Protein is a necessary part of any diet, but getting enough of this important nutrient can be difficult. Luckily, there are plenty of high-protein foods to choose from that will keep your meals exciting, filling and delicious.
The amino acids that make up protein are “overproduced in our bodies,” Caroline Susie, a registered dietitian based in Dallas, Texas, and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells TODAY.com.
They repair muscle and tissues, and help build muscle, bone and cartilage, says Susie. “More than that, (protein) also drives certain metabolic reactions and helps our immune system,” he said.
“Protein is a macronutrient, meaning we need relatively large amounts to maintain health,” Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY.com.
If you’re not getting enough protein in your diet, you may notice frequent muscle fatigue, difficulty building muscle, weak and brittle nails or dry and dull hair, Zumpano says.
And you may find yourself feeling hungry more often. “Protein is really satisfying,” Zumpano explains. So if you feel hungry even though you’re eating enough calories, it could be a sign that you need more protein in your meals.
How much protein should you eat?
The right amount of protein to eat in a day depends on your age, weight, gender and activity level, experts say, so protein needs can vary greatly from person to person.
With the rise of trendy paleo- and keto-style diets, people in general are more aware of the need for protein compared to the days when low-fat diets were more popular, Zumpano said. “But most people don’t know how much protein they need, and they don’t know how much they’re getting,” he adds.
A good place to start is the recommended dietary allowance for protein, which is 0.8 grams of protein daily per kilogram of body weight, says Susie. For adults, that increases to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. “That’s the minimum amount, the basic requirement,” he explained.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, actively trying to build more muscle, or have other health considerations (such as osteoporosis), your protein intake should be increased. A registered dietitian can give you specific recommendations for your unique circumstances, experts say.
Zumpano says most people he works with need closer to 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day.
Another way to think about it, Zumpano says, is to aim to get between 20 and 40 grams of protein at each meal. “And make sure, if you have some 20-gram meals, that you have a 40-gram meal and then some 10-gram snacks,” he adds. It also helps to space out your protein intake throughout the day, rather than trying to get it all at once.
The best high protein food
In general, the best high-protein foods include meats and fish, eggs, dairy, beans, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds, experts say.
Chicken, especially lean chicken breast, is an excellent source of protein. A 4-ounce serving of skinless, boneless chicken breast contains 26 grams of protein, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and is versatile enough to be incorporated into many different types of cuisine, from in salads and pasta dishes to simple roasted sheet pan meals. .
Like chicken breast, turkey breast meat has a lot of protein. But you can also try using lean ground turkey in meatballs, pasta sauces, taco fillings and stir-fry dishes.
Easily grilled, fried, or eaten raw in sushi, salmon is a great high-protein fish choice. There are about 17 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving of salmon, says the USDA.
Tuna is another high protein fish that can be cooked in many ways. Try baking fresh tuna loin with pesto couscous for a light but filling meal. Or use canned tuna in a salad or sandwich. A 3-ounce tuna steak provides 24 grams of protein and a can of canned light tuna contains about 16 grams of protein.
Lean beef includes certain cuts of beef, such as round tip roast and top sirloin steak, the Mayo Clinic says. And the category also includes lean ground beef, which can be used in meatballs, stuffed chili, burgers, lasagna and more. There are about 18 grams of protein in a 3.5-ounce serving of 90% lean ground beef.
A cup of Greek yogurt will give you about 10 grams of protein, says Susie, while a standard single-serving container can have up to 15 grams. It’s an obvious easy choice for breakfast, loaded with healthy berries, seeds and nuts. Try mixing it into a smoothie or freeze it in a slab for some frozen yogurt skin.
If you’re looking for vegetarian sources of protein, tempeh is a great choice, Zumpano says, and it contains a whopping 31 grams of protein per cup.
Made from fermented soybeans formed into a cake-like block, this versatile food has a mild nutty flavor, slightly chewy texture and can be cooked in almost any sauce for a delicious meal.
A trendy food once again, cottage cheese contains many health benefits. Just one half cup of low-fat cottage cheese will give you 12 grams of filling protein. And, like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese can be topped with other healthy ingredients for breakfast or as a snack, or it can be mixed with other foods including eggs to boost the protein content.
When reaching for high-protein foods, people tend to go straight for meat and dairy, Zumpano said, while overlooking plant-based foods like beans, legumes and lentils.
Three-quarters of a cup of cooked black beans provides about 10 grams of protein, says Susie. “It can be added to a salad, served as a side dish or mixed with meat when you’re making tacos,” he says. As a bonus, beans are also high in fiber, which is great for gut and heart health.
I’m a big fan of eggs, says Susie. They are very versatile. Whether it is fried or boiled eggs, they will be a good option. One large egg contains about 6 grams of protein.
Lentils come with a ton of nutritional benefits. Just one cup of cooked lentils provides about 18 grams of protein and more than 15 grams of fiber, according to the USDA. They’re a great addition to soups and stews, and warm lentils can be the base for a filling, protein-rich bowl topped with vegetables and your choice of eggs, cheese and meat or tofu.
Legumes like chickpeas are another good source of plant-based protein, experts say. In one cup of chickpeas, you’ll find about 14 grams of protein and more than 12 grams of fiber, says the USDA.
Chickpeas are a great addition to a salad, or you can try roasting them with your favorite spices for a crunchy, high-protein snack.
Nuts and nut butters are both good sources of protein and healthy, filling fats. Nuts, which are technically legumes, provide 12 grams of protein per cup. And 2 tablespoons of peanut butter will give you about 7 grams of protein. This makes both easy options for a healthy protein boost.
Flaxseeds are probably some of the most popular high-protein seeds, says Susie, with 2 grams per tablespoon. They’re easy to sprinkle on yogurt with granola or mix into a protein and fruit smoothie. But if you prefer sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds, that’s fantastic, he says.
If you’re looking for high-protein nuts, almonds are an obvious one to go for. Just one ounce of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, 14 grams of fat and 6 grams of fiber, all of which make this crunchy nut a particularly satisfying and healthy snack.
Pistachios (6 grams of protein per ounce) and walnuts (4 grams of protein per ounce) are also good options to include in a high-protein and high-fiber homemade trail mix.
Seitan, another meatless protein source, is made from wheat gluten, Zumpano explains. You can also make it yourself at home using just water and flour.
It has a fibrous texture that can be pulled apart so it’s similar to shredded chicken or pork, and a 2-ounce serving of seitan contains about 17 grams of protein.
Perhaps the most well-known protein-rich meat alternative, tofu is made from fermented soybeans. And, depending on your choice of tofu texture, it can be fried, baked, mixed into soup or made into a sweet pudding.
Adding chia seeds to your morning yogurt or lunch bowl of salad is an easy way to boost the protein and fiber content. Or try making chia pudding overnight in the fridge, mixed with peanut butter and topped with fresh fruit. One ounce of chia seeds will give you about 5 grams of protein and about 10 grams of filling fiber.
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