What Eating the Right Amount of Protein Every Day Actually Looks Like

Hint: It's different for every single person.

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? And that's before you even start wondering about the macronutrients—carbohydrates, fats, and protein—you need daily. 

Add to that list of questions: How much protein should I eat in a day?

Fortunately, things don't have to be so difficult, at least when it comes to arguably the most essential macronutrient for active folks.

For the average woman aged 14 to 70 and man aged 19 to 70, the Institute of Medicine recommends about 46 and 56 grams of protein daily, respectively. And if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, that goal increases to 71 grams of protein daily.

However, those numbers also depend on your body weight. Generally, the recommended dietary amount of protein is about 0.36 grams for every pound you weigh. However, that number may change based on your activity level.

Here's what you need to know about protein as a crucial part of your diet, how to gauge your individual protein needs, and the real scoop about its calories. Plus, learn about protein-packed picks for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anything in between help you ensure you're getting enough protein daily.

A piece of salmon placed on top of cooked spinach and slices of lemons in a bowl.
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Why Protein Matters

Think of your body as a never-ending construction site. And 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," said Cynthia Sass, RD, a nutritionist specializing in plant-based eating. "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 later releases them into your bloodstream to 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. And if you're exercising vigorously at the gym, protein deficiency will hold you back from the best results.

Luckily, most Americans do get enough protein in their diet. In fact, studies have suggested that some American exceeds the recommended protein intake, explained Alexandra Caspero, RD, nutrition director of rootberry, a plant-based food company. 

"The body can only use 15 to 25 grams of protein at a time for muscle building," said Caspero. "The rest of that gets broken down and used as fuel or stored as fat."

But here's the thing: Everyone's protein needs are different.

How Much Protein Should I Eat in a Day?

While dietitians have differing thoughts on the amount of protein each body needs per day, some general rules of thumb 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. But Molly Kimball, RD, a board-certified dietitian at Ochsner Health in New Orleans, suggested that many folks need far more protein.

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 research suggests that your body performs better with higher amounts of protein as you age. Research has indicated that when people aged older than 50 years eat about double the recommended protein intake, their bodies are better at building muscle than others.

If you're completing cardio and strength exercises regularly, Sass noted that the ideal amount of protein per day for muscle building and maintenance is about 0.75 grams per pound of body weight. And ideally, you should spread your 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, you should base your protein intake on your weight when you have felt your strongest and healthiest. 

Kimball noted that your absolute minimum amount of protein should be about 0.5 grams per pound of healthy body weight if you're not active or only slightly active. 

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

In addition to focusing on your overall intake, it can be helpful to make sure you include protein in each meal. Research has found that spreading protein evenly across three meals a day may help adults increase muscle strength.

And suppose you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet and are still concerned about your protein needs. In that case, a registered dietitian can help make a meal plan to ensure you consume a sufficient amount.

Consider the following meals and snacks and their respective amounts of protein when determining your daily macronutrients.

Protein-Focused Breakfast Options

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 Pea Protein “Yogurt”: 24 Grams

An omelet made from two whole eggs packs about 12 grams of protein, explained Sass. Pair it with vegetables and avocado or a side of plain non-fat Greek yogurt, which adds another 10.3 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 and 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.

One Fage Greek Yogurt: 18 Grams

Not into eggs? One 6-ounce container of Fage Total 0% Greek yogurt contains 16 grams of protein.

Protein-Focused Lunch Options

Lunch can be challenging if you work in an office, but 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: 25.5 Grams

Sass recommended leafy greens (like spinach or baby kale), extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with two ounces of grilled chicken breast. That salad is about 14 grams of protein.

A one-half cup of chickpeas gives you about 7.5 grams. And add one cup of cooked, chilled quinoa, and you'll tack on another eight grams—a salad with a total of 28 grams.

Protein and Nut Butter Smoothie: 30 Grams

If you're eating lunch on the go, hit up a smoothie bar or whip up your own smoothie.

Use one scoop of protein powder, frozen fruit, a handful of kale, fresh ginger, unsweetened almond milk, and two tablespoons of almond butter. Altogether, those ingredients add up to nearly 30 grams of protein, noted Sass.

An Old-School Turkey Wrap 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-Focused Dinner Ideas

After a long day, a protein-forward dinner is just what you probably need most.

Salmon With Brussels Sprouts: 16 Grams

One-half of 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: 22.5 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.

Banza Mac and Cheese: 18 Grams

Sometimes, cooking from scratch isn't quite in the cards. No pressure. Banza chickpea pasta provides a solid dose of protein (far more than your traditional types of pasta, which usually clock in at around 14 grams per two ounces).

Protein-Focused Snack Ideas

A Nutrition Bar: 10 Grams

Not all protein bars are created equal. But a Protein One 90 Calorie Chocolate Chip Bar packs 10 grams of protein, 90 calories, and one gram of sugar. Plus, they're easy to store in your desk drawer to pull out whenever a craving hits.

Pistachios: 25 Grams

Plant-based protein, like the kind found in pistachios, provides more bang for your calorie buck, said Caspero. One cup of raw pistachios provides nearly 25 grams of protein.

"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

Kimball favors protein-rich cottage cheese as a nighttime snack—especially for those who are hungry before bed. One cup of low-fat cottage cheese has about 28 grams of protein.

Rich in a slow-digesting protein called casein, it'll do away with hunger pangs the healthy way and keep you full throughout the night.

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