Protein plays a vital role in helping us reach physical goals like getting leaner and stronger. It’s involved in nearly all cellular and metabolic processes, keeping our bodies functioning smoothly and helping us maintain a healthy weight.
If you use the “percent daily value” numbers on a Nutrition Facts label as a guide for protein intake, however, research shows that you may not be getting enough.
The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is too low for most people: Set at 46 grams of protein daily for women and 56 grams for men, the RDA for protein can also be calculated at 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
So how much protein do we really need?
Research shows that most of us should aim for 0.45 to 0.68 grams of protein per pound. To streamline, round up to 0.5 to 0.75 grams (or even simply 1 gram) of protein per pound of body weight. For an average 150-pound person, for example, this means aiming for 75-150 grams of protein daily. Those looking to gain weight may need more.
If we incorporate protein into meals and snacks throughout the day, it is easy to reach that daily protein goals: I typically recommend 4 to 6 ounces (roughly 25 to 40 grams) of lean protein or protein-rich vegetarian alternatives at lunch and dinner, and the equivalent of 2 to 3 ounces of lean protein (about 15 to 20 grams) at breakfast and snacks. (See our rundown of popular go-to protein sources, ranked greatest to least, below).
Why does protein matter?
Protein is a fundamental component for healthy bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. It’s vital for enzyme and hormone production and maintaining healthy blood pressure. Protein not only helps to support and build muscle, it aids in post-workout muscle recovery, helping to repair the muscle fibers that are stressed with exercise.
Protein is digested more slowly than carbs, so it makes us feel fuller longer and reduces cravings. It also requires more energy to break protein into amino acids, which means our bodies burn more calories digesting protein than compared to fat or carbs.
Too little protein in the diet can leave us feeling tired and hungry, and over time can weaken our immune system and lead to sarcopenia, the gradual loss of muscle mass that naturally occurs as we age.
Best sources of protein
Focus on protein-rich foods like fish and fresh (skinless) poultry.
Not a meat-eater? Reach for nonmeat protein options like red beans, eggs and Greek yogurt. It’s easy to meet daily protein goals with meatless options. Three ounces of grilled lean steak, for example, has 21 grams of protein – just a little more than you get from one cup of lentils, and less than the 24 or so grams of protein you’ll get in a cup of cottage cheese or plain Greek yogurt.
Here’s a summary of what 100 calories of popular “protein” foods looks like, and just how much protein you’ll get for those calories – we’ve listed them from greatest to least in terms of protein content per 100 calories:
Protein content per 100 calories: 21 foods ranked greatest to least
25 grams protein | Egg whites (7 large whites)
25 grams protein | Collagen powder (2.5 scoops)
22 grams protein | Shrimp (3.5 ounces)
21 grams protein | Snapper or drum (3 ounces)
20 grams protein | Protein powder (1 scoop Designer Whey Natural Vanilla)
17.5 grams protein | Greek yogurt, nonfat plain (6 ounces)
17 grams protein | Chicken breast, skinless (2 ounces)
15 grams protein | 95 percent lean ground beef (2 ounces)
15 grams protein | Sirloin (2 ounces)
14.5 grams protein | Salmon (2 ounces)
14.5 grams protein | Cottage cheese, nonfat (5 ounces)
10.5 grams protein | Mozzarella cheese, part skim (1.5 ounces)
9 grams protein | Eggs (1.5 large eggs)
9 grams protein | Lentils (1/2 cup, cooked)
7.5 grams protein | Red beans (1/2 cup, cooked)
7 grams protein | Banza chickpea pasta (1/2 cup, cooked)
6 grams protein | Milk, 2 percent fat (3/4 cup)
4 grams protein | Flavored yogurt, e.g. Yoplait Original (4 ounces)
4 grams protein | Quinoa (1/2 cup, cooked)
3.5 grams protein | Peanut butter or almond butter (1 tablespoons)
3.5 grams protein | Almonds (14 whole almonds)
As you can see, it doesn’t take long for the protein grams to add up. Keep a food log on a smartphone app or with pen and paper to help you track your protein intake. Also, note how you feel as you ramp up protein. If you’ve been under-eating protein, you may be surprised at the results.
Editor’s note: Registered dietitian Molly Kimball offers brand-name products as a consumer guide; she does not solicit product samples nor is paid to recommend items.
Here are a couple protein-rich resources to consider as well.