Teaching Dietary Protein Basics

Use these illustrations when helping educate Central American communities. You can download and print full-size versions by clicking on the thumbnail-size versions below.

Chart of Protein Needs Chart for Proteina

Chart showing protein requirements by age and sex

Chart showing protein content of various foods in Central America

This page contains:

  • Sample descriptions you can use when teaching people about the basics of protein.
  • Background information about the types of food containing protein found in Central American diets.
  • Tips for relating to a Central American audience and approaches to teaching them about protein.

Sample Descriptions to use When Explaining Protein


Protein is an essential nutrient present in every cell in the body. It's made of amino acids which are building blocks that help grow and maintain the body's tissues — including muscles, tendons, blood vessels, skin, hair and nails. Protein is also involved in synthesizing and maintaining enzymes and hormones to keep the body's systems functioning properly.

Humans are unable to naturally produce some amino acids, so they need to be consumed through food. Amino acids that can only be acquired by eating food are called essential amino acids. It's important to consume a variety of protein sources to obtain all the essential amino acids, especially if a diet relies on plant-based proteins such as legumes and grains. Individually, most plant foods don't contain all of the essential amino acids in the amounts humans need.

Protein Needs:

Everyone needs to eat protein daily. Protein needs are greater during accelerated times of growth, like infancy and childhood. Pregnant or lactating women also have increased protein needs, and adolescents who are pregnant or lactating have even higher protein needs than pregnant adults. Protein consumed by expectant mothers helps unborn babies grow. Once her baby is born, breast milk provides the newborn and infant high-quality protein to support their growth.

Protein in Food:

Protein is found in many different foods, including meat, fish, milk, beans, nuts and whole grains. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs contain the most protein. Protein from these animal foods is considered high-quality protein and supplies all the essential amino acids.

Protein and Central American diets

The most universal and inexpensive source of protein in Central America is beans. There is one main type of bean commonly consumed, although some community nutrition programs have introduced soybeans, which are also a great source of high-quality protein.

Grains such as rice, wheat and corn contain modest amounts of protein but comprise a large portion of the diet of many Central Americans and thus are a significant source of protein. Portions and the variety of carbohydrate foods commonly eaten in developing areas of Central America are usually much larger than what people from developed areas of the world are accustomed to. For instance, a large serving of rice, tortillas and cooked plantains are commonly served at the same meal, providing a significant amount of lower quality protein.

Very low-income families may rarely eat animal sources of protein and might find beans unaffordable. When eating beans, they're often accompanied by small amounts of cheese, egg or meats mixed into rice which enhances the amount and quality of protein at a meal.

Nuts are sometimes eaten as a snack but aren't a standard protein source in Central America. The most common fruits and vegetables are poor sources of protein. Since animal protein intake is typically low, grains and beans should be consumed daily to ensure adequate essential amino acid intake.

High protein foods in Central America

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Pork
  • Wild game
  • Queso duro
  • Queso fresco
  • Milk
  • Breast milk
  • Soybeans

Medium protein foods in Central America

  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Masa
  • Tortillas
  • Corn
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread

Low protein foods in Central America

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Crema

Infants and Protein

Although breastfeeding is common in Central America, sometimes a mother wants to provide her infant with a breast milk alternative. In these cases, she commonly uses a low-protein homemade substitute and not a standard commercial infant formula. She might offer her infant beverages like coffee with sugar or boiled grain waters instead of breast milk. When mothers make these substitutions, the infant won't get the protein and other key nutrients they need to grow, fight infections and thrive. An infant's growth, both weight and length often falls off after six months, when inappropriate or possibly no additional foods are offered to complement or replace breast milk. To address these traditional infant feeding practices, education on appropriate infant and complementary foods is vital and should include a discussion of sources of age-appropriate protein, including breast milk.

Tips for Providing Protein Nutrition Education in Central America

Before conducting a lesson on protein, health educators should familiarize themselves with the high-protein foods available in the local food supply and tailor the lesson to include these foods. Educators should also investigate income limitations and food availability before planning lessons.

Educators should also explain that small amounts of beans and high-protein foods like meat, eggs and cheese can be eaten with grain staples at each meal to enhance protein quality and quantity.

Using brief and simple education tools with ample illustrations is an effective method of nutrition education for populations in developing areas of Central America. For example, an illustration of building blocks or actual blocks are a useful symbol to demonstrate protein's function. Including hands-on activities will further enhance the effectiveness of nutrition education.

Additional Resources