Everywhere we look we see new, great protein-boosted drinks and foods. But how much protein is really needed, and do Americans get enough or too much?

Protein is one of the macronutrients required on the Nutrition Facts label of foods because it plays such a significant role in human health. Every human cell and most fluids in our bodies contain protein. Protein is used to build muscle, repair cells and make new cells. It is needed to help fend off disease and helps transport molecules throughout the body. The amino acids that make up proteins form enzymes and hormones, each with its own unique and essential function.

It is important that we not only get enough, but that we also get good-quality protein. Men and women require different amounts of protein. The Recommended Daily Allowance for men is 56 grams per day, while women should eat 46 grams per day. Most Americans get enough and more. According to a report in the September 2012 issue of Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, adult males actually get 88–92 grams per day, and adult females consume 62–66 grams, about 1½ times the recommended amount.

The problem is that many people get their protein in forms that also include lots of saturated fat. The solution to this is twofold: choosing to eat smaller portions and choosing options with leaner meats, fish and poultry, low-fat dairy or plant-based sources of protein. As for the amount of protein in food, some examples include:

  • 3 ounces of braised beef round steak (only about the size of a deck of cards) has 29 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of low-fat cottage cheese or part-skim ricotta cheese has 28 grams
  • 3 ounces of light tuna canned in water has 22 grams
  • 1 cup of trail mix has 21 grams

There are some Americans who are not getting enough protein, though. Older adults whose systems no longer process the nutrient efficiently, or who simply do not eat enough calories in a day, fall into this category. Studies have shown that this group needs to pay close attention to the quality and timing of their protein consumption. Protein can be eaten in portions throughout the day, rather than obtained through the typical protein punch at dinner. Adding an egg or some nuts at breakfast can make a substantial difference in meeting an older person’s protein needs.

So the extra boost of special protein-enhanced foods and drinks (often costly) is unnecessary if a person follows a healthy eating plan.