Protein

Protein in the diet, the foods that provide protein and how they affect our health

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Protein in a healthy diet

What is protein?

Protein is a macronutrient – macronutrients (sometimes called ‘macros’) are the nutrients we need in larger amounts that provide us with calories and includes protein, fat and carbohydrate. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. When we digest protein from foods or drinks, these are broken down to amino acids. The body then builds all the different proteins it needs from these amino acids.

What does protein do in the body?

There are thousands of different proteins in the body that have a huge variety of roles, in our organs like our brain, heart and liver, the antibodies in our immune system and the haemoglobin that carries oxygen in our blood. Protein is  important for children’s muscles and bones as they are growing and also to keep our muscles and bones healthy throughout life.

How much protein do we need?

Our protein recommendations are based on how much we need per kilogram (kg) of our body weight, for adults this is 0.75g per kg of body weight. Current recommendations are 56g/day for men and 45g/day for women (based on body weights of 75kg for men and 60kg for women) and on average in the UK men are eating about 85g and women about 67g of protein a day. So, on average we are eating more than the requirements it is likely that most of us are getting enough protein. Some people, for example athletes or older adults may have higher protein requirements.

Which foods and drinks provide protein?

A lot of different foods and drinks provide protein. In the UK Government’s healthy eating model the Eatwell Guide, foods that provide protein are found in the n the food group called ‘Beans, pulses, eggs, fish, meat and other proteins’. Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are also good sources of protein.

We can also look at good food sources of protein based on whether they are from animals or plants. Below we look at different food sources of protein in more detail. The protein content of some common foods is shown in table 1 and 2.

Tables 1 and 2: Protein content of some common foods found in the diet

Animal sources of protein

 

Food type

Protein content (g)

per 100g

Meat

Chicken breast (grilled, without skin)

Pork chop (lean, grilled) 
Beef steak (lean, grilled) 
Lamb chop (lean, grilled) 

32.0
31.6

31.0
29.2

Fish

Tuna (canned in brine) 
Salmon (grilled) 
Cod (baked)

Mackerel (grilled) 

24.9
24.6
23.9

20.3

Seafood

Crab (canned in brine)

Mussels (cooked)

Prawns (cooked)

18.1

17.7

15.4

Eggs

Chicken egg (whole, boiled)

14.1

Dairy

Whole milk 
Semi-skimmed milk 
Skimmed milk 
Cheddar cheese 
Reduced-fat cheddar 
Cottage cheese 
Plain Greek-style yogurt 
Plain low-fat yogurt

3.4
3.5
3.5
25.4
27.9
9.4
5.7
4.8

Plant sources of protein

Pulses

Red lentils (boiled)
Chickpeas (canned)

7.6
7.2

Beans

Tofu (steamed)

Kidney beans (canned)

Baked beans 

8.1

6.9

5.0

Grains

Wheat flour (brown) 

Rice (easy cook, boiled) 
Bread (brown) 
Bread (white) 

Pasta (dried cooked)
Porridge oats

12.2

10.9
7.9
7.9
4.8

3.0

Nuts

Almonds 
Walnuts 
Hazelnuts

21.1
14.7
14.1

Source: McCance and Widdowson’s The composition of foods. 2015

Plant-based proteins

Healthy eating guidance in the UK advises us to include more beans, lentils and peas and there is a lot of discussion about including more plant-based protein foods in our diets. Moving toward a more plant-based diet is a good direction to go but we do not have to completely cut out all animal products to have a diet that provides us with the nutrients we need and is more environmentally sustainable.

Pulses (beans, lentils and peas)

Pulses such as kidney beans, baked beans, chickpeas and lentils all provide a plant-based source of protein. It is recommended that we eat more of these as they are a cheap, low-fat source of protein, fibre and vitamins including thiamin and folate and minerals such as iron. They also count towards one (but not more) of your 5 A DAY. The reason that they do not count towards more than one of your 5 A DAY is that they don't provide the same mixture of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients as fruit and vegetables. You can use beans, chickpeas or lentils to replace some or all the meat in dishes like pasta sauces, stews or curries and this can help you have a more plant-based diet.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds including peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds as well as nut butters or seed pastes like tahini all provide protein as well as vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, B vitamins, selenium, iron and zinc. Nuts are also high in fibre and rich in unsaturated fats. Nuts and seeds can be great as a snack and can also be added to meals like salads or stir fries. Unsalted nuts and seeds are a healthier option and look for nut butters with lower levels of salt and sugar.

They are high in calories though, so to support weight management it is a good idea to keep an eye on portion sizes, for example, having a small handful of nuts as a snack or about a tablespoon of nut butter.

Other plant-based protein sources

A range of other plant-based protein sources are available including foods made from soya, like soya mince or tofu, a range of foods made of mycoprotein (Quorn). and new sources of alternative proteins are available such as pea protein There are many products designed as plant-based alternatives to meat products such as vegetarian sausages or burgers. These can be healthy choices, but this is not always the case. It is a good idea to check nutrition labels and to choose those lower in saturates, salt and sugars.

Animal proteins

A range of animal foods in the diet provide protein and are important sources of vitamins and minerals in the UK diet.

Fish and shellfish

Fish provides protein as well as B vitamins, iodine and zinc, and shellfish such as prawns, crab and mussels contain selenium, zinc, iodine and copper. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines are a great source of vitamin D and high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which may help to prevent heart disease. Some studies also suggest that eating fish is associated with reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. It is recommended we have two portions of fish each week, one of which should be an oily fish, but on average we are not eating enough fish.  I Fish that is steamed, baked or grilled is a healthier choice than deep-fried fish. fresh, canned and frozen fish are all healthy choices,  

To make environmentally sustainable choices, look out for sustainable fish and seafood. When fish or shellfish are caught or produced in a way that allows stocks to replenish and that does not cause unnecessary damage to marine animals and plants, those fish or shellfish are called "sustainable"

There are some limits recommended for certain types of fish and shellfish, in particular for pregnant women. You can find out more about this here. However, the benefits of eating fish are likely to be bigger than any potential risks.

Eggs

Eggs are a good source of protein and also provide omega 3 fats, vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin D and selenium. There is no limit on how many eggs you can eat as part of a healthy varied diet (unless a health professional advises you to limit eggs due to a specific health condition).

Meat

Meat and poultry are good sources of protein as well as different vitamins and minerals. Poultry like chicken provides B vitamins, phosphorus and selenium and can be low in fat if you choose chicken breast without skin.

Red meats like beef, lamb and pork provide B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, beef is a source of iron and pork a source of selenium. Red meat can be high in saturated fat but you can reduce this by choosing lean cuts and cutting off any extra fat.

Processed meats like ham, bacon, burgers, salami or products like sausage rolls or pies tend to be high in saturated fat and salt and so are a less healthy choice. There is a link between eating a lot of red and processed meat and bowel cancer and so it is recommended that we do not have more than about 70g of cooked red or processed meat a day. 70g is equivalent to a piece of steak about the size of a pack of cards, 3 average-sized rashers of bacon or slices of ham, or a quarter-pounder beef burger.

Dairy foods

Dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese provide protein as well as calcium, B vitamins, and iodine. It is recommended that we choose reduced fat versions of milk, cheese and yogurt most of the time as dairy foods contain saturated fat – the type we should eat less of. There has been some debate about the effects of saturated fat from dairy foods and there is some evidence that saturated fats from milk, yogurt and cheese may not raise cholesterol as much we would expect. But, overall, it is a good idea to choose reduced fat versions of dairy products as these are still rich in nutrients but with fewer calories.

Plant based dairy alternatives are available, but these are not always high in protein. Drinks and yogurts based on soy or peas are usually a source of protein, but rice, nut and oat drinks and plant-based cheeses are relatively low in protein.

Portion sizes

There are generally no set portion sizes for protein foods but to get the right balance of foods for a healthy diet, we suggest eating 2-3 portions of protein foods (beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins) and 2-3 portions of dairy and alternative foods a day. Some examples of portion sizes for adults shown below – you can find out more here.

Plant-based protein foods

For light meals/breakfast – 200kcal or less

Food

Portion size

Protein (g)

Calories

How to measure

Lentils, beans and other pulses

120g

~10g ¹

120-140kcal

About 6 tablespoons

Baked beans

200g

10g

162kcal

Half a standard 400g can

2 vegetarian sausages

80g

11.9g

114-154kcal

Ready portioned

Vegetarian mince

100g

1.7g

100-103kcal

Use pack size as a guide

Snacks – 150kcal or less

Unsalted nuts and seeds

20g

~4.1g ²

113-137kcal

About the amount that ­fits in your palm

Peanut butter

20g

4.6g

121kcal

About 1 tablespoon

Reduced fat houmous

50g

3.4g

104kcal

Ready portioned

Animal-based protein foods

For light meals/breakfast – 200kcal or less

Food

Portion size

Protein (g)

Calories

How to measure

Chicken breast - grilled

120g

38.4g

178 kcal

About half the size of your hand

2 eggs

80g

11.3g

172kcal

Ready portioned

3 fish ­fingers

90g

12.9g

164kcal

Ready portioned

Mostly for main meals – more than 200kcal

Salmon fi­llet - grilled

100-140g

29.5g

239-335kcal

About half the size of your hand

Lean rump steak - grilled

130g

40.3g

310 kcal

About half the size of your hand

2 meat sausages (standard size) - grilled

90g

13.1g

265 kcal

Ready portioned

Snacks – 150kcal or less

Canned tuna

60g

15.2g

65 kcal

Half a medium can about 160g net weight)

Prawns

80g

12.3g

54kcal

About 4 tablespoons

2 slices of ham

30g

5.5g

32 kcal

Ready portioned

Dairy and alternative foods

Lower fat options (low or medium for fat on food labels)

Food

Portion size

Protein (g)

Calories

How to measure

Yogurt, plain, low fat

120g

5.8g

68 kcal

About 4 tablespoons

Soft cheese (spreadable, low fat)

30g

3.6g

46 kcal

About 3 teaspoons

Milk on cereal (semi-skimmed)

125ml

4.4g

58 kcal

About half a glass

Unsweetened plant-based milk

125ml

3g ³

23-55 kcal

About half a glass

Higher fat options (high for fat on food labels)

Hard cheese (e.g. cheddar)

30g

7.6g

125 kcal

About the size of two thumbs

Reduced fat hard cheese

30g

8.4g

94kcal

About the size of two thumbs

Full fat soft cheese

30g

1.6g

76kcal

About 3 teaspoons

3 Unsweetened soya dairy alternative

Is animal or plant-based protein better for our health?

You may have read about the debate on animal versus plant-based protein sources and their effect on health as well as the environment. Research has found that if we changed from our average diet in the UK to the eating pattern recommended in the Government’s Eatwell Guide, which is more plant based this would significantly improve our health as well as reducing the environmental footprint of our diet. In terms of where we get protein the diet, the recommendations are eating more beans and pulses, having two portions of fish a week and not having more than 70g a day of red or processed meat.

For many of us, eating more beans, lentils, nuts and other plant-based proteins would be a healthy way to get some of the protein we need, as well as providing us with fibre and other nutrients. This does not mean that we need to cut out meat or other animal foods but look at ways we could eat a wider variety of foods that provide protein.

If you choose to be vegetarian or vegan, you need to make sure you’re getting plenty of plant-based protein foods. Most vegetarians get enough protein in their diets, but it’s important to include a variety of foods to provide protein as well as other vitamins and minerals. Although animal protein is considered to be ‘better quality’ than protein from plant sources (meaning it has a complete set of all the amino acids for the proteins the body needs), provided we eat a varied diet we should get all the protein and amino acids we need to be healthy.

Do we need protein supplements or shakes?

As most of us are eating more than enough protein already, we do not need to add protein supplements or special products with added protein to our diets. If you are doing an intensive exercise programme, then your protein needs may be higher, but you can still get enough protein from foods.  Evidence shows that, if you are training at a high level (e.g. as a professional athlete) then having protein shortly after training can help you repair and rebuild muscle. For people doing intensive training with a busy schedule, having protein supplements, drinks or bars may be a convenient way to meet their protein needs, although it is better to try and do this from food where possible as protein-rich food (nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy products (yogurt, milk, cheese), legumes (beans, lentils), fish, poultry, eggs, and lean meat) can also provide you with other important nutrients in your diet.

Can eating more protein help you lose weight?

High protein diets for weight loss have been around for many years in different forms. High protein diets are not necessarily better than other types of diet, e.g. low fat or intermittent fasting but they can be effective for some people – it depends what works best for you. Note that diets that include a lot of red and processed meat are not advised because of the link with these foods and bowel cancer.   

Useful resources

This resource shows the amount of protein per 100g in common foods in the diet.

Protein in the diet

A table of common foods and how much protein they provide

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