The word “protein” may conjure images of bulky muscles and weight loss shakes, but neither accurately captures the significance of this macronutrient. Proteins are the building blocks of every cell and tissue in your body. They provide structure, catalyze hundreds of biochemical processes and make up the hormones your body uses to send messages between tissues and organs. The Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein for women depends on their current health status.

Complete, Incomplete and Complementary Proteins

Proteins contain smaller components called amino acids. Humans have 20 different amino acids that connect together in thousands of combinations to create individual proteins. Your body can make several of these amino acids on its own, but ones it cannot produce are referred to as “essential amino acids” because it is essential for you to obtain them from your diet. “Complete” proteins, typically animal sources, contain all essential amino acids. “Incomplete” proteins provide some but not all essential amino acids; two or more incomplete proteins consumed together to deliver all of the amino acids you require are referred to as “complementary proteins.”

Daily Requirements for Adolescents and Adult Women

For most healthy individuals, protein should make up about 10 to 35 percent of the daily caloric intake, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adolescent girls, ages 14 through 18, and adult women need 46 grams of protein per day.

IRequirements for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women

Pregnant women must increase their protein intake to both properly support fetal growth and fulfill their own daily requirements. The American Pregnancy Association recommends 75 to 100 grams of protein per day for pregnant women 1. This requirement decreases to about 71 grams of protein daily for breastfeeding women, according to the University of Illinois McKinley Health Center.

Other Special Conditions

Certain medical conditions can affect the amount of protein you need. For example, those with chronic kidney disease or severe liver disease have difficulty processing and excreting proteins and amino acids 2. Protein can eventually build up to toxic levels in the body and damage other organs, including the brain. Women with these conditions should follow diet plans as instructed by their health-care providers to ensure they receive sufficient protein while avoiding adverse effects.

Healthy Sources

By now you have most likely heard “lean protein” recommended on TV, in books and magazines and from your health-care provider. Lean sources provide necessary protein while limiting unnecessary fats and other additives. Healthy options include poultry, fish, beans and nuts. If your diet includes red meat, enjoy the leanest cuts in moderation to reduce you intake of harmful saturated fats. The Harvard School of Public Health also recommends limiting your consumption of processed meat, such as bacon and hot dogs, since they can contribute to certain cancers, heart disease and diabetes 4.