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Daily protein requirements: How much do I really need?

We get the lowdown on how much protein you actually need

A middle-aged bearded man cooks up meat in a pan in the kitchen
A middle-aged bearded man cooks up meat in a pan in the kitchen

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about protein – what it is, where to get it and how much you need. That's why we've outlined everything you need to know.

Given all living cells in our bodies contain protein, we chatted to a dietitian and a nutritionist to get the lowdown on how much protein one actually needs and where you can get it – plus, we busted a few common myths along the way.

What is protein?

Most of the food we eat is packed with protein, especially animal products (beef, chicken, fish and lamb) and legumes (beans, peas and lentils). During digestion, these proteins are broken down releasing amino acids, which are the building blocks of all protein. These amino acids then produce new proteins including enzymes and hormones.

Protein is one of the three nutrients used as energy sources (calories) by the body, providing four calories of energy per gram – and should make up approximately 10 to 15% of our energy intake. It’s also the second most abundant compound in the body, following water.

Effects of protein

All cells and tissues contain protein and it’s an essential nutrient for the growth and repair of our skin, hair, fingernails, muscles, arteries, veins and organs, and the maintenance of good health.

Unlike carbohydrates and fat, protein is not stored, so you’ll need to consume it on a daily basis – ideally spread out throughout the day.

How much protein do you need each day?

In terms of recommended daily intake, there are a number of factors to take into account, including weight, age, gender, medical history and lifestyle.

The Dietitians Association of Australia notes we need more protein during times of cell growth and repair such as:

  • Childhood and teenage years

  • Pregnancy and lactation (the amount ranges from 1–1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight)

  • After illness or surgery

  • When training as an athlete

Generally speaking, the Australian Dietary guidelines recommend you eat two to three serves per day from the foods listed below.

The best sources of protein

Animal proteins are far superior to plant proteins and are often referred to as complete proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids, Cronau says.

That said, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, getting the protein you need is still achievable.

“It is possible to get all protein and amino acid needs from plant-based proteins. However, it is important to obtain plant proteins from a varied diet to ensure we are getting enough total protein and a good distribution of all the essential amino acids,” says Sports Dietitian Alicia Edge.

A man puts together a protein shake in a kitchen

Not sure where to find protein, or how much you need to consume to get enough per day? Edge says you can find it in the following sources:

FoodProtein per serve
Lean meat30g per 100g
Poultry24g per 80g
Fish20-25g per 100g
Two eggs12g per serve
Cheese8-10g per 40g
Yoghurt10-20g per 200g
Milk7.5g-10g per 250ml
Seeds/nuts6-9g per 30g
Beans/lentils12-15g per 150g
Tofu21g per 170g
Soy milk7.5g per 250ml
Rice3g per 100g
Bread4g per slice

A balanced diet will provide you with all the protein you need, and Edge says a supplement – even when trying to gain muscle mass - is rarely required. If you’re worried your intake is inadequate, chat to your GP about your health and whether you would benefit from seeing a dietitian.