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USDA Nutrition Guidelines

Protein Guidelines

Smart choices to get the protein you need include lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, nut butters, and seeds. If you don't eat meat, fish, or poultry, combine grains with legumes often to make a delicious dish -- and a complete protein. When your meal includes legumes, remember to count them as a vegetable OR a protein food, not both, so your calorie and nutrient intakes are not jeopardized.

How Much Protein Should I Eat?

Americans tend to overconsume protein, which can mean taking in more fat and calories than you need, as well. You may be surprised to find out that you only need five to six ounce-equivalents (oz-eq) of protein foods for good health. An oz-eq is equal to:

  • 1 ounce lean meat, fish, or poultry

  • 1 egg

  • 1/4 cup cooked legumes or tofu

  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter

  • 1/2 ounce (about 2 tablespoons) nuts or seeds

The table below will give you a better idea of how much protein you should be consuming, according to your calorie level.

Daily Calorie Level
Lean meat and beans
5 oz-eq
5 oz-eq
5.5 oz-eq
6 oz-eq

This works out to about two servings of protein each day. Your piece of meat, fish, or poultry should be modest in size, about the size of a deck of cards (roughly 3 ounces), to avoid going overboard on protein as well as calories.

Benefits of Protein

Protein is the building block for all body tissues. It also plays a vital role in many body functions, such as forming hormones and making antibodies to fight infection. Protein also helps you feel satisfied because it takes longer than carbohydrates to digest.

Best Bites for Weight Loss

The Buzz on Beans
Beans are high in fiber and often get a bad rap for causing gas. There's an unusual carbohydrate in fiber that the human body does not have the enzymes to digest. Bacteria in your large intestine digest some of the fiber, and this in turn produces gas.

There are several things you can do to reduce gas from beans:
  • Increase your fiber consumption slowly. This allows the body and intestinal bacteria to adjust and make less gas.

  • Start with legumes that are easier to digest, such as lentils and split peas. Kidney beans are the hardest to digest.

  • If you cook your own beans, soak them overnight and pour off the soaking water before cooking. This procedure draws out some of the trouble-causing carbohydrate from the beans, and it is drained away with the soaking water.

  • An enzyme product, such as Beano, taken with your first bite of beans may help prevent gas.

Lean sources of protein are the wisest choices for eating fewer calories. For example, choose lean meats and poultry, and trim away all visible fat. To further reduce fat and calories, drain the fat off cooked meats. If you're browning ground beef to use in dishes such as chili and tacos, give it a quick rinse with hot water, then drain. Rinsing and draining ground beef removes about 70 percent of the fat.

Poultry can be a low-calorie protein choice. You no longer need to remove the skin from your chicken until after cooking. Studies show that no significant amount of fat migrates into the meat, and the skin holds in moisture while cooking. If you're eating ground poultry products, choose those that are 100 percent breast meat, otherwise you can end up with a very high-fat product. If the label doesn't state "100% ground breast," that means skin and other poultry parts are tossed into the ground mix, adding fat.

Try low-fat alternatives to traditionally high-fat meats. For instance, turkey bacon or turkey pepperoni make great lower-fat substitutes for regular pepperoni. Most fish are relatively low in calories, and those that are not offer heart-healthy fats that you don't need to worry about limiting.

Egg whites are a near-perfect protein and low in calories. Either separate the eggs, discarding the high-calorie yolks, or purchase pasteurized egg whites (the whites plus a little natural food coloring). Find them next to the eggs in the grocery store. For lower-calorie scrambled eggs, use pasteurized egg whites, adding spices and vegetables for flavor. Or use fresh eggs, discarding all but one or two yolks for a little color and flavor. You can safely leave out some of the egg yolks called for in baked goods, too, without losing flavor or texture.

Legumes and tofu offer more low-calorie alternatives to meat. So does texturized vegetable protein made from soybeans. Look for veggie crumbles in the freezer section next to the meatless burger patties. These foods can replace meat in soups, casseroles, chili, Mexican food, Asian food, spaghetti sauce, and more -- be creative! Tofu dogs or veggie hot dogs can stand in for the meat-variety and save you many saturated fat grams and hundreds of calories.

Nuts contribute heart-healthy fats as well as protein. However, they're high in calories, so eat only a tablespoon or two at a time. Use them mostly for enhancing flavor and adding crunch to foods rather than eating out of hand.

Incorporating Protein Into Your Diet

A simple way to get your protein allotment is to have a single serving at two different meals each day.

  • Use lean meats, fish, or poultry to avoid using up discretionary calories.

  • Include legumes or soy products as your protein source a couple of times each week.
Setting Protein Goals

Unlike other food categories, your goal with protein isn't to eat more. In fact, you might need to eat less than you usually do. But you could set a goal about using leaner meats or alternate protein sources such as legumes and soybean products. Consider something like this:
  • I will eat a bean and rice main dish one time this week.

  • I will order a tofu stir fry when I go out to eat this weekend.

Essential for proper nutrition, protein forms an important part of your daily diet. But knowing how much to consume can be a challenge. Use good preparation and planning to design the best diet for you!

An even bigger challenge is moderating the amount of sugar you eat. The next section deals with sugar, and how to make it a safe and healthy part of your diet.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.