Protein

Young women's version of this guide

Protein is needed to build and repair your muscles, make hair and skin, fight against infections, and carry oxygen in your blood. Proteins are made up of twenty different building blocks called amino acids. Your body can make some amino acids, but there are nine that can’t be made (we call these “essential amino acids”), and the only way to get them is through the food you eat. It’s important to eat a variety of protein foods every day to make sure your body gets all the essential amino acids.

What foods are high in protein?

Plant foods such as legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), nuts, peanut butter, seeds, and soy foods (soybeans, soymilk, and tofu) are all high in protein. Animal foods such as meat, fish, turkey, chicken, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt are also good sources of protein.

How much protein do I need each day?

The amount of protein that you need daily, or the recommended daily allowance (RDA), depends on your age and body size, but most teens need, on average, between 40 and 60 grams of protein each day. If you want to figure out exactly how much you need, you’ll need to do a little math.

If you’re 11-13 years old: Multiply your weight in pounds by 0.455; this gives you about how many grams of protein you need each day.

If you’re 15-18 years old: Multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36 to estimate how many grams of protein you need each day.

Keep in mind that this is just an estimate. If you are very active and play sports, you may need more protein than someone who is not as active.  While these calculations can be helpful, you most likely can meet your protein needs without knowing the exact amount.  It may be more helpful to know how much protein is in the foods you eat. For comparison, 3 ounces of meat is approximately the size of a deck of cards. Your fist is approximately the size of ½ cup.

The table below lists some good sources of protein and the grams of protein in each serving.

FoodServing SizeGrams of protein per serving
Tuna3 ounces20 grams
Hamburger3 ounces19 grams
Chicken3 ounces21 grams
Shrimp3 ounces20 grams
Tempeh1/2 cup19 grams
Yogurt, low fat1 cup12 grams
Greek Yogurt1 cup20 grams
Tofu1/2 cup10 grams
Lentils, cooked1/2 cup9 grams
Cow’s milk1 cup8 grams
Peanut butter2 tbsp8 grams
Almond butter2 tbsp7 grams
Sunbutter (peanut free)2 tbsp7 grams
Kidney beans, cooked1/2 cup8 grams
Cheese1 ounce7 grams
Egg, cooked1 large7 grams
Soy milk1 cup7 grams
Hummus1/3 cup6 grams
Miso2 tbsp4 grams
Quinoa, cooked1/2 cup4 grams
Bulgur, kasha, oats, cooked1/2 cup3 grams
Almonds1/4 cup8 grams
Peanuts1/4 cup9 grams

What’s the deal with protein supplements?

There are many different protein supplements that come as powders, shakes, and bars.

If you’re thinking of taking a protein supplement, keep these facts in mind:

  • Most teens get more than enough protein from food; therefore extra supplements don’t have any benefit.
  • Protein supplements don’t increase muscle mass, strength, or endurance – the keys to building new muscle are 1) proper training and recovery, 2) eating a balance of carbohydrates and protein after exercise, and 3) eating enough calories throughout the day.
  • Since protein powders and supplements are not regulated by the FDA, some products may contain ingredients that can be harmful to your body.
  • Protein supplements are very expensive.

Be sure to talk to your health care provider (and dietitian) if you’re taking a protein supplement or if you’re thinking about taking one.

How often should I eat foods with protein in them?

Protein is a filling nutrient, so it’s a good idea to eat some at every meal and at most snacks to feel satisfied and not hungry. Our bodies have no way of storing protein so you can’t eat it all at one meal and assume that your body will have enough at other times. The table below includes some easy ways for you to get in protein throughout the day.

BreakfastSnackLunchDinner
Whole wheat toast with peanut butterString cheeseLean cold-cuts with vegetables and cheese (in a sandwich or wrap)Baked or grilled fish
Scrambled eggs (or egg substitute) with cheese and salsa, rolled in a whole wheat tortillaGreek YogurtChili with cornbreadTurkey burger
Poached egg on a whole grain English muffinHummus with carrotsBean burritoStir-fried tofu or chicken with vegetables