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Protein Foods

Protein Foods

What foods are in the Protein Foods Group?

All foods made from seafood; meat, poultry, and eggs; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products are considered part of the Protein Foods Group. Beans, peas, and lentils are also part of the Vegetable Group. For more information on beans, peas, and lentils see Beans, Peas, and Lentils are Unique Foods.

Select a variety of protein foods to improve nutrient intake and health benefits, including at least 8 ounces of cooked seafood per week. Young children need less, depending on their age and calorie needs. The advice to consume seafood does not apply to vegetarians. Vegetarian options in the Protein Foods Group include beans, peas, and lentils, processed soy products, and nuts and seeds. Meat and poultry choices should be lean or low-fat.

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How much protein foods are needed daily?

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Why is it important to make lean or low-fat protein choices?

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Vegetarian choices in the Protein Foods Group

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How much food from the Protein Foods Group is needed daily?

The amount of protein foods you need to eat depends on age, sex, and level of physical activity. The amount each person needs can vary between 2 and 6½ ounce-equivalents each day. Those who are very physically active may need more. Most Americans eat enough food from this group, but need to make leaner and more varied selections of these foods. Recommended daily amounts are shown in the table below.

What counts as an ounce-equivalent in the Protein Foods Group?

In general, 1 ounce of meat, poultry or fish, ¼ cup cooked beans, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds can be considered as 1 ounce-equivalent from the Protein Foods Group. The table below lists specific amounts that count as 1 ounce-equivalent in the Protein Foods Group towards your daily recommended intake.

More About the Protein Foods Group

Note: Click on the top row to expand the table. If you are on a mobile device, you may need to turn your phone to see the full table.

*These amounts are appropriate for individuals who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity, beyond normal daily activities. Those who are more physically active may be able to consume more while staying within calorie needs.

Daily Recommendation* in Ounce-Equivalents (oz-equiv)
Children

2-3 yrs

4-8 yrs

2 oz-equiv

4 oz-equiv

Girls

9-13 yrs

14-18 yrs

5 oz-equiv

5 oz-equiv

Boys

9-13 yrs

14-18 yrs

5 oz-equiv

6½ oz-equiv

Women

19-30 yrs

31-50 yrs

51+ yrs

5½ oz-equiv

5 oz-equiv

5 oz-equiv

Men

19-30 yrs

31-50 yrs

51+ yrs

6½ oz-equiv

6 oz-equiv

5½ oz-equiv

This chart lists specific amounts that count as 1 ounce-equivalent (oz-equiv) in the Protein Foods Group towards your daily recommended intake:

  Amount that counts as 1 oz-equiv in the Protein Foods Group Common portions and oz-equiv
Meats

1 ounce cooked lean beef

1 ounce cooked lean pork or ham

1 small steak (eye of round, filet) = 3½ to 4 oz-equiv

1 small lean hamburger = 2 to 3oz-equiv

Poultry

1 ounce cooked chicken or turkey, without skin

1 sandwich slice of turkey (4½" x 2½" x ⅛")

1 small chicken breast half = 3 oz-equiv

½ Cornish game hen = 4 oz-equiv

Seafood 1 ounce cooked fish or shellfish

1 can of tuna, drained = 3 to 4 oz-equiv

1 salmon steak = 4 to 6 oz-equiv

1 small trout = 3 oz-equiv

Eggs 1 egg

3 egg whites = 2 oz-equiv

3 egg yolks = 1 oz-equiv

Nuts and seeds

½ ounce of nuts (12 almonds, 24 pistachios, 7 walnut halves)

½ ounce of seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, or squash seeds, hulled, roasted)

1 Tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter

1 ounce of nuts or seeds = 2 oz-equiv
Beans, peas, and lentils

¼ cup of cooked beans, peas or lentils (such as black beans, kidney beans, white beans, chickpeas, cowpeas, or split peas)

¼ cup of baked beans, refried beans

¼ cup (about 2 ounces) of tofu

1 oz. tempeh, cooked

¼ cup roasted soybeans

1 falafel patty (2 ¼", 4 oz)

2 Tablespoons hummus

1 cup split pea soup = 1 oz-equiv

1 cup lentil soup = 2 oz-equiv

1 cup bean soup = 3/4 oz-equiv

1 soy or bean burger patty = 2 oz-equiv

Why is it important to make lean or low-fat choices from the Protein Foods Group?

Foods in the meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, and seed group provide nutrients that are vital for health and maintenance of your body. However, choosing foods from this group that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol may have health implications.

Nutrients

Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, peas, and lentils, eggs, nuts, and seeds supply many nutrients. These include protein, B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6), vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

Nutrients

Diets that are high in saturated fats raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood. The “bad” cholesterol is called LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. High LDL cholesterol, in turn, increases the risk for coronary heart disease. Some food choices in this group are high in saturated fat. These include fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb; regular (75% to 85% lean) ground beef; regular sausages, hot dogs, and bacon; some luncheon meats such as regular bologna and salami; and some poultry such as duck. To help keep blood cholesterol levels healthy, limit the amount of these foods you eat.

Nutrients

Diets that are high in cholesterol can raise LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. Cholesterol is only found in foods from animal sources. Some foods from this group are high in cholesterol. These include egg yolks (egg whites are cholesterol-free) and organ meats such as liver and giblets. To help keep blood cholesterol levels healthy, limit the amount of these foods you eat.

Nutrients

A high intake of fats makes it difficult to avoid consuming more calories than are needed.

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Health Benefits

  • Proteins function as building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. They are also building blocks for enzymes, hormones, and vitamins. Proteins are one of three nutrients that provide calories (the others are fat and carbohydrates).
  • Nutrients provided by various protein foods can differ. Varying your protein food choices can provide your body with a range of nutrients designed to keep your body functioning well. B vitamins help build tissue and aid in forming red blood cells. Iron can prevent anemia. Magnesium helps build bones and supports muscle function. Zinc can support your immune systems.
  • EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids found in varying amounts in seafood. Eating 8 ounces per week of seafood may help reduce the risk for heart disease.

Why is it important to eat 8 ounces of seafood per week?

Seafood contains a range of nutrients, notably the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Eating about 8 ounces per week of a variety of seafood contributes to the prevention of heart disease. Smaller amounts of seafood are recommended for young children.

Seafood varieties that are commonly consumed in the United States that are higher in EPA and DHA and lower in mercury include salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (not king mackerel, which is high in mercury). The health benefits from consuming seafood outweigh the health risk associated with mercury, a heavy metal found in seafood in varying levels.

Vegetarian Choices in the Protein Foods Group

Vegetarians get enough protein from this group as long as the variety and amounts of foods selected are adequate. Protein sources from the Protein Foods Group for vegetarians include eggs (for ovo-vegetarians), beans, peas, and lentils, nuts, nut butters, and soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers).

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