How much protein do we need and how do we get it? Plus a great recipe

Protein rich scrambled eggs

Photo credit: vidalia_11 via Visual hunt / CC BY

I remember being a kid and my mother pleading with me to eat my scrambled eggs before heading off to school “You need your protein,” she’d say, “so you’ll have strong muscles and you’ll be able to learn things.”

Decades have passed and I still have things to learn. And to this day, I often remind myself about getting enough protein.

Protein is important. About 15 percent of the average person’s body mass is made up of protein. Our muscles, skin and hair are mostly protein. And we need protein to keep everything working properly.

How much protein do adults need?

My mother worried that I didn’t get enough protein and over the years I’ve heard that Americans eat too much protein. What is the right amount and what are the best sources?

I turned to registered dietitian Kitty Broihier for more information. First of all, she says most of us are probably on target with how much. “National food intake survey data show that most Americans are getting enough protein overall,” she says, “with the possible exception of older people.”

Well, I’m in the older people category now, so I’m especially interested in what that means. Here’s what I found out. As we age, we lose skeletal muscles or muscles that are attached to our bones. The research shows that it happens because older people tend to be less active and their bodies don’t produce the same levels of important hormones that they used to — testosterone, estrogen and growth hormones, for instance. They also need more protein than when they were younger.

One recent study followed 20 healthy adults between the ages of 52 and 75 to see how their diet might affect their muscular health. They were randomly assigned to one of four groups. They all ate protein, but two groups ate double the amount. And they ate their protein at different times. Some at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and some mostly at dinner.

The results showed that no matter when they ate their protein, after four days the participants who ate the larger amounts started building muscle mass. How much more did they eat? Double. Half of them ate them at the recommended daily amount (RDA) for adults 19 and older — 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The other half ate double that. You can read details of the study here.

The RDA is not necessarily how much you need to eat every day, but how much you need to meet the minimum nutritional requirements. To figure out your RDA, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36 or use this calculator from the US Department of Agriculture.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans has a different approach to saying how much protein we need. “The recommendation for protein foods in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-calorie level is 5½ ounce-equivalents of protein foods per day.”

Aim to get up to about 25% of your total daily calories as protein, says Kitty, “which helps our bodies maintain and add muscle.”

Protein amounts for children

Here’s how much daily protein the Mayo Clinic recommends for kids:

Ages 2 to 3

Boys and girls 2-4 ounces

Ages 4 to 8

Girls 3 to 5 ounces

Boys 3 to 5.5 ounces

Ages 9 to 13

Girls 4 to 6 ounces

Boys 5 to 6.5 ounces

Ages 14 to 18

Girls 5 to 6.5 ounce

Boys 5.5 to 7 ounces

PaelmerPhotoArts / Pixabaygood

Protein-rich foods

Meat is not the only good source of protein, nor are the eggs by mother tried to get me to eat. There are quite a few good protein sources you may not know about. “According to the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines,” says Kitty, “most of us aren’t eating enough seafood and are short on dairy — two great sources of protein as well as other important nutrients. If you want to get more protein in your diet, there’s no need to just add more meat —and more processed meat isn’t the solution. Instead, consider bumping your seafood consumption to at least twice a week, add some dairy products (Greek yogurt is great, as is milk or even a whey shake) to your day, and bulk up your diet with legumes, which are a lowfat, fiber-filled and inexpensive source of plant protein.”

A recipe full of protein

I shared a recipe for barbecued salmon last week, a in the spirit of Kitty’s advice, I’ll share another seafood recipe this week. Baked Fish from The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook by Jean Hewitt. You’re supposed to bake the fish in an oven, but I recall making it on a grill and one time, over a campfire. Please don’t ask me if the cooking times were the same. It was a very long time ago and I don’t remember. But they might have been!

Baked Fish
Recipe Type: Seafood
Author: Jean Hewitt/New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook
Serves: 2 servings
  • 1/2 cup chopped scallions
  • 1 green pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 carrot, finely diced
  • 1 tomato, skinned and chopped
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 TBS snipped fresh dill weed
  • 2 halibut or cod steaks (each 3/4 inch thick)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 TBS butter
  • 1 cup yogurt
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Combine the scallions, green pepper, carrot, tomato, salt and pepper and dill
  3. Place half the mixture in the bottom of an oiled baking dish (or a large piece of oiled tin foil)
  4. Place fish on top, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with lemon juice
  5. Cover with remaining vegetable mixture
  6. Pour the water over everything and dot with the butter
  7. Cover tightly (or wrap up the tin foil)
  8. Bake 25 minutes or until fish flakes easily
  9. Spread yogurt over the top of the dish and return to oven (or grill or campfire) just long enough to warm the yogurt, about four minutes
Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.