It’s no secret that protein is important. Since protein is found in so many everyday foods, most people eat plenty of it without having to rely on supplements like protein powders and protein-packed snack bars.
Learn more about the importance of protein, how to know if you’re getting enough — and what to do if you’re not.
What does protein do in your body?
Protein is one of three essential macronutrients, along with fat and carbohydrates. It’s a component of every cell in your body, and it’s crucial for growth and development, muscle maintenance, and other key processes that happen in your body all the time. Protein also provides energy; one gram of protein contains four calories.
All protein is made up of a combination of amino acids, each of which serves slightly different functions in your body. There are 20 different amino acids, and each type of protein contains different amounts of each. Nine of these amino acids are essential, which means our bodies can’t produce them, and we have to get them through food. The other 11 are non-essential. This means that our bodies can make them, and we don’t need to rely solely on dietary protein for them.
How much protein should you eat in a day?
The amount of protein your body needs depends on many factors, including your age, gender, activity level, and any health conditions you have. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting anywhere from 10% to 35% of your daily calories from protein. That’s a big range. Experts from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that active adults get between 0.55 and 0.91 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For example, a 150-pound person needs between 82 and 136 grams per day, and a 200-pound person needs between 109 and 182 grams per day. The more active you are, the higher in this range your needs will fall — this is because your body needs protein for muscle building, repair, and recovery.
Sedentary people require less protein — just 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. That’s 54 grams daily for a 150-pound person or 72 grams for a 200-pound person.
Can you get enough protein on a vegetarian diet?
Yes, it’s possible to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet. But there’s one catch: Animal proteins (like dairy, eggs, meat, and seafood) contain all nine essential amino acids, while plant proteins (like beans, grains, nuts, and seeds) only contain some of them. If you don’t eat animal products, it’s important to eat a variety of plant-based protein sources to ensure you get all the essential amino acids. You don’t need to eat them all in the same meal. Just consume them all within a day, and you’ll be fine.
How should you spread your protein intake throughout the day?
Because your body can only use so much protein at once, it’s best to space your intake throughout the day. You can aim for a minimum of 15 to 25 grams at every meal and at least some protein with each snack. If you exercise, you should also get that same amount within two hours of a workout to maximize recovery.
How can you make a protein-rich meal?
Not sure how to build a protein-rich meal? A good rule of thumb is to include at least one serving of a protein-rich food in every meal or snack.
For breakfast, you might eat two scrambled eggs with fruit and toast or a smoothie made with fruit, nuts, and protein-rich Greek yogurt.
For lunch, you could opt for a sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce, tomato, and a few slices of turkey and cheese for protein. Or, you could make a veggie-packed salad topped with grilled chicken and a spoonful of nuts.
For dinner, try a tofu stir-fry with mixed vegetables and some brown rice or a classic meat, potatoes, and vegetable dinner.
For protein-rich snacks, stock up on hummus, peanut butter, cottage cheese, yogurt, and nuts, and pair them with a fruit or vegetable or some whole grain chips or crackers.