Eating healthy is essential, but it can be a process in and of itself: Should I eat organic fruit? Do I need grass-fed beef? Should all juice be cold-pressed?
Add to that list of questions: How much protein should I eat in a day?
Fortunately, things don't have to be difficult, at least when it comes to arguably one of the essential macronutrients for active people.
For the average woman aged 14–70 and man aged 19–70, you should aim for around 46 and 56 grams of protein daily, respectively. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, that goal increases to 71 grams daily. However, those numbers also depend on your body weight. Generally, you should aim for 0.36 grams for every pound you weigh. What's more, that number may change based on your activity level.
Here's what you need to know about protein, how to gauge your protein needs, and protein-packed picks for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
Benefits of Protein
Think of your body as a never-ending construction site. Protein is the workforce required to keep the project running smoothly.
"You're continually using protein to support hormones, enzymes, immune cells, hair, skin, muscle, and other protein tissues," Cynthia Sass, RDN, a nutritionist specializing in plant-based eating, told Health. "On top of that, protein is needed to recover from the stress of training."
After exercise, your body breaks down protein into small organic compounds called amino acids. Your small intestine absorbs the amino acids and releases them into your bloodstream. The amino acids repair damaged muscle fibers, building them back stronger than before.
Not consuming enough protein daily could lead to muscle loss, weak hair and nails, or immune issues. Also, a protein deficiency will hold you back from the best results if you exercise vigorously at the gym.
In the United States, most people get enough protein in their diet. Some evidence suggests that people often exceed their recommended protein intake.
"The body can only use 15–25 grams of protein at a time for muscle building," Alexandra Caspero, RD, nutrition director of root berry, a plant-based food company, told Health. "The rest of that gets broken down and used as fuel or stored as fat."
How Much Protein Should I Eat Per Day?
Dietitians have differing thoughts on the amount of protein each body needs daily. Still, some general rules are in place to help guide you.
Minimum Protein Requirements
Daily, you should aim for 0.36 grams of protein for every pound you weigh. However, many people need far more protein, Molly Kimball, RDN, a board-certified dietitian at Ochsner Health, told Health.
After all, Kimball explained that consuming the minimum recommended amount of protein only prevents a protein deficiency. That amount is not optimal for repairing and growing your muscles, reducing your risk of injury, or feeling satiated throughout the day.
Consider Your Activity Level
Generally speaking, the more you move, the more protein you need.
"The less wear and tear you put on your body, the less repair work there is to do," explained Sass.
Your age plays a role, too. Some evidence suggests that your body performs better with higher amounts of protein as you age. Also, research has found that when people older than 50 eat double their recommended protein intake, their bodies build muscle better than others.
If you're completing cardio and strength exercises regularly, the ideal amount of protein per day for building and maintaining muscle is about 0.75 grams per pound, noted Sass. Ideally, you should spread that protein intake evenly throughout the day.
However, suppose you're severely underweight or overweight. In that case, you don't want to just use the numbers on the scale as a reference for your protein intake. Instead, base your protein intake on your weight when you have felt your strongest and healthiest.
Your absolute minimum amount of protein should be about 0.5 grams per pound of healthy body weight if you're inactive or only slightly active, said Kimball.
So, for example, if an active 130-pound woman eats four times per day, they might consume about 24 grams of protein per meal and snack. That's about 97 grams per day.
Or, if a slightly active 230-pound man eats four times per day, they might have about 29 grams of protein at each meal or snack. That's a total of 115 grams for the day.
Include Protein in Every Meal
Make sure you include protein in each meal. Research has found that spreading protein evenly across three meals per day can help adults increase their muscle strength. If you're vegetarian or vegan and still concerned about your protein needs, a dietician can make a meal plan to help you consume a sufficient amount.
Consider the following meals and snacks and their respective amounts of protein when determining your daily macronutrients.
Protein Breakfast Ideas
Start your day off right by fueling your body with a good breakfast. Eating protein at breakfast helps you feel full throughout the day, giving you the power to accomplish your goals.
Omelet With Avocado and a Side of Greek Yogurt: 22.3 Grams
An omelet made from two whole eggs packs about 12 grams of protein, explained Sass. Pair it with vegetables and avocado. Or add a side of plain non-fat Greek yogurt, which adds another 10.3 grams.
Multi-Grain Toast and Almond Butter: 14 Grams
If you don't like eggs, don't worry. There are plenty of other protein sources you can add to your breakfast. For example, two tablespoons of almond butter has about seven grams. Spread your favorite brand of almond butter on top of two slices of multi-grain toast for a total of 14 grams.
Chickpeas on Toast: 30 Grams
If you're following a vegetarian or vegan diet, try a planet-based breakfast, like chickpeas on toast. Chickpeas pack about 15 grams of protein per cup, making them the perfect, high-protein, vegan-friendly option.
Heat up two cups of cooked chickpeas, mixed with olive oil, shallots, garlic, and chopped tomatoes, on the stovetop. Toast a slice of your favorite bread and pile the chickpeas on top.
Protein Lunch Ideas
Lunch can be challenging if you work in an office. Still, there are significant options that you can choose from. Breaking for lunch will also give your mind a chance to unwind.
Salad With Grilled Chicken: 28 Grams
Try leafy greens (like spinach or baby kale), extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with two ounces of grilled chicken breast, recommended Sass. The salad adds up to about 14 grams of protein.
A one-half cup of chickpeas gives you about 7.5 grams. Add one cup of cooked, chilled quinoa, and you'll tack on another eight grams for a total of 28 grams.
Protein and Nut Butter Smoothie: 30 Grams
If you're eating lunch on the go, whip up a smoothie. Use one scoop of protein powder, frozen fruit, a handful of kale, fresh ginger, unsweetened almond milk, and two tablespoons of almond butter. According to Sass, those ingredients add up to nearly 30 grams of protein.
An Old-School Turkey Sandwich With Vegetables: 25 Grams
Don't dismiss the old-school brown paper bag lunch. Three ounces of lean meat (in this case, turkey) will provide about 20 grams of protein. Pair that with nutritious whole-grain bread, and you're at about 25 grams, explained Kimball. Include your favorite vegetables or spreads as fillings.
Protein Dinner Ideas
After a long day, a protein-forward dinner is probably what you need most.
Salmon With Brussels Sprouts: 16 Grams
Half a cup of cooked Brussels sprouts (oven roasted in herbs and extra-virgin olive oil with a pinch of salt) provides about two grams of protein. One-half of a cup of cooked cauliflower gives you about two more grams.
Top that with a two-ounce serving of Alaska salmon for nearly another 12 grams of protein. Complete the dish with one cup of cooked spaghetti, suggested Sass.
Bean Bowl: 21.3 Grams
Beans are a solid but sometimes overlooked source of protein and an excellent option for plant-based eaters. Prep a power bowl packed with mixed greens, vegetables, and fruit. Then, add one cup of dry red beans for about 21.3 grams.
Chickpeas Pasta: 14 Grams
Sometimes, cooking from scratch isn't quite in the cards. Pasta made from chickpeas provides a solid dose of protein, far more than your traditional pasta. One two-ounce serving of chickpeas usually clocks in at around 14 grams. Top it with your favorite pasta sauce.
Protein Snack Ideas
For a pick-me-up during the day, snacks that pack a good amount of protein can give you the energy to keep going.
Sliced Apples With Peanut Butter: 9.3 Grams
Try slicing some apples and pairing them with your favorite brand of peanut butter. In general, reduced-fat smooth peanut butter packs about 9.3 grams of protein.
Pistachios: 25 Grams
Plant-based options, like pistachios, are also a great source of protein. One cup of raw pistachios provides nearly 25 grams.
"Nearly 90 percent of the fats found in pistachios are the better-for-you mono- and polyunsaturated types," explained Caspero. "They're a good source of protein and fiber for a trio that helps keep you fuller longer, compared to just protein."
Cottage Cheese: 28 Grams
Protein-rich cottage cheese can be a great nighttime snack, especially for those who are hungry before bed, noted Kimball. One cup of low-fat cottage cheese has about 28 grams of protein.
Rich in a slow-digesting protein called casein, cottage cheese will healthily relieve hunger pangs and keep you full throughout the night.
A Quick Summary
Protein is an essential macronutrient for building and maintaining muscle, satiating your appetite, and giving you energy. In general, aim for 0.36 grams for every pound you weigh. However, your protein needs may vary based on age, weight, and activity level. If you aren't sure how much protein you should eat, consult a dietitian about developing a healthy eating plan.
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Department of Agriculture. Eggs.
Department of Agriculture. Yogurt, Greek, plain, non-fat.
Department of Agriculture. Almond butter.
Department of Agriculture. Bread, multi-grain (includes whole-grain).
Department of Agriculture. Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, bengal gram), mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt.
Department of Agriculture. Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, bengal gram), mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt.
Department of Agriculture. Quinoa, cooked.
Department of Agriculture. Brussels sprouts, cooked, boiled, drained, with salt.
Department of Agriculture. Cauliflower, green, cooked, with salt.
Department of Agriculture. Alaskan pink salmon.
Department of Agriculture. Beans, dry, red (0% moisture).
Department of Agriculture. Chickpeas pasta.
Department of Agriculture. Peanut butter, smooth, reduced fat.
Department of Agriculture. Nuts, pistachio nuts, raw.
Department of Agriculture. Cheese, cottage, lowfat, 1% milkfat.
Trommelen J, Weijzen MEG, van Kranenburg J, et al. Casein protein processing strongly modulates post-prandial plasma amino acid responses in vivo in humans. Nutrients. 2020;12(8):2299. doi:10.3390/nu12082299