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Protein tends to play a starring role at mealtimes, but you might be better off if it moves out of the spotlight and becomes part of a supporting cast of foods on your plate.

Most Americans get more than enough protein each day, and may be getting too much of this nutrient from animal sources, like meat, poultry, and eggs.

Although important in the diet, extra protein will not help you build more muscle or make you stronger. When you're consuming too much of it, you're probably taking in more calories and fat than your body needs.

You need protein because "it has its hands in every critical function of the body," says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. But the truth about protein is that many people don't need as much as they are taking in.

How Much Protein Is Enough?

Adults in the U.S. are encouraged to get 10% to 35% of their day's calories from protein foods. That's about 46 grams of protein for women, and 56 grams of protein for men.

It's not hard to get this amount if you eat two to three servings of protein-rich foods a day, according to the CDC.

  • A small 3-ounce piece of meat has about 21 grams of protein. A typical 8-ounce piece of meat could have over 50 grams of protein.
  • One 8-ounce container of yogurt has about 11 grams of protein.
  • One cup of milk has 8 grams of protein.
  • One cup of dry beans has about 16 grams of protein.

People With Special Protein Needs

Not everyone needs the same amount of protein. Here are six groups who need to pay more attention to their protein requirements.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women. Lauren Antonucci, MS, RD, director of Nutrition Energy in New York City says pregnant women need about 10 more grams of protein than they did before. And "nursing women need 20 grams more protein a day than they did before pregnancy to support milk production," says Antonucci. You would get 10 grams in one Greek yogurt or a half-cup of cottage cheese, so it doesn't add up to a lot of food. She encourages pregnant women to get 20 to 30 grams of their protein a day from low-fat dairy products because calcium and vitamin D are crucial for the bone health of mother and baby.

Athletes. Most sports involve physically breaking down muscle during the activity and repairing it afterward. So the protein needs of active people are influenced by the length, frequency, and intensity of their workouts. Endurance athletes such as marathoners need about 50% more protein than a sedentary person, says sports dietitian Josephine Conolly-Schoonen, MS, RD, on Medscape Today. Body Builders might need twice as much protein as a sedentary person. But it's important to remember than most Americans, including athletes, get plenty of protein in their regular diet, and do not need protein supplements.  

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