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5 Reasons You May Need More Protein—Even on a Paleo Diet


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Finding good sources of protein is important on a Paleo diet. iStock.com/PiotrKrzeslak

Most people naturally eat the right amount of protein for their needs. Protein is such a crucial nutrient that the brain has specific mechanisms that increase your desire for it if you need more and decrease your desire for it if you’re getting too much; these mechanisms are difficult to override through willpower alone. For this reason, my general recommendation is to simply eat as much protein as you crave.

In the U.S., this typically averages about 15 percent of the total calories consumed each day (roughly 113 grams for an active male eating 3,000 calories, or 83 grams for an active female consuming 2,200 calories).

However, there are certain situations where it may be advantageous to increase protein intake to 20 to 30 percent of calories, or even as high as 35 percent of total calories—at least temporarily.

Find out if eating more protein makes sense for you, even if you eat a Paleo diet.

“Wait a second,” you might say. “Don’t high-protein diets cause kidney disease and cancer?” This is yet another urban myth. Studies have shown that protein intakes up to 35 percent of calories (or even higher) are safe for people without pre-existing kidney problems—especially if you make sure to get enough glycine in your diet. And there’s no evidence that high protein diets increase the risk of cancer, as long as you’re eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. For more information, read this recent article I wrote on the topic.

Now let’s take a closer look at five groups of people that often benefit from a higher protein intake.

Five Groups of People That May Benefit from a Higher Protein Intake

1. People Trying to Lose Weight

A large body of evidence suggests that high protein diets are effective for fat loss. (1) Protein is more satiating than fat and carbohydrate, which means we feel more satisfied when we eat it. (2) When we feel more satisfied, we naturally eat less—and lose weight without trying.

For example, researchers put a group of overweight volunteers into an environment where food intake could be controlled precisely. After increasing their protein intake from 15 percent of calories to 30 percent, study participants consumed about 440 fewer calories per day, and lost an average of 11 pounds over 12 weeks. They did this without counting calories or intentionally eating less. (3; Hat tip to Dr. Stephan Guyenet for this study.)

In fact, some recent research suggests that the reason low-carb diets are effective for weight loss is not because they are low in carbohydrate, but because they are high in protein. (4)

2. People with Blood Sugar and Metabolic Problems

High-protein diets have also been shown to have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar, and lead to beneficial changes in a wide range of metabolic, cardiovascular and inflammatory markers, from insulin sensitivity to cholesterol and triglycerides to C-reactive protein. (5, 6)

3. Athletes and People Who Train Hard

Protein is the nutrient required to build and rebuild muscle. If you want to add or maintain muscle mass (i.e. if you’re an endurance athlete, weightlifter, CrossFitter, or you train hard in other activities or sports), you should consume more protein.

Extra protein can be especially beneficial after a hard workout or training session, as most of you who are training hard already know.

4. The Elderly and the Chronically Ill

Both the elderly and the chronically ill frequently suffer from muscle wasting. A higher protein diet can help to prevent further tissue breakdown and reduce the adverse effects of both aging and chronic illness.

5. People Who Are under a Lot of Stress

As I mentioned above, protein has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar. High stress levels can lead to hypoglycemia or other blood sugar imbalances. Increasing protein intake—especially in the morning—can boost energy levels, reduce jitteriness, agitation and mood swings, improve sleep, and sharpen brain function. I’ve seen this repeatedly in my work with patients.

If you’re chronically stressed, the tissues in your body literally start to break down. Stress researchers call this “wear and tear” on the body allostatic load. (7) The tissue breakdown is caused in part by collagen proteins being used up faster than they are replaced.

So, if you’re under a lot of stress, it’s especially important to eat proteins that contain collagen.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

If you’re in one of the groups above, I recommend consuming between 20 and 35 percent of calories from protein each day. The higher end of that scale (30–35 percent) would be for aggressive weight loss, metabolic problems,and people doing extreme training; the middle end (25–30 percent) for athletes and people training at moderate to vigorous intensity, and the lower end (20–25 percent) for the elderly, chronically ill, and people under a lot of stress. That said, these are just general guidelines and I suggest you experiment through the entire range to see what works best for you.

This is quite possibly much more protein than you’re eating now, even if you’re following a Paleo-type diet based on ancestral health. Let’s look at some examples using the ranges below:

% of calories as protein     2,200 calorie diet (g)     3,000 calorie diet (g)

Now, let’s look at a typical day’s worth of protein on a Paleo diet.

  • Breakfast: two eggs, sauerkraut, steamed vegetables. Approximately 15 grams.
  • Lunch: salad with 3–6 ounces of sliced chicken breast. Approximately 30–60 grams.
  • Snack: one ounce of almonds (about 23 almonds). Approximately 6 grams.
  • Dinner: 1/4–1/2 pound of beef sirloin, sweet potato, steamed broccoli. Approximately 35–70 grams.

This adds up to between 86 and 151 grams of protein, or 16–27 percent of calories on a 2,200 calorie diet and 11–20 percent of calories on a 3,000 calorie diet.

As you can see, this falls short of the protein targets for most categories in the table above, especially if you’re eating closer to 3,000 calories and/or trying to get more than 25 percent of calories from protein.

When Protein Powder Makes Sense

Obviously one option is to simply increase your intake of whole-food proteins, such as meat, fish, eggs, and nuts (though it’s worth pointing out that the protein in nuts is not as readily absorbed as animal proteins). For example, you could start your day with 1/2 fillet of salmon (about 40 grams of protein) instead of two eggs, and/or you could eat closer to a pound of protein for lunch and dinner. If you feel good eating this much animal protein, this is what I’d recommend; it’s always best to meet nutrient needs from whole food.

But let’s face it: not everyone wants to eat over two pounds of fish, meat and poultry each day. I love animal protein myself, and I feel better with a higher protein intake, but even I get tired of eating so much of it so frequently. I have a lot of patients—both male and female—that feel the same way.

And it’s not just a matter of preference. I have a lot of patients with low stomach acid, bile insufficiency, or other digestive problems that have trouble digesting large amounts of meat and fish. I also have patients that are intolerant of eggs (or other animal proteins). Ultimately, the goal is to heal their gut so they can eat as much of these foods as they’d like.

These are the situations where protein powder can be a useful addition.

You can add a protein shake in between your meals (or in place of breakfast, perhaps) to boost your overall protein intake.

Depending on how you make the shake (i.e. simply mixed with water, or mixed with fruit, avocados, egg yolks, etc.), it can either be a source of additional calories if you’re trying to put on weight or aid recovery, or a means of boosting protein without adding calories if you’re trying to maximize weight loss or metabolic function.

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My (New) Favorite Protein Powder—and the One I Recommend to My Patients

There are three important factors in choosing a protein powder: tolerability, quality, and bioavailability.

Tolerability refers to how likely the protein is to cause an adverse reaction. Whey protein is a great choice for many people, but I’ve noticed that quite a few of my patients don’t tolerate it well. I don’t either, despite the fact that I don’t have an issue with dairy products in general. I tend to feel somewhat bloated after consuming whey protein.

Quality refers to the quality of the protein source, how it is processed, and how it is manufactured. There’s obviously a ton of junk out there, especially in the bodybuilding community. If you’re going to use a protein powder, you should choose the highest quality product you can get.

Bioavailability refers to how completely absorbed the protein is. In general, plant proteins like pea and rice are much less bioavailable than animal proteins like whey, egg and beef.

With all of this in mind, I was excited to learn about a new product that has recently become available called PurePaleo. It’s a protein powder with several unique characteristics:

  • It’s dairy-free, gluten-free, and legume-free. In other words, it’s the first true Paleo protein powder.
  • It’s made from hydrolyzed beef protein. Hydrolyzed means that it is “pre-digested” and broken down into smaller peptides that are easier to absorb, and thus more bioavailable than most other proteins.
  • It’s sourced from hormone-free, antibiotic-free, non-GMO cows in Sweden that are raised on pasture, and it’s tested to be free of hormones, antibiotics, and allergens.
  • It features the power of beef to build muscle, cartilage, and ligaments, which is ideal for athletes, people training hard, those suffering from chronic illness, and the elderly.
  • It contains both complete and collagen proteins that are naturally found in beef. As I said earlier in the article, collagen is essential for tissue regeneration and repair and protective for anyone under stress.
  • It is sweetened with stevia and is very low in carbohydrate.

PurePaleo comes in both vanilla and chocolate flavors. I like both, but usually prefer the chocolate. I like it mixed with almond or coconut milk on its own, but sometimes I’ll add some spinach or other greens, vegetable juice, or berries. Since it’s already somewhat sweet, I don’t like it mixed with banana or other sweet fruits as much.

And in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t taste like beef at all. In fact, I did some “blinded” taste tests with friends and family members, and they had no idea it was a beef protein powder.

The best part for me, and many of my patients, is how good I feel after I take some. I don’t have the bloating I get after consuming whey, I feel more energized, and I’m seeing better gains in the gym and recovery after workouts.

If you’d like to give it a try, you can order it from my store in either chocolate or vanilla.

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Join the conversation

  1. I think dr.jaminet’s recommened protein intake for athletes is the soundest – http://perfecthealthdiet.com/category/nutrients/protein/

    He estimates that athletes who want to build muscle will achieve maximum benefit from just under 1.9 grams of protein per kg of body weight. That is about 150 grams of protein for an 80kg male or 20% of a 3000 calorie diet.
    I think your estimates to eat 25-30% of calories as protein for athletes might be unnecessarily high.

    • When people are sensitive to whey, it’s usually not because of how processed it is, it’s because they’re sensitive to the whey protein itself. Homemade whey wouldn’t help in this situation, but as I said above, it’s always best to get nutrients from whole food when possible.

      • no doubt, but some people who can tolerate dairy still react to the powders, in fact its quite common for people to get symptoms like bloating from whey protein powder even when they tolerate dairy. dairy sensitive individuals are more likely to react to caesin.

  2. I make my own lacto-fermented whey from raw milk and use that as a whey supplement. I don’t tolerate the whey powders either, but studies show that whey is the best protein supplement for building muscle (and increasing glutathione levels) so I think this making your own whey is the best option for people who don’t tolerate the commercial whey powders.

  3. The main problem I have with this article is that it never mentions the method for testing for protein deficiency. Any collection site has a routine test for that will make this determination for a few dollars. Certainly no one should boost protein intake who is not deficient in the first place since protein follows the general rule that an adequate amount is jim dandy but too much is toxic. I have tested routinely at the Mayo Clinic for 17 years and never been deficient in protein. So it is one thing I do no have to worry about.

    • This is not about deficiency or minimum intakes, it’s about using protein therapeutically in certain conditions.

  4. Wow! This is exactly what I was looking for, as I follow a Paleo diet but still have very low amino acid levels. My digestion is weak and unfortunately I’m highly sensitive to digestive enzymes – plant and animal. I currently see an amazing doctor in Chicago who can accurately test for food and environmental sensitivities through electric responses in acupuncture points in the fingers. The assessment is computerized. What’s amazing is she can test supplements for reactivity and dosage. This computerized assessment has been used by MD’s in Germany for quite some time and it’s pretty accurate. Well, I brought in all the digestive enzymes that I never seemed to be able to tolerate and sure enough my reactivity was through the roof. So, without the use of a digestive aid, my ability to digest protein is weak, so I will definitely give this product a try.

    • Hello, I am looking for a doctor to help with similar issues. Would you mind sharing the name of the doctor you see in Chicago? Thank you!

  5. What about the M-Tor pathway. According to DR. Ron Rosedale, Nora Gedgaudas ( Primal Body Primal Mind), and Dr Mercola, this is way to much protein, unless you’re an olympian, pro athlete, or a body builder, and even then, you’re choosing peak performance over longevity and disease prevention.

    They recommend .8 grams of protein for every kilo of ideal body weight. A 160 lb. Man Should eat 58 grams of protein.

    160 divided by 2.2 to get kilograms = 73K x .8 = 58. They say for an extreme athlete you could go as high as 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram That is a max of 109 grams of protein for an extreme athlete. Your minimum is 150.

    anything above these levels up regulates M-tor and your body go into cell proliferation mode. This is good for muscle, but also good for cancer growth and accelerated aging.

    When you keep protein on average to .8 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight, you down regulate M-tor, and you body goes into repair, restore, regeneration mode, and slows the aging process.

    • also, you should eat no protein for 18-24 hours once or twice a week, to allow the damaged proteins (AGEs?) to be used up. something like that.

  6. Chris,
    Do you have the amino acid break down of this protein. There are reasons whey is very good for powdered protein supplementation. Agree with the earlier poster that the extra ingredients are a total turn off.

  7. I don’t really understand the table where we look at a typical Paleo food day, convert to grams of protein, and then show that as a percentage of calories as protein on various n-calorie diets. The typical day’s worth of meals you described has a certain range of calories and grams of protein, fat, and carbs. You can’t have that same amount of food and grams of macros on a 2200, 3000, 3000+ calorie day–you’d have to be increasing the amounts of food to get the increased number of calories, so your grams would also go up. So, unless all the extra calories you consumed were fat and carbs, it wouldn’t be “16–27 percent of calories on a 2,200 calorie diet and 11–20 percent of calories on a 3,000 calorie diet;” the numerator and ratio would also have to increase. Unless I’m misreading this somehow.

  8. I would expect you to be encouraging people to eat real food not processed powders and frankly I’m surprised to hear this recommendation from you Chris. Look how much healthier raw milk is than the allergenic homogenised pasteurised rubbish sold at the supermarket. Why not just eat a few more eggs (or whatever) at breakfast if you want more protein?

    • I always have, and always will encourage people to get nutrients from whole food whenever possible. However, in my clinical experience working with patients, I’ve seen the benefits of a very high protein diet in certain situations, and I’ve also seen how difficult it is for some of my patients to meet those targets without using protein powder. If you need to eat 35% of calories as protein for a while and you can do that with real food, that’s the best option. But if you can’t tolerate that much meat/fish (possibly due to low stomach acid or bile insufficiency), then protein powder can be helpful.

      If you do decide protein powder is an option, then a high-quality grass-fed whey is a great choice if you tolerate it. PurePaleo is the better option for those that don’t do well with whey, or those doing a 30-day Reset/Challenge that don’t want any dairy in their diet.

      P.S. When you’re an athlete trying to eat 265 grams of protein a day, adding a couple extra eggs to breakfast isn’t going to make a huge difference. That’s only an additional 14 grams of protein.

      • Hey Chris, I put together a chart on my website to keep track of all the different “All Natural” Whey Protein powders on the market and provide an easy way to compare each powder by cost and other criteria like the type (Concentrate, Isolate etc.) and Grass-Fed or Not Grass Fed.

        The chart is located here: http://www.renegadedad.net/all-natural-whey-protein-comparison-chart

        Very soon I will be updating this chart with additional info like the source of the milk used and eventually lab tests to verify ingredients etc.

        I thought this might be helpful to readers who may prefer to go the Whey Protein route but need some help deciding between the many options available.

  9. Here’s the thing: women, especially on the older side, with metabolic syndrome, especially those of us chubby/fat/obese all our lives, don’t maintain a normal weight on 2,000 calories/day. I’ve been maintaining an 80 pound weight loss since my early thirties, and I’m now 58, and I know I’m not the only one who has to go lower calorie-wise unless I want to be even more overweight than I am now.

    I was eating about 11 ounces of animal protein per day recently, and not only gained 8 pounds, but started looking at protein and feeling I couldn’t eat a bite of it. I’m a former binger – believe me, this was a shocking experience. And my B12 levels were high! So, I understand what Chris is saying, and it was a revelation to realize I had the same normal response as anyone to overdoing protein.

    But I think it’s odd that just 10 – 11 ounces per day was too much for me. And I’m concerned now that I’m under-eating protein, because I cannot eat to satiety. I always want to keep going – with the exception of the above situation. Well meaning practitioners never understand this, because they tend to be thin! I’m always amazed at the way they really believe it’s just about the diet. I hope this doesn’t sound like an attack on Chris, whose work I value immensely; in fact, he’s one of the very few whose recommendations I usually listen to. And the diet is huge, I’m not saying Paleo or LCHF doesn’t make an enormous difference, but there is still an emotional side, or whatever you want to call it. This must be taken seriously, especially since in my case I find it very hard to calibrate my macronutrient needs since I can’t do it based on satiety.

    And I would really love to see the daily calorie count as it relates to those of us with metabolic syndrome examined more closely – not in terms of weight loss only, but in terms of maintenance. Thanks so much.

    • I agree re: calories and weightloss. Have you heard of Morning Pages before? Perhaps that is something you could benefit from – do a google search. Emotions have a huge play in weight, well most things body related!

      I feel sick from too much protein but I’m on a low carb diet for insulin resistance. Some days I wish I could just eat fruit all day lol

      • Morning Pages are an excellent tool for identifying and working with emotional issues that may contribute to weight gain or difficulty losing weight. There’s rarely a single cause of a particular health problem; it’s almost always multifactorial. That’s why I’m always beating the “no one size fits all” drum.

    • I have been logging everything I eat & activity levels diligently since January 1st. I logged before that, but not weighing everything in grams. This year, I confirmed what I have known for a while – even with Nature-throid in the correct dose, I have the metabolism of someone my size in a coma – the BMR with absolutely no activity added + the calories burned during any sweaty exercise. My body does not burn more calories with me being on my feet all day, with me lifting weights, walking, doing strenuous housework, nada. Also, if I allow my calories to go too low or exercise too little, the BMR goes even lower. Before thyroid medicine, I could gain weight on 1,000 calories a day, and did. I was able to lose 30 pounds before Nature-throid & another 35 pounds since I added it in, and I still have 20-60 to go – big range, I know, but the low end gets me to the healthy BAI range (waist is already less than 1/2 my height) & the high end gets me to the traditional healthy BMI range, though my doctor is going with BMI for bone frame with me, so that would be 40 pounds, which is right in the middle. Anyway, just commiserating/confirming about low metabolic rates & also wanted to say don’t give up! It took me 6 years to lose 65 lb, and I’ve had stellar blood work for a couple years. Everyone’s body has its own desired rate of change, and you can only fight that so much, but keep being physically active for your health & eating well & you will get results.

  10. Chris,
    what about Gluconeogenesis? Don’t eating too much protein results in the generation of carbohydrates?

  11. Hi Chris,

    Do you recommend boosting protein intake and taking something like this if one has suffered a muscle injury, like a pull or tear?


    • Yes, especially collagen proteins which can help with the repair process.

  12. I use a beef protein isolate that’s really good. (I’m not sure if I can post a link to it, so I won’t)
    I use the chocolate, it masks the strong beef flavor. I’ve thought of having this for breakfast with some butter and MCT or just regular coconut oil (bullet proof protein?). Would the oils be OK to add into it?

  13. What about Kitavans/Hadza eating <20% protein cals? Is it because they generally aren't athletes and have very low stress lives?

    • The average for protein intake in both industrialized and traditional cultures ranges from 10–20%. The five situations I mentioned in this article that can benefit from higher protein intakes don’t apply to traditional cultures in most cases.

  14. Chris, could you clarify whether this protein comes from grass-fed cows — and whether it matters, in this case? It seems like a natural concern for many of your readers to have, and I was surprised you do not address it in your article.

    • I did mention that the cows are raised on pasture in Sweden. I think the main concern with beef protein powders is that they are free of antibiotic residue. Raising cows on pasture improves the fatty acid profile and nutrient content of the beef, which is less of a factor with protein powder.

  15. I’m not sure where to start. But will begin with how much protein we actually need, since that’s the headline of this article. Truth is most Americans are eating WAY to much proteins for their needs, on average double what’s necessary (this obviously depends on personal movement/exertion etc..) but I’m going average.

    To say that eating animal
    Protein causes cancer is “another urban myth” is completely absurd and a disservice to the greater community. It’s well known that IGF-1 levels can directly correlate to cancer, and excessive animal proteins is on the list of foods that increase production. IGF-1 is also increased by sugar, refined carbs etc…but animal proteins is a major cause too.

    I would like to propose this question/ do you think in the Paleolithic era, our ancestors were eating animal protein the way we are today (quantity and frequency)?

    • This article is not about minimum protein requirements. Nor is it about mimicking ancestral intakes. As the title clearly suggests, it’s about using high protein intakes therapeutically (and often temporarily) to address certain health challenges.

      There are many studies that indicate high protein diets (up to 35% of calories) are effective for weight loss. Does this mean that everyone should eat this much protein? Of course not.

      I addressed the hypothesis that high protein intakes increase cancer risk via IGF-1 in detail in this article: https://chriskresser.com/do-high-protein-diets-cause-kidney-disease-and-cancer

    • Nobody can know 100% what they ate, but you can try to put yourself in their ‘shoes’ so to speak.

      I doubt any paleo times human would eat protein as we do today. What those people would have is a cyclic diet just as the wild animal omnivores of today still do.

      Which is something I think many seem to miss whilst trying to be more natural in their way of eating. Although it may not be very practical for our modern way of life, it wasn’t a choice for paleo people.

      Also, they would have expended a lot more energy getting their food, walked miles every day, interspersed with climbing & running to catch an animal (ever tried to catch a rabbit, no easy task).

      In areas were Winter snows occurred it’s likely that protein may for some months have been almost the only source of food, from animals/fish.

      Then the Spring brings additional sources from eggs laid by nesting birds, more vegetables, roots, tubers etc .

      Young animals born in Spring would also be an easier source of protein as they can be more easily caught soon after birth. (I breed alpacas & for the first few hours after birth if you could distract the mother the baby would be an easy catch, same for deer, cattle, etc.)

      Plus much of the protein would have been eaten raw, eggs don’t travel well, ( many eggs would contain half developed chicks) so just eat them as you find them, dead animals can be heavy to transport, so eat some now & take some back to camp/home for drying over the fire (smoked) or cooking.

      The abundance of vegetable/fruits increases throughout Summer as plants grow & regenerate leading to a peak time for fruits (sugars) in late Summer/Autumn. So eating those ( just as bears do) lays down the fat needed to get through the Winter, & so the cycle repeats itself.

      Lastly, if even you chose to eat this way you would never match what paleo people ate because the animals we breed for meat & the vegetables/fruits we grow have been selected over decades to better suit mass production. The fruits are sweeter & larger, the animals carry more muscle so create higher returns for the farmer & so on. Paleo protein sources would be extremely varied for much of the year in many places, the variety in birds alone would be considerable.

  16. Hi Chris. Nice article on protein. You had me right up until the part where you introduced PurePaleo….

    I find it ironic that there is a protein powder called PurePaleo given that as a group that is trying to eat clean and free from processing there is a product called PurePaleo. I just find it so corny to see packaged foods with Paleo in the name trying to suck every nickel and dime out of the consumer dollar. I have a hard time getting behind any of these paleo “food” processed/packaged products.

    I agree with some of the other posters here that you should be getting most if not all of your protein from real food sources. Eggs, grass fed beef, poultry, wild caught fish, gelatin from bone broth and marrow, and organ meats. I understand there are times when you are in a pinch and you want to supplement. There are many highly reviewed and commented on protein powders on the market that are much cheaper than $68 for this product. A lot of the body building sites as well as the primal community have pointed out that Now Foods WPI is very minimal and a superior product (700+ reviews from Amazon with a very high rating). Per serving it is 4 times cheaper than PurePaleo.