Protein is the hot macronutrient right now. How do we know it’s hot? The recently updated dietary guidelines released by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and of Agriculture actually recommended some people eat less of it, saying: “Some individuals, especially teen boys and adult men, also need to reduce overall intake of protein foods.” Those wanting to increase their muscle mass are often very interested in protein consumption. Athletes and average Joes are all obsessed with getting the right amount. It made us want to investigate: what is protein and why do we need it?

The hottest macronutrient in the land: Protein

What is protein?

At its most basic level, protein is a type of molecule that can be further broken down into amino acids. Some amino acids our bodies can create on their own. But there are several “essential amino acids” that we need but can only get from our diet.

What does it do for your body?

Protein is important for many bodily functions. Once broken down into animo acids, it helps build and repair tissue, supports the work of antibodies to protect against viruses and bacteria, forms enzymes which carry out important chemical reactions, give structure to our cells, and carries messages as hormones to help our systems communicate. In other words, protein is very important and you should make sure you’re getting enough of it. But what’s enough?

How much do you need?

To be honest, you may not need as much as you think, but the current guidelines suggest a range between 10% and 35% of our daily calories. Put another way, you need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram you weigh. So a 70-kilogram person (150 pounds) should consume around 56 grams of protein per day, and a 57-kilogram person (125 pounds) should consumer around 46 grams. Many people strive for more—often to help feel full or build or repair muscle tissue. But the lower end of the range is healthy, too.

It’s worth mentioning again that the recent obsession with protein led the authors of the latest dietary guidelines to suggests that teenage boys and adult men are eating too much meat, chicken and eggs, and generally getting more protein than they really need. If you eat a balanced diet, with a mix of sources, you are likely getting enough protein. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you might want to take a closer look at your intake, though there are many great sources of protein that don’t involve meat.

Where can you get it?

Everyone knows that food from animals such as poultry and red meat are high in protein. Red meat is rich in protein (a six-ounce rib eye steak has about 40 grams), but high in saturated fats and sometimes sodium. Fish sources such as salmon and tuna are a strong source of protein (a can of tuna has around 30 grams), and with lower saturated fats and sodium. Other foods such as nuts, lentils, chickpeas and mixed beans are also solid sources of protein, and good go-to foods for vegans and vegetarians. As you’d guess, all sources of protein are not created equal, and there are tradeoffs. The key is to figure out how much you really need for your optimal daily health, and find sources that help you maintain a balanced, healthy diet.