Protein: The Powerhouse Nutrient

 Written by Kate A. Mascho, RD, LDN – Registered Dietitian, Poe Center for Health Education

When thinking of protein, the first thing that typically comes to mind is “muscle”. While the nutrient protein plays a key role in building and repairing muscles, you may be surprised to find out how much you need daily to get results.

Daily Protein Needs

Groups of individuals who have the highest needs for protein include:

Endurance Athletes & Individuals Participating in Intense Exercise

During this type of exercise, about 5 percent of energy being used will come from protein.

Individuals Who are Dieting & Consuming Too Few Calories

Because of the low number of calories being consumed, protein becomes an energy source instead of being used to build and repair muscles.

Individuals Who are Beginning an Exercise Program

When starting an exercise program extra protein is needed to build muscle.

Teenage Athletes

For these young athletes, protein is an essential component not only for their growth but also to develop muscles.

Finding a Balance in Your Diet

In many cases, individuals tend to eat too much or too little protein. Finding the right balance of protein in your diet can improve your performance and helpyou achieve better results from your exercise routine.

For those individuals looking to build muscle mass, eating too much protein can actually be a barrier to achieving the results they are working toward.

Muscular physiques are not the result of extreme amounts of protein but rather the result of intense training. Too much protein and not enough carbohydrates can actually cause individuals to tire more easily and hurt performance.

It is just as important for individuals trying to build muscle mass to consume adequate amounts of carbohydrates, as this nutrient will provide muscles with glycogen. Glycogen fuels muscles allowing them to complete more intense training, which will help these individuals get better results.

On the other side of the spectrum, individuals who consume too little protein tend to trade in protein and consume additional fruits and vegetables. Although fruits and vegetables are a healthy option, this could cause a low consumption of iron (for red blood cells), zinc (for healing), calcium (for bones) and other nutrients for many active individuals and athletes. A continued lack of protein can increase the risk for anemia, frequent illnesses or affect bone strength.

Individual Protein Recommendations

Protein recommendations vary per individual depending on age, gender and/or type of athlete. To determine if you are meeting your daily protein needs first identify what type of individual you would be in the chart below and multiply the recommended amounts of protein with your body weight in pounds. For example, if you are a 150-pound recreational exerciser, you would need about 75 to 105 grams of protein each day:

  • 150 lb X 0.5 g/lb = 75 grams of protein
  • 150 lb X 0.7 g/lb = 105 grams of protein

Protein Amounts in Food

Examples of the amounts of protein in various foods are found below:

  • 1 cup of milk has 8 grams of protein
  • 3-ounces of meat has about 21 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of dry beans has about 16 grams of protein
  • 8-ounces of yogurt has about 11 grams of protein
  • 4-ounces of tofu has about 11 grams of protein
  • ¼ cup nuts have about 6 grams of protein
  • 2-ounces of pasta has about 8 grams of protein
  • 1 egg white has about 3 grams of protein
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter have about 9 grams of protein

When you add up the protein from just these foods above, you would be getting about 93 grams of protein. This doesn’t count all the other foods consumed throughout the day that add smaller amounts of protein such as bread (1 slice provides 2 g), rice (1 cup cooked provides 4 g), potatoes (1 small potato provides 2 g), carrots (½ cup cooked provides 2 g) and many others. You can see how easy it would be to get adequate amounts of protein by eating a variety of foods.

Both plant and animal sources of protein can provide the same benefits this nutrient has to offer, however, eating sources of protein high in fat can be harmful to your health. Reduce saturated fat intake by choosing lean and extra-lean cuts of meat and trim off extra fat as needed. If you are sticking to plant sources of protein you will have to eat larger portions because plant protein is less concentrated than animal protein. Protein is a key nutrient not only for overall health, but also enhances your exercise routine when consumed in the appropriate amounts.

About the Poe Center:

The Poe Center is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate and empower North Carolina children, youth and their families to make choices that increase positive health behaviors. The Poe Center’s vision is that all North Carolina children and youth become healthy adults. Since opening their facility in 1991, the Poe Center has educated more than 850,000 participants from 76 counties using innovative teaching theaters, exhibits and offsite programs. For additional information please visit

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