How Much Protein Do You Really Need?


The topic of protein can be a confusing one. One day you might read an article about the latest high-protein diet fad and wonder if you should join in, the next you might watch a documentary about plant-based diets and question if you are actually eating too much protein. If this resonates with you or if you are simply an active individual wondering what you need to know about protein, read on!

Nutrition 101: Everything You Need to Know About Protein

Purpose & Function of Protein

Dietary proteins are essential for human health and responsible for things like immune function, enzymatic reactions, cell growth & development, transport and "communication" (as in the case of hormones). This table provides a good overview of each of those "jobs" if you're curious for some specific examples of each.

You have most-likely heard at some point throughout schooling that protein acts as the "building blocks" of our bodies. It's especially important post-workout for repairing/rebuilding muscle tissue. 

Another more subjective reason for including protein is the satisfaction factor. It adds staying power to meals and snacks so you aren't thinking about food again an hour later. I often find that when people skimp on protein at breakfast, it has a cascade effect and can lead to increased cravings throughout the day along with a feeling of never being *truly* satisfied. 

Complete vs. incomplete

You may have heard the words "complete" and "incomplete" in regards to protein. These terms indicate whether or not a particular food contains all of the essential amino acids (complete) or only some of them (incomplete).

Why is this important? 

There are 20 different amino acids and 9 of those are considered "essential" meaning that our body doesn't synthesize them and we need to consume these through our food. If you eat a plant-based diet (and subsequently incomplete protein sources), it's important to consume a variety of proteins to make sure you are getting each of those amino acids throughout the day. 

chicken and zucchini kabobs

Am I Getting Enough?

It's very rare to see protein deficiency in any developed country (except in the clinical setting when patients are either unable or refusing to eat for extended periods of time, at which point nutrition support is initiated). Basically, if you are meeting your energy needs, you are likely meeting your protein needs too. 

That said, many of my coaching clients tend to go a little low on dietary protein intake, especially if they follow a vegetarian eating pattern, without even realizing it. It's not hard to meet your needs with a plant-based or mostly plant-based diet, it just takes a little bit more planning. It's also important to know the difference between meeting protein needs for general health, and meeting protein needs if your goal is to build lean body mass and optimize a workout.

I often find that when people skimp on protein on breakfast, it has a cascade effect and can lead to afternoon sugar cravings along with a feeling of never being truly satisfied. 

— Leanne Ray, MS, RDN

The Recommended Dietary Allowance or "RDA" for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight (source).

So to calculate this, take your weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2 (to get your body weight in kilograms) then multiply that number by 0.8. This is the minimum amount of protein you should shoot for each day, but it's not necessarily the optimal amount. 

A registered dietitian can help you determine a protein range that will best meet your needs (based on things like activity level and fitness goals), but this can be a starting point. In addition to amount, there are two other important factors to consider: timing & variety. 

  1. Timing. Spread out your protein intake throughout the day (as opposed to moderate amounts at breakfast/lunch followed by a huge steak at dinner). This seems to promote muscle protein synthesis better than the alternative. (source)

  2. Variety. As mentioned above, make sure you get a variety of sources especially if you eat plant-based so you can diversify your amino acid intake. All food provides different benefits so this is a good rule of thumb no matter what the macronutrient - there is no "best" choice.

Dietary Sources of Protein

By now you might be wondering about protein-rich food sources. Most people are well-aware that meat has protein, but some other options may surprise you. Here is a short list of where you can find it and about how many grams one serving contains:

Food (protein):

Chicken, 3 oz (20 grams)

Siggi's 2% Yogurt, 5 oz (15 grams)

Tuna, 2 oz (14 grams)

Cottage Cheese, 1/2 cup (14 grams)

Red lentils, 50 gm serving (13 grams)

Hemp hearts, 3 Tbsp (10 grams)

Peanut butter, 2 Tbsp (8 grams)

Black beans, 1/2 cup (7 grams)

Whole wheat pasta, 2 oz (7 grams)

Egg, 1 whole (6 grams)

Old-fashioned rolled oats, 1/2 cup (5 grams)

smoked salmon toast with zucchini

What about protein supplements?

Supplements can be a great option for active individuals who have higher protein needs and find it challenging to meet them through food. From a volume perspective it's a lot easier to take in 20 grams of protein through a smoothie with some whey powder added in, than it is to consume a full plated meal. 

I still advocate for using "food first" whenever possible. Supplements can be expensive and they don't contain any magical components compared to food. The nutrients in whole food often work in synergy in the body so by isolating single components, we might be missing out on some of the benefits of the original source. Here's an example:

Smoothie #1

  • 1 cup vanilla almond milk

  • 1 serving whey protein

  • 1 banana

Nutrition // 290 cals, 18 g protein

Smoothie #2

  • 1 cup 1% milk

  • 1/2 frozen banana

  • 1 Tbsp peanut butter

  • 1.5 Tbsp hemp hearts

Nutrition // 318 cals, 18 g protein

Both provide the same amount of energy and protein but smoothie #2 gives you all of the nutritional benefits of milk, plus added heart-healthy fats, fiber, iron and omega 3s from a combination of the peanut butter and hemp hearts. Remember that this isn't to say one is "better", but one might be more appropriate based on your situation.

Five Plant-Based Proteins & How to Use Them

With Earth Month still going strong, I wanted to talk sustainability as it relates to our food choices (in case you missed it, see last week's post on how I made my kitchen more green!). I once heard a conference presenter state three simple ways that we can all make more sustainable food choices and it has really stuck with me ever since:

  1. Eat only as much food as you need (as opposed to routinely over-eating)
  2. Minimize food waste as much as possible
  3. Focus on plants, cut back on animal products

I loved how realistic these were (she wasn't telling everyone to go vegan tomorrow) and I also think this gives us something concrete to work on. Many of you are probably thinking, "so what do I eat instead?" Here are five plant proteins with some suggestions for how to use them:


If you have followed me on Instagram for a while, you know how much I love garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas). The canned version is a definite pantry staple in my house as they are so incredibly versatile. You can use them to make homemade hummus, add them to salads, or season/roast them to eat for a salty/crunchy snack. 

hummus plates.JPG


Edamame is another term for a whole soybean, the highest protein bean/lentil out there! Most people are probably familiar with them in the context of sushi (steamed and salted), but I also buy them frozen (pre-shelled) so I can add them into stir-fry, noodle dishes or fried rice for color, texture and protein. 

Peanuts and/or Peanut Butter

Did you know peanuts are actually a legume, not a nut? You learn something new every day. Of all of the "nuts" that they are generally lumped in with, peanuts are the most protein dense with 7 grams per serving. There's way more to PB than just sandwiches, like creamy peanut noodles, or peanut-based salad dressings. You can also add it to smoothies for an extra nutritional punch, or add crushed peanuts to salad or curry as a finishing touch.  

Kale Salad with Peanuts.JPG

Hemp Seeds

These are a relatively newer trend compare to others and might be a little bit more difficult to find. If you can get a hold of them, I would highly recommend! I buy them at Trader Joe's and love their nutty taste and soft texture (compared to most other seeds). With 10 grams or protein per three tablespoons, these are an easy way to add protein to just about anything. They are also a good source of iron and magnesium.

Soy Milk

This is a great alternative to cow's milk if you are lactose intolerant, or if you just want to experiment with some non-dairy options. Soy is the only milk substitute that is comparable in terms of protein, plus it's a naturally good source of omega-3 fatty acids and I like the creaminess it adds to oatmeal. Many people also use it in lattes/cappuccinos!


Once you start experimenting, it becomes fun to try some new and interesting foods. When it comes to protein, the key is variety and timing (spreading intake throughout the day instead of all at one meal). Hopefully this provided some new insight on plant-based protein sources!

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