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What are the benefits of protein foods in a healthy eating pattern?

Foods in the protein food group offer a unique package of nutrients.

The Protein food group is made up of a variety of protein-rich foods, including meat, poultry, fish, beans and peas, eggs and nuts and seeds. In addition to protein, these nutrient-rich foods include B vitamins, zinc, iron, vitamin E and Fiber. 

Protein foods like dried beans and peas are inexpensive sources of protein, while meat and poultry are versatile in the way they can be used. Many lean meats like beef chuck are economical while also being lower in fat. Though dairy foods have their own category, they are another source of high-quality protein. Yogurt contains all nine essential amino acids in the proportions needed for protein synthesis. 

How Much Protein Is Recommended?

Daily Recommendation  
 AgeNo. of servings*
Children2–3 years2 ounce equivalents
Children4–8 years4 ounce equivalents
Girls9–18 years5 ounce equivalents
Boys9–13 years5 ounce equivalents
Boys14–18 years6.5 ounce equivalents
Women19–30 years5.5 ounce equivalents
Women31+ years5 ounce equivalents
Men19–30 years6.5 ounce equivalents
Men31–50 years6 ounce equivalents
Men51+ years5.5 ounce equivalents

*An ounce equivalent of protein is equal to 1 ounce of cooked lean beef, pork or ham; 1 ounce of chicken or turkey; one egg; 1 tablespoon of peanut or almond butter; or ¼ cup of beans.

Essential Nutrients in Protein Foods

The protein in meat, beans and nuts functions as a building block for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Protein is also the building block for enzymes and hormones. 

Other important nutrients that can be found in protein include: 

  • B vitamins. The B Vitamins include niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, B6 and B12. These vitamins serve a variety of functions in the body. They help the body release energy and build tissue. Vitamin B12 is needed for healthy blood and can only be found in animal products. 
  • Essential fatty acids. Humans must ingest alpha-linolenic acids (omega-3) and linoleic acids (omega-6) because the body needs but cannot synthesize them on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the diet, but can be found in nuts, seeds and seafood.
  • Zinc and iron. Zinc supports immune function, while iron carries oxygen to the blood. 
  • Vitamin E. Found in nuts and seeds, vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, enhances the immune system and prevents clots from forming in the heart’s arteries.
  • Fiber. Beans contain dietary fiber that promotes bowel regularity and a feeling of fullness.

Find out more about the relationship of a healthy eating pattern and activity to overall health by visiting the Healthy Eating page. For online learning activities, check out the nutrition resources for online learning page. 

What foods are in the Protein Foods Group? US Department of Agriculture ChooseMyPlate.gov website. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/protein-foods. Accessed October 1, 2019.
Why is it important to make lean or low-fat choices from the Protein Foods Group? US Department of Agriculture ChooseMyPlate.gov website. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/protein-foods/protein-foods-nutrients-health. Accessed October 1, 2019.
Yogurt in Nutrition Initiative for a Balanced Diet. What added value does yogurt bring to dairy protein? Yogurt Nutrition Digest. https://www.yogurtinnutrition.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/DIGEST01_PROTEIN5-Nicolas-Rousseau.pdf. Published June 2014. Accessed October 1, 2019.