day—the equivalent of five large eggs. One critical reason for this trend is that adults often skip meals, whether it's due to a busy schedule or a decrease in appetite, which can accompany age. In fact, more than 40 percent of those who failed to reach their protein targets reported eating fewer than three meals a day.

Adults with subpar protein consumption also tended to have poorer diets overall, eating fewer healthy foods such as greens, dairy, beans and seafood. The end result is a decreased intake of critical nutrients like zinc, choline and vitamins C and D.

Related: 8 Protein-Inspired Breakfast and Snack Ideas

An Issue at Every Age

Younger people may also be falling short of their protein needs. According to current U.S. dietary recommendations1, a 160-pound woman and 200-pound man would need about 58 grams and 73 grams of protein per day, respectively. However, current recommendations are only meant for an average healthy adult. If you're physically active, pregnant, sick or recovering from an illness or injury, your body might require more protein. That's why many experts now agree that protein needs should be individualized and often times higher than current recommendations.

If you're trying to determine your optimal protein goal, these daily targets can help*:

  • Healthy young women: 58 grams
  • Healthy young men: 73 grams
  • Pregnant women: 71 grams
  • Physically active women (marathoner): 116 grams
  • Physically active men (marathoner): 145 grams
  • Healthy older women: 80 grams
  • Healthy older men: 100 grams
  • Older women with health conditions: 98 grams
  • Older men with health conditions: 123 grams

*Daily protein intake based on average 200-pound man and 160-pound woman using recommended gram per kilogram per day from U.S. DRIs.

Timing Matters

While getting enough protein is critical, research also finds that when you eat it is also important. Eating protein at regular intervals is a truly effective method. A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that older adults who consumed protein with each meal were stronger and less likely to lose muscle than their peers who didn't include protein-rich foods at every meal.

Snacking on high-protein foods, especially near bedtime, may also be helpful. Another study in the Journal of Nutrition found that older men who ate a daily bedtime snack with 40 grams of protein experienced a positive benefit on muscle health.

The Best Sources of Protein

To increase your daily protein intake, try this three-pronged approach:

1. Prioritize protein on your plate: Aim for a serving of chicken, seafood, eggs, beans or dairy at every meal.

2. Snack smarter: Go for snacks that include the best sources of protein, such as Greek yogurt with nuts, string cheese or half a turkey and cheese sandwich.

3. Drink up: Whether you are looking for a snack to have between meals or to increase your mealtime protein, a nutrition shake like Ensure® Max Protein, with 30 grams of protein, can help.

By prioritizing protein at meals you can make small changes that can go a long way in helping to meet your daily intake. Your body will be happier and healthier for it.


[1] Otten JJ, et al. DRI, dietary reference intakes: The essential guide to nutrient requirements. 2006.

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