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Our bodies need protein to grow and to repair damaged or broken tissues. As well, protein is essential for:

It also helps us stay full for longer, so having enough protein is important in helping us to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

The building blocks of protein are called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, and our bodies can make 11 of them. But we need to get the other nine amino acids from our food.

Good sources of protein

protein foodYou can get good amounts of protein from animal and some plant foods. They include:

How much protein to have

Although protein is important, that doesn't mean more is better. Just as with carbohydrates and fats, having too much protein can make you put on weight.

Too much protein can also put pressure on your kidneys and increase the amount of calcium in your urine, which is not good for your bones.

People who want to build muscle sometimes use protein powders, hoping that will help muscle grow faster, but it will not. You build muscle by doing a well-designed resistance training programme, at the same time as eating a wide variety of foods (with enough calories or kilojoules and a healthy amount of protein). It's the resistance training that helps build muscle. Protein powders do contain amino acids, but eating foods like lean meat, milk, eggs and legumes will provide all the amino acids you need.

You should have food from the milk and milk products group, as well as either the legumes, nuts and seeds group or the lean meats, chicken, seafood and eggs group.

Milk and milk products

Have at least two to three servings a day (preferably low- or reduced-fat options). A serving is 1 cup of milk (250 ml), ¾ cup (200 g) of yoghurt or two slices (40 g) of cheese.

If you choose a plant-based milk (such as soy, rice or almond) make sure it has added calcium (and vitamin B12 if you avoid animal-based foods). Soy milk has the most protein of any plant-based milk.

Legumes, nuts and seeds

If you're getting protein from vegetable sources, have at least two servings a day of legumes, nuts and seeds. A serving is 1 cup of cooked or canned beans, split peas or lentils, 170 g tofu or a small handful (30 g) of nuts or seeds.

Lean meats, chicken, seafood and eggs

If you're getting protein from animal sources, have one to two servings a day. A serving is a piece of meat, chicken or fish the size and thickness of the palm of your hand, or two eggs.

If you're combining vegetable and animal protein, have half the amount from each of these categories.

Some people may need more or less protein than usual. If you're a vegetarian or athlete, or if you have a wound that is not healing, you may need extra protein. If you have kidney disease, you may need less. Talk to your GP or a dietitian if you aren't sure how much protein you should have.

Written by nutrition student, Ara Institute of Canterbury. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2022.


See also:

Protein-rich meal ideas

Page reference: 425844

Review key: HIHEI-34305