Whether it’s adding a scoop of plant-based protein powder to a morning smoothie, enjoying a salad topped with beans and quinoa for lunch, or unsealing a bag of Siren Snacks as an afternoon pick-me-up or post-gym treat, consuming enough protein is important for optimal health.

But while we know that protein is critical for aiding digestion, supporting our bones and muscles, and fueling our workouts, exactly how much should we be eating? Does it change depending on our health goals or the amount of exercise we’re getting? And what about type of exercise—do Crossfitters require more protein than yogis?

Briana Menendez, an integrative nutritionist and health coach at Urban Wellness SF, lended us her expertise and helped us understand more about protein’s many powers.

We tend to see protein as a type of food—chicken, quinoa, etc. But what is protein on chemical level?

Protein is made up of about 20 different amino acids composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms. More than half of the amino acids are nonessential, which means that our bodies can make them on their own. But there are nine essential amino acids that our bodies either can’t synthesize or can’t make enough of to meet our needs. Therefore, they must be supplied through diet. If you ever hear the phrase, “complete protein,” that means that the protein contains all nine essential amino acids in the quantity that our bodies require.

Why is protein important to consume for optimal health?

Protein serves many roles in the body! They are the building blocks of the body’s cells—our muscles, blood, skin, hair, etc. Some proteins act as enzymes that help break down substances during digestion or build up substances like bones. Proteins also function as hormones, maintain the body’s fluid balance, transport vitamins, minerals, and oxygen around the body, fight against disease through forming antibodies, and more.

What are some examples of high-protein foods for all types of diets?

I recommend getting protein from a variety of foods. Quality is important when determining best protein sources. A high-quality protein is easily digestible and has all nine essential amino acids. The digestibility of most animal proteins is 90-99 percent versus 70-90 percent for plant proteins, with the exception of soy and legumes, which are also over 90 percent. Here are a few of my favorite high-quality plant proteins:

Hemp hearts: 2 tbsp, 6g protein
Edamame: ½ cup, 6.5g protein
Chickpeas: ½ cup, 7g protein
Black beans: ½ cup, 8g protein
Peanut butter: 2 tbsp, 8g protein
Quinoa dry: ¼ cup, 6g protein
Wild rice dry: ¼ cup, 6g protein
Lentils: ½ cup, 9g protein

These can be combined with complementary foods that together will provide all nine essential amino acids, such as legumes and grains.

Ideally, how much protein should a woman be getting per day? How can we figure out what's right for us?

Finding a good balance is key because chronic protein deficiency can negatively affect our brain and kidney function, immune system, and nutrient absorption while excess protein can result in weight gain, compromised bone health, and progression towards heart disease. Adequate protein can help your body function properly and can help with weight loss and maintenance by keeping you fuller, longer. The US Dietary Guidelines recommend getting 10-35 percent of your daily calories from protein or at least 65-70 grams per day. For example, if you eat about 2,000 calories per day the protein should be 200-700 of those calories or 50 to 175 grams.

Protein is always listed on the nutrition label, which is helpful to look at, but I would encourage you to not get caught up in meeting exact numbers everyday since this can be overwhelming and stressful. Instead use it as an average knowing that some days you might get less and some days you might more, which is perfectly okay—and healthy!

Does this vary based on our health goals? For example, if we're trying to lose weight or put on muscle mass?

The recommended daily intake for protein is the same for people regardless of activity level. Compared to sedentary people, more active people should eat more protein but that’s because they also should also be consuming more calories throughout the day to fuel their activity.

Does this vary based on the amount of exercise we're getting? What about type of exercise?
Eating more protein doesn’t equal growing more muscle but it certainly supports muscle growth. Muscle tissue develops in response to physical activity so make sure to get in strength training two to three times per week if you’re looking to build muscle. Additionally, when you overeat protein, your body will first replace normal daily losses but any surplus remaining will get stored as fat, so there’s no need to increase your protein just because you’re working out more.

Any tips for getting more protein in our diet?

Getting enough protein is easier you think it may be! I recommend including a bit of protein in each meal of the day instead of trying to get it all in one meal (which is typically dinner for most people) because it can help you feel satiated and maintain steady blood sugar. I also recommend setting up your plate with ¼ protein, ¼ whole grain or starchy carbohydrate, ½ vegetables (or fruit if it’s breakfast), and one to two tablespoons of healthy fats.