How Much Protein Does a 16-Year Old Need?

Protein is hyped up these days and it can seem like the more protein you eat- the better! This isn’t true and there is an appropriate balance you should eat.

Protein is one of the three macronutrients, accompanied by carbohydrates and fat. All three are essential to a healthy diet! Protein not only helps to build muscle, but it also protects your immune system, maintains a healthy blood pressure, keeps your hair, skin, and nails healthy, transports nutrients throughout your body, and more! 

Sixteen-year old girls need at least 46 grams of protein per day and sixteen-year old boys need at least 52 grams per day based on the recommended daily allowance (RDA). Many 16 year olds will need more protein than the RDA because of their body composition, physical activity level, calorie needs, and personal goals. It is recommended that 10-35% of a teenager’s calories come from protein.

Read on for more information about the role that protein plays in the body, protein needs for 16-year olds, what happens if you get too much or not enough protein, high-protein foods, information on protein powder for teenagers, and more.

How Does Protein Help Your Body?

Protein has a unique and essential role to play in your body. While you might just think of protein in terms of building muscle, it does that and so much more! Here are just a few of the important things that protein does in the body.

  • Supports a healthy blood pressure
  • Regulates blood sugar levels
  • Slows digestion and sustains energy for longer
  • Supports a healthy immune system
  • Helps repair and build muscle
  • Makes up carriers that deliver nutrients all over the body
  • Increase feelings of satisfaction and fullness after eating (and decreases unhealthy cravings later!)

Protein Needs for 16-Year Olds

It really doesn’t work to take a one-size-fits-all approach to protein needs. That is because everyone’s needs will be slightly different depending on their physical activity level, body composition, type of exercise, age, underlying health conditions, etc. 

The all-encompassing recommendation for protein intake is that 10-35% of your calories should come from protein. However, this can be quite a huge range and other recommendations are helpful to also take into account to narrow down the range to what is appropriate for an individual. 

Below is another protein calculation that is quick and simple to do. It also takes into account some of your physical activity and your current body weight.

  • Non-athletes protein intake range: Body weight (in pounds) x 0.3 to 0.4
  • Athletes protein intake range:  Body weight (in pounds) x 0.45 to 0.6

For example, an athlete that weighs 160 pounds would need about 72-96 grams of protein. (160 x 0.45 = 72 grams of protein and 160 x 0.6 = 96 grams of protein. Those with really high calorie needs and intense workouts putting a lot of stress on the body might want to go closer to the upper end of that range. Rest days might warrant staying toward the lower end of the range.

Examples of protein needs for some 16-year olds based on weight:

Body weight:Non-Athletes:Athletes:
80 pounds (36 kg)24-32 grams of protein36-48 grams of protein
90 pounds (41 kg)27-36 grams41-54 grams
100 pounds (45 kg)30-40 grams45-60 grams
110 pounds (50 kg)33-44 grams50-66 grams
120 pounds (55 kg)36-48 grams54-72 grams
130 pounds (59 kg)39-52 grams59-78 grams
140 pounds (64 kg)42-56 grams63-84 grams
150 pounds (68 kg)45-60 grams68-90 grams
160 pounds (73 kg)48-64 grams72-96 grams
170 pounds (77 kg)51-68 grams77-102 grams
180 pounds (82 kg)54-72 grams81-108 grams
190 pounds (86 kg)57-76 grams86-114 grams
200 pounds (91 kg)60-80 grams90-120 grams

Weight alone does not solely determine protein recommendations. There are many other factors involved and these are just recommendations. If you have any health issues or concerns, talk with a healthcare professional about your protein intake.

It’s pretty easy to get plenty of protein! I usually eat around 80 grams of protein or more in my typical diet. The important thing is the timing of your protein intake.

Usually when I figure out protein needs for teenagers, it ends up being between 10-30 grams of protein at each eating occasion. Most of the time snacks are on the lower end and meals tend to have a bit more protein. Those with higher calorie and protein needs often end up eating more frequently and eating larger meals, but protein content still usually stays in the 10-30 gram range. 10-30 grams of protein at each meal and snack seems to be the best for absorption and use in your body as well.

Best Protein Foods for 16-Year Olds

Here are the best types of foods that contain protein. Are you eating enough foods throughout the day from this list?

  • Dairy foods (such as milk, cottage cheese, cheese, yogurt)
  • Meat, poultry, and fish (such as beef, pork, chicken, turkey, salmon, tuna)
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds (such as peanut butter, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, walnuts)
  • Tofu and soy products
  • Beans and lentils (such as black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, red lentils)
  • Some grains (such as quinoa, oats, brown rice)

Here are the best protein foods for on the go! (Some of these should be chilled in a lunch box):

  • trail mix with nuts and seeds
  • energy bars (Larabars are my favorite)
  • roasted chickpeas
  • PB&J sandwich
  • nut butter with fruit, rice cakes, bread, or crackers
  • edamame
  • milk or chocolate milk
  • Greek yogurt
  • bean burritos
  • homemade protein shakes/smoothies (use greek yogurt, seeds, nut butter, protein powder, and milk)
  • hummus dip
  • cheese sticks
  • canned tuna or tuna packets
  • homemade energy protein bites
  • jerky
  • deli meat roll ups
  • cottage cheese
  • overnight oats or oatmeal packets

What is the Best Time of Day to Eat Protein?

Timing of protein intake is actually really important. Unfortunately, a lot of teenagers don’t get a balance of protein regularly throughout the day. Most protein intake often comes at dinner time for a lot of athletes. 

However, the best way to maximize the benefit of protein is to eat moderate amounts regularly throughout the day. I often recommend eating some protein every 3-5 hours, which is usually when your body needs more fuel anyway! Your body can only handle so much protein at once efficiently, so eating a huge amount all at once in hopes of gaining muscle isn’t really going to help you very much.

What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Protein?

Without enough protein, your body will just struggle to function properly. Remember that huge list above of things protein does for your body? Not getting enough protein can affect all of those things…yikes! 

Symptoms of not eating enough protein:

Short term: Long term:
Feeling tired
Low energy
Increased appetite
Blood sugar spikes and crashes
Unhealthy cravings
Poor wound healing
Low energy
Lower muscle mass
Poor concentration
Slowed growth
Mood swings
Trouble losing weight

Don’t freak out if there is a day that you don’t meet your protein needs perfectly or you don’t eat protein frequently enough throughout the day. There will be days where eating just does not go according to plan. Thankfully, your body is very good at compensating and taking care of you, even when it doesn’t get everything it needs day-to-day. However, since protein can’t be stored in your body for later use, it is best for your body and your overall health to stop your body from having to compensate as much as possible! 

Can You Eat Too Much Protein?

Yes, eating too much protein is actually a real concern. Since your body can only handle so much at a time, eating huge amounts of protein can be hard on your organs to process. Usually I am most concerned about this with teenagers that are using protein powders excessively. 

Additionally, if you are eating too much protein, you are probably not eating enough of something else. Healthy eating is all about balance, variety, and moderation, so if you are overdoing it in one area, another area is likely lacking. 

What Foods Contain Protein?

Take a look at the nutrition facts label next time you go to eat something and you will see a line that shows the protein content in grams per serving. A lot of foods contain some protein, along with carbohydrates and fat, but it might only be a couple of grams. Other foods are higher in protein like the ones shown below:

  • Poultry
  • Deli meat
  • Fish
  • Meat
  • Tofu
  • Soy products
  • Edamame
  • Beans and legumes
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cheese

What is the Healthiest Source of Protein?

I recommend eating a variety of protein foods, including plant and animal-based products. Each food has a different nutrient profile and can offer something different to your body, so the more variety you can get in your diet, the better!

In general, it is a good practice to be aware of the fat content of your protein sources. Animal sources of protein usually have more saturated fat- the kind of fat that should be limited in a healthy diet. Plant-protein either doesn’t have a lot of fat or it has more unsaturated fat- the kind of fat that improves cholesterol levels and protects your heart!

To cut back on saturated fat in your diet, choose lean meats like chicken and turkey more often than fatty meats like sausage, steak, bacon, etc. Fish is actually one of the exceptions. Although fish does contain fat, most of it is the healthy fat that is beneficial to your body.

Nuts and nut butters also have a high fat content, but they are packed with unsaturated fat. Just be aware that higher fat foods (even if they are the healthy kind of fat) contain more calories, so you might not need to eat them in huge quantities to meet your body’s needs.

Should 16-Year Olds Use Protein Powder?

Protein powder can be really helpful in some situations, but it can also be extremely harmful if used incorrectly. Remember that protein powder is a supplement and the supplement industry is extremely unregulated. That means that dangerous and illegal substances can be found in some supplements.

To avoid that issue, look on the label to make sure it has been tested for safety by a third party. USP, NSF, and Informed Choice are labels I see frequently that indicate safety.

I also like to remind teenagers that protein powder should be used to supplement an already healthy diet. Most, if not all, of your protein intake should come from food! Having a good eating plan is extremely important so work with a dietitian to figure out if you are getting enough protein and if protein powder would be an appropriate option for you.

Read more about protein supplements here:

Tips for Increasing Protein Intake

If you are struggling to meet your protein needs, here are a few suggestions for you:

  1. Check out my list of protein foods above. It is easy to get caught up in the same eating routine and it often helps to just get more ideas of high protein foods that you can include in your diet.
  1. Work with a dietitian! This is the best way to get personalized, accurate nutrition advice that works for you. A registered dietitian nutritionist can evaluate your protein needs, determine if you are eating enough, recommend safe supplements if appropriate, and create a meal plan with meal and snack ideas that you enjoy and that meet your nutrition needs. (Check out my meal plans here!)
  1. Keep high protein snacks with you at all times. Maybe you have a place to store cold food at school or work, and then other things you can keep in a locker, car, backpack, purse, or somewhere else that is convenient! Some of the best ideas include trail mix with nuts and seeds, energy bars, roasted chickpeas, PB&J sandwich, nut butter dip, edamame, Greek yogurt, bean burritos, homemade protein shakes/smoothies, hummus dip, cheese sticks, chocolate milk, tuna packets, homemade energy protein bites, jerky, deli meat roll ups, etc.
  1. Smoothies can be a great way of getting in calories and protein for those with higher needs. Peanut butter, seeds, greek yogurt, milk, and protein powder can often be added to a smoothie to increase the protein content.
  1. Remember that protein intake does add up. A few grams here and a few grams there might be enough to meet your needs. It might be helpful to glance at nutrition facts labels as you learn more about food and protein intake, but remember that it is not helpful or healthy to obsess over calories or grams of carbs, protein, or fat.


Protein is an essential nutrient for a 16-year old and has amazing benefits for your growing and developing body. However, remember that you can have too much of a good thing. The best way to make sure you are eating an appropriate amount of protein is to eat balanced meals and snacks spread throughout the day.

Try to include a variety of protein options, plant and animal based, that are low in saturated fat. If fat content is higher for some protein foods, try to choose ones with a higher amount of unsaturated fats. You don’t have to cut out protein foods that have saturated fat in them, but try to eat them less frequently and in moderation. 

You don’t have to go crazy with protein to be healthy or to build muscle. Consistency and moderation is still the key, regardless of what your personal health and fitness goals are!

Related Posts


Castle J. How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein. Published July 21, 2020.

Ellis E. How Much Protein Should I Eat? Published December 15, 2020.

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

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