You Have Arthritis: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

With chronic disease or older age, you may need more — but pick your protein sources carefully.

Updated By Linda Rath | March 31, 2023

From granola bars to pasta, the flood of products touting high protein might have you wondering if you should be getting more of it. For Americans who eat lots of red meat, that’s probably not the case. But if you’re older, have a chronic or critical illness, are vegan or very active, your daily protein intake may fall short. Plus, the packaged products filling grocery shelves may not be the best source because many high-protein packaged foods are also high in added sugars and calories.

Who Can Benefit?

The amino acids that make up protein are building blocks of the human body, forming muscles, bones and cartilage. You normally don’t use protein directly for fuel but rather to build and maintain cells. For people with arthritis, plenty of high-quality protein, along with daily exercise, is essential for maintaining muscle strength and function. And if you’re trying to shed a few pounds, protein-rich foods can help you feel full longer.

How Much Do You Need?

In the U.S., the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram daily (about 58 grams for a 160-pound person). But many experts think most people need more. A general rule of thumb is a minimum of about 30 grams of protein three times a day to optimize protein synthesis and build muscle, which is increasingly seen as central to health and longevity. 

Muscle Loss

Studies suggest that adults start losing muscle mass around age 30 — a process that speeds up after 50, even for elite athletes and life-long exercisers. Muscle strength declines even more quickly, especially after age 75. In older adults, the loss of muscle mass and function is called sarcopenia. It can cause weak bones, joint stiffness, slumped posture, falls and overall frailty and is more common in adults who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) than in those who don’t. Sarcopenic obesity — where fat replaces muscle — but not sarcopenia itself, is a risk factor for knee osteoarthritis (OA).

Many things contribute to sarcopenia; one key factor in RA is how long a person has had the disease. But for almost everyone, too little protein or not being able to metabolize it well also are important factors. Many randomized controlled trials, usually using whey protein, have shown that higher protein intake is associated with less muscle loss and increased strength. The general consensus, though, is that you need both exercise, especially resistance training, and adequate protein to build muscle. Neither one alone will do the job.

Picking Your Proteins

Clinical trials tend to use whey protein powder because it’s easy to gauge how much a person actually consumes. There’s nothing wrong with high-quality protein powder, especially if you’re short on time, recovering from an illness, train hard or have digestive problems. But in general, it’s best to get your protein from whole, nutrient-dense foods such as fish, eggs, nuts and nut butters, beans, lentils and soy products like tofu. 

Some, but not all studies have shown that supplementing a higher protein diet with the amino acid leucine may help increase muscle protein synthesis. In general, though, getting more leucine by increasing the total amount of protein your diet may be more effective.

Although the exact amount of protein needed to prevent sarcopenia isn’t clear, 30 grams three times a day is a good starting point. If you’re very active or doing athletic training, you may need more. Experts also recommend front-loading protein instead of back-loading it. In other words, ditch that high-carb breakfast for one higher in protein and cut down on the amount of protein you eat at night.

Protein in Some Common Foods

1 cup black beans, 15 grams
1 cups chickpeas, 15 grams
½ cup lentils, 8 grams
2 tablespoons peanut butter, 8 grams
1 ounce pumpkin seeds, 9 grams
1 cup quinoa, 8 grams
4 ounces tempeh, 20 grams
4 ounces tofu, 12 grams

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