How Much Protein Do You Need?

Protein is having a moment. From Atkins to Paleo, it seems like everyone is eating a high protein diet. Even JetBlue is offering cricket—yes, cricket!—protein bars to airline passengers. Whether or not you eat a high-protein diet (or an insect snack mid-flight), chances are you’re concerned about your intake of this important nutrient. Are you eating enough? Eating too much? Here’s the skinny:

Are You Getting Enough Protein?

"In a generally healthy diet, about 10 to 20 percent of your total calories should be coming from protein," says Alison Massey, MS, RD, Director of Diabetes Education at The Center for Endocrinology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Individuals with certain medical conditions or specific needs may need more or less protein, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, general recommendations for the average person in grams (g) per day are:

  • Men ages 19 years and older: 56g
  • Women 19 years and older: 46g
  • Pregnant or nursing teenagers and women: 71g
  • Children ages 1-3 years: 13g
  • Children ages 4-7 years: 19g
  • Children ages 9-13 years: 34g
  • Boys ages 14-18 years: 52g
  • Girls ages 14-18 years: 46g

While athletes may benefit from increased protein intake pre- and post-workout, the majority of us (even regular exercisers) are fine with the above guidelines.

The Problem With too Much Protein

The good news about protein intake is that most of us get enough—even those of us who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Plant-based proteins such as beans, nuts, and tofu help to create a balanced diet. The key word here being balanced, which brings us to the problem with high protein diets….

"When you eat a high protein diet and exclude carbohydrates—which is your body's main source of fuel—your body begins to burn its own fat for energy," explains Heidi McIndoo, MS, RD, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 200-300-400 Calorie Meals. "While that may sound good, it actually leads to a condition called ketosis. Ketosis may help reduce your appetite, but it also increases your fluid loss, making any initial weight loss often just a loss of fluids." In addition, McIndoo cautions that when you lose large amounts of fluids, you may also lose the essential nutrients in the fluids.

If you are considering a high protein diet, McIndoo recommends you increase your protein intake slightly, while reducing—but not eliminating—your carbohydrate intake. Your carbohydrates (eaten at each meal and snack) should consist of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, instead of highly processed carbs like sugar foods, cakes, pastries, candy, and sodas and other sugary drinks. And when it comes to choosing protein, opt for healthier, lower-fat sources, such as sirloin steak instead of a burger.

The Healthiest Sources of Protein

There are lots of options for incorporating healthy sources of protein into the diet. The healthiest sources are plant-based ones, followed by small amounts of seafood, poultry, and low fat dairy products.

Good plant-based sources of protein include:

  • Lentils, with 18g in 1 cup.
  • Beans, with 13g in 1 cup of canned baked beans.
  • Nuts, with 7g in 1 oz. of roasted peanuts
  • Seeds, with 6g in ¼ cup.
  • Tofu, with 6g in 1 slice.
  • Nut butters, with 8g in 2 tablespoons.

Good lean animal sources of protein include:

  • Fish, with 19g in 3 oz. of cooked salmon.
  • Shellfish, with 26g in 1 cup of shrimp.
  • Low fat Greek-style yogurt, with 8g in a 6 oz. container.
  • Low fat cottage cheese, with 15g per ½ cup.
  • Skinless white meat chicken and turkey, with 26.3g in 3 oz.
  • Beef (lean meats such as eye round, top round, bottom round, top loin, sirloin), with 21g per 3 oz. serving.
  • Pork tenderloin, with 24g in 3 oz. (cooked).

"Protein helps build and repair tissue in your body—bone, cartilage, muscle, skin, and more," says McIndoo. "If you eat too little protein your body may not be able to heal itself as quickly from injury, or you may be more susceptible to illness. You may also have problems with other body functions for which protein is needed to manufacturer necessary enzymes and hormones." Unless you have a medical condition that requires a lower protein intake, you should stick to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations.

Alison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, reviewed this article. 


Massey, Alison. Email message to author. October 24, 2014.

McIndoo, Heidi. Email message to author. October 28, 2014.

Hermann, Janice R. "Protein and the Body." Oklahoma Cooperative Extension. Accessed October 28, 2014. 

"National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference." USDA. Accessed October 28, 2014. 

"Protein." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated October 4, 2012. Accessed October 28, 2014.