How Much Protein You Should Eat Per Day — Plus, High-Protein Meal Ideas to Try

Figuring out how much protein to consume per day can be confusing. Here, experts explain how much of this important micronutrient you need and how to get it daily. 

How Much Protein Should You Eat Every Day?: an overhead shot of a plethora of protein-rich foods, such as salmon, red beans, Brussels sprouts, and chicken breast
Photo: Getty Images

Eating healthy is important, 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 figuring out how much of each macronutrient — carbs, fats, and protein — you need on a day-to-day basis. Sigh. Fortunately, things don't have to be so difficult, at least when it comes to arguably the most important macronutrient for active folks: protein.

Here, why the filling nutrient is such a key part of your diet and how to gauge your individual protein needs — plus protein-packed picks for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anything in between to help you make sure you're getting enough protein per day.

Why It's Important to Get Enough

Think of your body as a never-ending construction site. 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. On top of that, protein is needed to recover from the stress of training," says Cynthia Sass, R.D., a performance nutritionist based in New York and Los Angeles. After exercise, your body uses protein (broken down into amino acids) to repair damaged muscle fibers, building them back stronger than before. (

Not getting enough protein per day (and overall) could lead to muscle loss, weak hair and nails, or immune issues. But, bare minimum, it'll hold you back from the best results in the gym. Luckily, most Americans do get enough protein in their diet. In fact, "there are some estimates that the average American gets two times the recommended protein intake," says Alex Caspero, R.D., a dietitian based in St. Louis. But acing the right amount of protein is important. "The body can only use 15 to 25 grams of protein at a time for muscle building. The rest of that gets broken down and used as fuel, or stored as fat," says Caspero. But here's the thing: Everyone's protein needs are different.

How Much Protein You Need Per Day

While dietitians have differing thoughts on the exact amount of protein each body needs per day, there are some general rules of thumb in place to help guide you. The National Institutes of Health's Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), which describes the minimum amount required for the body to function properly, says you should aim for 0.36 grams of protein for each pound you weigh per day.

But many experts suggest that many folks need far more than that. After all, that amount only prevents a protein deficiency — it's the minimum grams of protein per day requirement, says Molly Kimball, R.D., C.S.S.D., a dietitian with Ochsner Health in New Orleans. It isn't optimal for muscle repair and growth, a reduced risk of injury, or feeling fuller longer.

How much protein you actually need depends on who you ask and who you are. 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," says Sass. Your age plays a role, too. Some research suggests that as you age, your body performs better with higher amounts of protein. One study published in The American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism found that when people over age 50 ate about double the DRI of protein, their bodies were better at building muscle.

If you're working out hard on a regular basis (think: both cardio and strength training on the reg), the ideal amount of protein per day for muscle building and maintenance is about 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight — ideally spread out evenly throughout the day, notes Sass. So, if you're working your butt off, aim for 0.75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of healthy body weight. But keep in mind, that means whatever your weight was when you've felt your strongest and healthiest. The distinction is important to consider if you're severely underweight or overweight — you don't want to just use the numbers on the scale as a reference for your protein intake.

Your absolute minimum, if you're not active or only slightly active, should be about 0.5 grams of protein per pound of healthy body weight, notes Kimball. For an active 130-pound woman (59 kg), a ballpark protein breakdown would be roughly 24 grams of protein per meal including snacks or about 97 grams of protein per day (more or less, depending on your activity level). But if you're still concerned about protein needs (vegans and vegetarians can sometimes require more attention) a registered dietitian can help you ID the ideal amount of protein for you. (

Consider these meals and snacks (one from each category), with their respective amounts of protein, when determining your meals and your macros for the day.

Protein-Focused Breakfast Options

Omelet with avocado and a side pea protein "yogurt": 22 grams of protein

Made from two whole, large, organic, pasture-raised eggs, an omelet packs 12 grams of protein, says Sass. Pair with veggies and avocado, with a side of plain pea protein Greek "yogurt" for another 10 grams.

Egg "muffins" with two slices of whole-grain toast: 22 grams of protein

Scramble up two eggs in muffin tins and pair them with whole-grain toast for an early a.m. protein boost, suggests Kimball.

One Fage Greek yogurt: 18 grams of protein

Not into eggs? One serving of Fage Total 0% Greek yogurt (Buy It, $6 for 32 ounces, target.com) contains 18 grams of protein. (BTW, Greek yogurt has more than a dozen body benefits.)

Protein-Focused Lunch Options

Salad with grilled chicken: 24 grams of protein

A large salad made with leafy greens, extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with 2 ounces of grilled chicken breast would be about 14 grams of protein, says Sass. Add half a cup of cooked chilled quinoa and you'll tack on another 4 grams. Half a cup of chickpeas gives you another 6 grams of protein — that's a salad with 24 grams of total protein.

Protein and nut butter smoothie: 27 grams of protein

If you're eating lunch on the go, hit up a smoothie bar or whip up your own smoothie made from a scoop of protein powder (typically about 20 grams of protein), frozen fruit, a handful of kale, fresh ginger, unsweetened almond milk, and 2 tablespoons of almond butter (which adds 7 grams of protein), suggests Sass. (Try one of these nutritionist-recommended protein powder picks.)

Turkey wrap with vegetables: 25 grams of protein

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, says Kimball. Include your favorite veggies or spreads as fillings

Protein-Focused Dinner Ideas

Salmon with Brussels sprouts: 25 grams of protein

One cup of Brussels sprouts (oven roasted in herbs and extra-virgin olive oil) provides 3 grams of protein. A little bit of cauliflower gives you about 2 more grams. Top it with 3 ounces of broiled Alaskan salmon for another 22 grams of protein. Complete the dish with 1 cup of cooked spaghetti, suggests Sass.

Bean bowl: 22.5 grams of protein

Beans are a solid but sometimes overlooked source of protein and an excellent option for plant-based eaters. Prep a red bean power bowl packed with mixed greens, veggies, and fruit for an easy 22.5 grams of protein. (

Banza mac and cheese: 23 grams of protein

Sometimes, cooking from scratch isn't quite in the cards. No pressure — Banza chickpea pasta (Buy It, $4, target.com) provides a solid dose of protein (far more than your traditional types of pasta, which usually clock in around 7 grams).

Protein-Focused Snack Ideas

Nutrition bar: 10 grams of protein

Not all protein bars are created equal — but certain flavors of Perfect Bars (Buy It, $3, target.com) pack 17 grams of protein. Plus, they're easy enough to store in your office fridge to pull out any time a craving hits. (Looking for other easy ways to score the recommended grams of protein per day? Check out these refrigerated protein bars.)

Pistachios: 6 grams of protein

Plant-based protein, such as the kind found in pistachios, provides more bang for your calorie buck, says Caspero. "Nearly 90 percent of the fats found in pistachios are the better-for-you mono- and polyunsaturated types. Plus, they're a good source of protein and fiber for a trio that helps keep you fuller longer, compared to just protein," she says.

Cottage cheese: 25 grams of protein

Protein-rich cottage cheese is a great nighttime snack, especially for those who find themselves hungry before bed, notes Kimball. Rich in a slow-digesting protein called casein, it'll do away with hunger pangs the healthy way, keeping you full throughout the night. (Up next: Is It Really That Bad to Eat Late at Night?)

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