Eating healthy is important, but it can be a process in and of itself: Should I eat organic fruit? Do I need grass-fed beef? Should all juice be cold-pressed? And that’s before you even start figuring out how much of each macronutrient—carbs, fats, and protein—you need on a day-to-day basis. Sigh.
Fortunately, things don’t have to be so difficult, at least when it comes to arguably the most important macronutrient for active women: protein.
Here, why the filling nutrient is such a key part of your diet, how to gauge your individual protein needs—plus protein-packed picks for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anything in between to help you make sure you’re getting enough of it every day.
Why Protein Matters
Think of your body like a never-ending construction site. Protein is the workers required to keep the project running smoothly.
“You’re continually using protein to support hormones, enzymes, immune cells, hair, skin, muscle, and other protein tissues,” says Cynthia Sass, R.D., a performance nutritionist based in New York and Los Angeles. “On top of that, protein is needed to recover from the stress of training.” After exercise, your body uses protein (broken down into amino acids) to repair damaged muscle fibers, building them back stronger than before.
Not getting enough protein could lead to muscle loss, weak hair and nails, or immune issues. But, bare minimum, it’ll hold you back from the best results in the gym. Luckily, most Americans do get enough protein in their diet. In fact, “there are some estimates that the average American gets two times the recommended protein intake,” says Alex Caspero, R.D., a dietitian based in St. Louis. But acing the right amount of protein is important. “The body can only use 15 to 25 grams of protein at a time for muscle building,” says Caspero. “The rest of that gets broken down and used as fuel, or stored as fat.”
How Much Protein Do You Need?
While dietitians have differing thoughts on the *exact* amount of protein each body needs, there are some general rules of thumb in place to help guide you. The National Institutes of Health’s Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), which describes the minimum amount required for the body to function properly, says daily protein intake should be 0.36 grams for each pound you weigh. That’s about 46 grams of protein a day for the average woman.
But many experts, including Molly Kimball, R.D., C.S.S.D., a dietitian with Ochsner Health in New Orleans, suggest fit women need far more than that. After all, that amount only prevents a protein deficiency, Kimball says—it’s the minimum requirement. It isn’t optimal for muscle repair and growth, a reduced risk of injury, or feeling fuller longer.
How much protein you *actually* need depends on who you ask and who you are. Generally speaking, the more you move, the more protein you need. “The less wear and tear you put on your body, the less repair work there is to do,” says Sass. Your age plays a role, too. Some research suggests that as you age, your body performs better with higher amounts of protein. One study published in The American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism found that when people over age 50 ate about double the DRI of protein, their bodies were better at building muscle.
If you’re working out hard on a regular basis (think: both cardio and strength training on the reg), Sass notes that the ideal daily amount of protein for muscle building and maintenance is about 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight—ideally spread out evenly throughout the day. So, if you’re working your butt off, aim for 0.75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of healthy body weight.
In short, that means whatever your weight was when you’ve felt your strongest and healthiest. The distinction is important considering if you’re severely underweight or overweight, you don’t want to just use the numbers on the scale as a reference for your protein intake.
Your absolute minimum, if you’re not active or only slightly active, should be about 0.5 grams of protein per pound of healthy body weight, notes Kimball. For an active 130-pound woman (59 kg), a ballpark protein breakdown would be roughly 24 grams of protein per meal including snacks, or about 97 grams a day (more or less, depending on your activity level).
If you’re still concerned about protein needs (vegans and vegetarians can sometimes require more attention) a registered dietitian can help you ID the ideal amount of protein for you.
Consider these meals and snacks (one from each category), with their respective amounts of protein, when determining your meals and your macros for the day.
Protein-Focused Breakfast Options
Omelet with avocado and a side pea protein “yogurt”: 24g
Made from two whole, large, organic, pasture-raised eggs, an omelet packs 12 grams of protein, says Sass. Pair with veggies and avocado, with a side of plain pea protein Greek “yogurt” for another 12 grams.
Egg “muffins” with two slices of whole-grain toast: 22g
Kimball suggests scrambling up two eggs in muffin tins and pairing them with whole-grain toast for an early a.m. protein boost.
One Fage Greek yogurt: 18g
Not into eggs? One 6-ounce container of Fage Greek yogurt contains 18 grams of protein.
Protein-Focused Lunch Options
Salad with grilled chicken: 24g
A large salad made with leafy greens, extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with 2 ounces of grilled chicken breast would be about 14 grams of protein, says Sass. Add half a cup of cooked chilled quinoa and you’ll tack on another 4 grams. Half a cup of chickpeas gives you another 6 grams of protein—that’s a salad with 24 grams of total protein.
Protein and nut butter smoothie: 27g
If you’re eating lunch on the go, hit up a smoothie bar or whip up your own smoothie made from a scoop of protein powder (typically about 20 grams of protein), frozen fruit, a handful of kale, fresh gingerroot, unsweetened almond milk, and 2 tablespoons of almond butter (which adds 7 grams of protein), suggests Sass.
An old-school turkey wrap with vegetables: 25g
Don’t diss the old-school brown paper bag lunch. Three ounces of lean meat (in this case turkey) will provide about 20 grams of protein. Pair that with nutritious whole-grain bread, and you’re at about 25 grams, says Kimball. Include your favorite veggies or spreads as fillings.
Protein-Focused Dinner Ideas
Salmon with Brussels sprouts: 25g
One cup of Brussels sprouts (oven roasted in herbs and extra-virgin olive oil) provides 3 grams of protein. A little bit of cauliflower gives you about 2 more grams. Top it with 3 ounces of broiled Alaskan salmon for another 22 grams of protein. Complete the dish with 1 cup cooked spaghetti, suggests Sass.
Bean bowl: 22.5g
Beans are a solid but sometimes overlooked source of protein and a great option for plant-based eaters. Prep a red bean power bowl—packed with mixed greens, veggies, and fruit—for an easy 22.5 grams of protein.
Banza mac and cheese: 18g
Sometimes, cooking from scratch isn’t *quite* in the cards. No pressure. Banza chickpea pasta provides a solid dose of protein (far more than your traditional types of pasta, which usually clock in around 7 grams).
Protein-Focused Snack Ideas
A nutrition bar: 10g
Not all protein bars are created equal—but Protein One bars pack 10 grams of protein, 90 calories, and 1 gram of sugar. Plus, they’re easy enough to store in your desk drawer to pull out any time a craving hits.
Plant-based protein, like the kind found in pistachios, provides more bang for your calorie buck, says Caspero. “Nearly 90 percent of the fats found in pistachios are the better-for-you mono- and polyunsaturated types. Plus, they’re a good source of protein and fiber for a trio that helps keep you fuller longer, compared to just protein.”
Cottage cheese: 25g
Kimball favors protein-rich cottage cheese as a nighttime snack—especially for those who find themselves hungry before bed. Rich in a slow-digesting protein called casein, it’ll do away with hunger pangs the healthy way, keeping you full throughout the night.