MyPlate: Protein Foods Group

This publication describes ways to incorporate proper amounts of healthy low-fat protein into the diet.

Donnia Behrends, Extension Educator
Jessye Goertz, Extension Educator
Lisa Franzen-Castle, Extension Nutrition Specialist

MyPlate graphic

MyPlate, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food guide system, helps individuals use the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to make smart choices from every food group. MyPlate includes an interactive, online guide that provides individuals with recommended food amounts to eat, based on gender, age, and physical activity level. Personalized guides can be found at www.Choosemyplate.gov under the “SuperTracker and Other Tools” tab.

Protein Groups

What Foods Are in the Protein Foods Group?

All foods made from meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds are considered part of the Protein Foods Group (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/protein-foods.html). Select a variety of protein foods to improve nutrient intake and health benefits. Vegetarian options include beans and peas, processed soy products, and nuts and seeds.

How Much Food from the Protein Foods Group is Needed Daily?

The amount of food from the Protein Foods Group you need to eat depends on age, gender, and level of physical activity. Most Americans eat enough food from this group, but need to make leaner and more varied selections of these foods (Table I).

Table I. Daily recommended consumption of protein foods.
Daily Recommendation*
Children 2-3 years old 2 ounce equivalents
4-8 years old 4 ounce equivalents
Girls 9-13 years old 5 ounce equivalents
14-18 years old 5 ounce equivalents
Boys 9-13 years old 5 ounce equivalents
14-18 years old 6½ ounce equivalents
Women 19-30 years old 5½ ounce equivalents
31-50 years old 5 ounce equivalents
51+ years old 5 ounce equivalents
Men 19-30 years old 6½ ounce equivalents
31-50 years old 6 ounce equivalents
51+ years old 5½ ounce equivalents
*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.

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 (Table II).

Table II. Examples of “ounce equivalent” in protein foods.
  Amount that counts as 1 ounce equivalent in the Protein Foods Group Common portions and ounce equivalents
Meats 1 ounce cooked lean beef 1 ounce cooked lean pork or ham
  • 1 small steak (eye of round, filet) = 3½ to 4 ounce equivalents
  • 1 small lean hamburger = 2 to 3 ounce equivalents
Poultry 1 ounce cooked chicken or turkey, without skin
1 sandwich slice of turkey (4½ by 2½ by ⅛”)
  • 1 small chicken breast half = 3 ounce equivalents
  • ½ Cornish game hen = 4 ounce equivalents
Seafood 1 ounce cooked fish or shell fish
  • 1 can of tuna, drained = 3 to 4 ounce equivalents
  • 1 salmon steak = 4 to 6 ounce equivalents
  • 1 small trout = 3 ounce equivalents
Eggs 1 egg
  • 3 egg whites = 2 ounce equivalents
  • 3 egg yolks = 1 ounce equivalent
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 ounce equivalents
Beans and peas ¼ cup of cooked beans (such as black, kidney, pinto, or white beans)
¼ cup of cooked peas (such as chickpeas, cowpeas, lentils, 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 (2¼”, 4 oz)
2 Tablespoons hummus
  • 1 cup split pea soup = 2 ounce equivalents
  • 1 cup lentil soup = 2 ounce equivalents
  • 1 cup bean soup = 2 ounce equivalents
  • 1 soy or bean burger patty = 2 ounce equivalents

Why Include Protein?

Meat, poultry, seafood, dry beans, eggs, nuts, and seeds provide several nutrients needed to build and maintain the body. These nutrients include protein, B vitamins, iron, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc.

Vary Protein Choices

Most Americans get enough foods from the protein foods group but could make leaner and healthier choices.

Some food choices in this group are high in saturated fat. Diets high in saturated fats raise “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL or low-density lipoprotein) in the blood. High LDL cholesterol increases the risk for coronary heart disease. These include fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb; regular (75 percent to 85 percent lean) ground beef; regular sausages, hot dogs, and bacon; some luncheon meats (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.

Making Healthy Choices

The nutrient content varies among the individual foods in the protein foods group. Keep your choices from the protein foods group lean by choosing:

Keep It Lean While Cooking

When cooking, keep protein choices lean. Try some of the following tips to trim the fat.

What to Look for on the Food Label

Check the Nutrition Facts Label for the saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium content of packaged foods.

  • Processed meats such as hams, sausages, frankfurters, and luncheon or deli meats have added sodium.

  • Fresh chicken, turkey, and pork that have been enhanced with a salt-containing solution also have added sodium. Check the product label for statements such as “self-basting” or “contains up to __ percent of __.”

  • Lower-fat versions of many processed meats are available. Choose products with less fat and saturated fat.
  • Keep It Safe


    The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Linda Boeckner and Karen Schledewitz, authors of the original edition of this publication.


    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 (7th ed.). http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-PolicyDocument.htm.

    United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food Groups – Protein. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/protein-foods.html

    This publication has been peer reviewed.

    Visit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension Publications website for more publications.
    Index: Foods & Nutrition
    1994-2006, Revised June 2012
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