How Much Protein Should I Eat?

By Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
How Much Protein Should I Eat?

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Protein is a nutrient found in many types of foods. It is vital for life. How much protein you need depends on several factors — including age, sex, health status and activity level.

The body needs a regular supply of protein to make and repair cells. In addition to muscles, organs, hair, eyes and other body tissues are primarily made from protein. Anytime your body is growing or repairing itself, protein is needed. This nutrient also helps:

  • Fight infection
  • Carry fats, vitamins, minerals and oxygen around the body
  • Build and contract muscles
  • Keep body fluids in balance
  • Clot blood

Foods that Contain Protein

Both animal and plant foods contain protein. Some of these foods are better choices. Foods rich in protein may also be high in saturated fat. High intakes of saturated fat may increase risk for heart disease. Thus, too much protein from these sources may be harmful for your heart. As a general rule, limit protein foods that are high in saturated fats, such as:

  • Meats and poultry: bacon, chicken fried steak, Chorizo sausage, fried chicken, hot dogs, lunch meats, organ meats, processed meats, sausage and spare ribs
  • Fish and shellfish: breaded and fried options
  • Whole-fat dairy: whole milk and other whole fat dairy products

In contrast, numerous lean sources of protein are considered heart-healthy. Eating plans that include low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry, fish, beans, lentils and soy foods such as tofu and tempeh may help improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  Here are some nutritious protein food options:

  • Meat, poultry and eggs: lean cuts of beef, pork loin, skinless chicken and turkey
  • Fish and seafood: salmon, tuna, cod, shrimp
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy foods: yogurt, milk, cheese, cottage cheese
  • Legumes: beans, lentils, soy, peanut butter
  • Nuts and seeds: walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds

Getting the Right Amount of Protein

Most healthy adults should aim for at least the Recommended Dietary Allowance for their age and sex. Individuals who are very physically active, are pregnant or breast-feeding, or who have certain medical conditions may need more protein.

MyPlate includes general protein recommendations for individuals ages 2 and older.

Age Sex Daily Protein Recommendation
2-3 years Female and male 2-ounce equivalents
4-8 years Female and male 4-ounce equivalents
9-13 years Female and male 5-ounce equivalents
14-18 years Female 5-ounce equivalents
14-18 years Male 6½ ounce equivalents
19-30 years Female 5½ ounce equivalents
19-30 years Male 6½ ounce equivalents
31-50 years Female 5-ounce equivalents
31-50 years Male 6-ounce equivalents
51 years and older Female 5-ounce equivalents
51 years and older Male 5½ ounce equivalents

These recommendations for protein are provided in one-ounce equivalents. One-ounce equivalents of protein foods include:

  • One ounce of cooked meat, poultry or fish
  • ¼ cup cooked beans
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter
  • ½ ounce nuts or seeds

But, most common servings of protein foods include more than one ounce of protein. For example, a piece of meat about the size of a deck of cards, a can of tuna, and a small chicken breast half are about three ounces of protein each. In addition, whole grain and dairy foods contain protein.

Thus, a daily intake of 6 ounce equivalents of protein might include 5 ounces of protein foods, 6 ounces of whole grains, and 3 servings of dairy products. A sample menu for one day follows.

  • Breakfast
    • Scrambled eggs with tomato slices
      • 2 eggs scrambled = 2 ounces of protein
      • ½ beefsteak tomato
    • Whole-grain toast
      • 2 slices with ½ teaspoon butter
    • Coffee or tea

  • Lunch
    • Peanut butter and banana on whole-grain bread, 1 tablespoon peanut butter = 1 ounce of protein
    • Carrot, sticks ½ cup
    • Milk,1 cup, low fat
  • Dinner
    • Baked salmon, 3 ounce piece of salmon = 3 ounces of protein
    • Cheesy steamed spinach
      • 2 cups fresh spinach
      • ⅓ cup low fat cheese
    • Bulgur, ½ cooked with ½ teaspoon olive oil
  • Snack
    • Cheese and celery sticks
      • Low-fat cheddar or Swiss cheese, 1½ ounces 
      • Celery sticks, ½ cup 

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