Healthy Eating Tips

‘I’m an RD and CPT, and This Is the Ideal Amount of Protein You Should Have at Each Meal’

Photo: Stocksy/Jarusha Brown
As a Well+Good reader, I’m sure you already know a thing or two about nutrition. For instance, I doubt it’s news to you that balanced, nutrient-dense meals are key to keeping your body, mind, and overall health in good condition, or that consuming whole foods, like produce and fatty fish, is the gold standard. In addition, you’re likely already aware that adequate daily protein intake is essential to support everything from your muscles to your hair and nails. With that said, do you know what the ideal amount of protein is for you—yep, you—on a daily basis, or even from one meal to the next? And is there ever such a thing as too much protein?

To level up your protein game with just a bit more know-how, we asked Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CDN, NASM-CPT, deputy nutrition director for the Good Housekeeping Institute, to lead the way.

How much protein per meal is ideal

As a quick reminder, protein is a macronutrient that our bodies need in large quantities to function optimally. “Every single cell in the human body contains protein,” Sassos says. “It is essential for building and repairing tissue, as well as fighting infections, building muscle, clotting blood, and even carrying oxygen around the body.”

Sassos adds that there’s a certain threshold you may wish to keep in mind when considering how much protein per meal is ideal: 30 grams. “Any excess protein that is consumed beyond that will be excreted through the urine and essentially go to waste,” the dietitian shares. “Eating too much protein can put unnecessary stress on the kidneys and do harm over time. It can also result in elevated urinary calcium which can contribute to bone loss and the development of osteoporosis and osteopenia over time."

3 RD-approved tips to optimize protein intake

Now that we have a few benchmarks out of the way, let’s focus on how to optimize your protein routine.

1. Opt for whole-food sources of lean protein

First things first, Sassos reiterates that whole-food sources of protein—whether animal- or plant-based—are preferred. Compared to the likes of protein supplements and powders, protein-rich whole foods are packed with other important nutrients you’ll definitely want to benefit from. “This synergistic relationship of protein in whole-food form with other vitamins, minerals, and more is the way nature intended, which makes it nutritionally superior to supplements and powders,” Sassos explains.

From there, Sassos advises opting for protein sources that are lean and low in saturated fat. “These include skinless poultry, fish, low-fat dairy, lean meats, eggs, lentils and beans,” she says.

2. Figure out your optimal protein intake per day

A range of diverse factors will inform how much protein you should aim for each day, which includes but isn’t limited to your age, sex, and level of movement. Generally speaking, however, Sassos says that a simple way to figure out how much protein you need daily is to multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8. (For example, if you weigh 165 pounds, divide that by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms, then multiply that number by 0.8. Your final number would equate to a recommended 60 grams of protein daily.) “For athletes, aim for about 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight depending on your training regimen and fitness goals,” Sassos says.

Again, you can modify your protein needs based on factors such as your activity levels and desire to build muscle. (According to Sassos, other people who may require protein in higher ranges include “individuals who have recently had surgery and people with specific medical conditions like severe wounds.” In such cases, she notes that protein powders and supplements may be beneficial to reach their ideal intake; just be sure to clear this type of regimen with a health professional.)

3. Focus on balance

Again, balance is the name of the game when it comes to any dietary considerations—and it’s no exception with protein. For starters, that means you should aim for protein at each meal, rather than packing it all into one. “Spreading your protein intake evenly throughout the day is ideal for maximizing protein absorption,” Sassos explains. In addition, she advises pairing it alongside “produce, whole grains, and other nutrient-dense foods for a balanced meal.”

Tips to build a protein-rich plate at each meal

For some highly nutritious inspo, Sassos helpfully outlines what a balanced, protein-rich plate might look like at mealtime from morning till night. For each, she keeps that 30-gram upper limit standard in mind, but you can (and should!) adjust your serving sizes as fits your appetite and personalized needs.

Breakfast:

  • 3 egg omelet (18 grams of protein)
  • 1 oz cheese (5-7 grams of protein)
  • 2 slices of whole wheat bread (6 grams of protein)

Lunch:

  • 3 oz tuna salad with lettuce and tomato (21 grams of protein)
  • A wrap (4 grams of protein)
  • 1 oz trail mix (4 grams of protein)

Dinner:

  • 3 oz chicken breast (about 21 grams of protein)
  • 1/3 cup quinoa (about 6 grams of protein)
  • 1/2 cup roasted veggies (2-3 grams of protein)

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