Guide to Healthy Proteins

woman chooses a bag of peanuts in a grocery store aisle

Protein is in every part of our body, including muscle, bone, skin, and hair. Protein is made from amino acids. Some amino acids come from our own bodies and some come from food. We can get all the amino acids we need by eating food from animal sources. People who don’t eat food from animal sources, such as vegetarians, need to eat a variety of protein-containing foods every day to get all the amino acids their bodies need.

Proteins can be meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds. Most Americans get plenty of protein in our diet, but we don’t always make the healthiest choices.

The amount we need varies by age. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) daily recommended amount is:

  • About 5 ounces for women
  • About 6 ounces for men
  • 2 ounces for children ages 2-3
  • 4 ounces for children ages 4-8
  • 5 ounces for girls ages 9-18
  • 5 ounces for boys ages 9-13
  • 6½ ounces for boys ages 14-18

The USDA uses “ounce equivalents.” An ounce of meat, poultry, or fish is the same as its ounce equivalent. Other ounce equivalents include:

  • ¼ cup cooked beans
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter
  • ½ ounce of nuts or seeds
  • 2 tablespoons hummus

Making healthier protein choices

Even though we need protein, not all protein-rich foods are healthy for us. Some foods that are high in protein are also high in saturated fat, salt, calories, or other things that aren’t good for us. Follow these tips for choosing healthy proteins.

  • Eat lean or low-fat meat and poultry.
  • Avoid cooking with butter, shortening, or other solid fat.
  • Eat seafood that’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids about twice a week. This includes salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna.
  • Avoid red meat – including beef, pork, lamb, and goat – and processed meat – including hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats.
  • Choose unsalted nuts and seeds.

Be sure to leave room in your diet for other healthy foods as well. The American Cancer Society recommends at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.


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