Back to Basics: Protein

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I often get questions regarding how much protein to eat and sources of protein other than meat. First and foremost, it is important to understand two things_

  • -First, Protein is everywhere in our bodies. Thousands of proteins exist in our bodies to comprise various tissues- skin, bone, muscle, hair, etc. It also makes up the enzymes responsible for several reactions in our body, including those needed to digest our food.

Protein-containing foods are grouped as either "complete proteins" or "incomplete proteins". The distinction is made based on the amino acids in the protein source.

  • Most animal sourcesare complete proteins because they contain the nine essential amino acids. These nine (out of about twenty in total) are essential for us to get through the foods we eat simply because our bodies cannot synthesize them. Foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products are complete proteins.
  • Most plant-basedfoods are considered either "partially complete" or "incomplete" based on their amino acid make-up. Sources of incomplete proteins include beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and grain. Soy is the exception to the rule- it is the only plant-based protein source with all nine amino acids.

complementary proteins

eating a variety

How much protein do you need? The quick answer is that there is no "one size fits all" rule when it comes to protein. Technically speaking, consuming 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is the minimum amount needed to prevent the body from breaking down existing tissues. A more optimal intake would be around 15-20% of your total calories coming from protein. Both of these recommendations require calculations-- more effort than the average person desires to exert. So again, everyone is different, but I usually tell people to aim for 3-4 protein sources per day, and of course variation and moderation are the names of the game.

As another frame of reference, here is a list of the Recommended Dietary Allowances:

Minimum grams per day
Children 1-3 13
Children 4-8 19
Children 9-13 34
Female 14+ 46
Male 14-18 52
Male 19+ 56

this table

Institute of Medicine

A word of caution- protein is the most difficult macronutrient for our bodies to breakdown. The kidneys bear the burden here as they act as blood filters for our bodies. For a person with kidneys under stress, a lower protein diet would be recommended.

In choosing protein foods, this article about the "protein package" from Harvard's Nutrition Source sums it up nicely-pay attention to what comes with the protein in terms of carbohydrates, fats, and calories.

If you have any questions regarding your protein intake, talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian to help personalize a protein plan for you!

Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD is a nutritionist and founder of She is also the creator of The F-Factor DietaC/, an innovative nutritional program she has used for more than ten years to provide hundreds of her clients with all the tools they need to achieve easy weight loss and maintenance, improved health and well-being. For more information log onto