Eat your way strong with this list of muscle-pumping protein options.
Photo: Shutterstock / Artem Evdokimov
Counting macronutrients—protein, fat, and carbs—may not be totally mainstream just yet, but people are starting to pay more attention to it. And while some diets want you to limit carbs or fat, nearly every eating program—from the keto diet and Mediterranean diet to Whole30 and the DASH diet—gives the green light to high-protein foods. Why?
"Amino acids, the organic molecules that make up protein, are essentially the building blocks of life," says Abby Olson, R.D., owner of Encompass Nutrition in St. Paul, MN. "Unlike carbohydrates and fat, your body doesn't store extra amino acids, and they need to be consumed daily."
In other words, if you fall short on your recommended intake of high-protein foods, your internal and external organs will suffer.
"You need protein to make hair, blood, enzymes, and so much more," explains Brooke Alpert, R.D., author of The Diet Detox. "The recommended daily allowance is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, so a 130-pound woman would need at least 48 grams of protein. In my practice, I've found those numbers to be a bit modest [so] instead of focusing on grams, I simply ask my clients to make sure there is one serving of protein at every single meal."
Your waistline can also suffer if you don't regularly eat high-protein foods each day. Science shows a connection between a healthy dietary protein intake and lower weight, more lean body mass, better cholesterol, a healthier waist-to-hip ratio, and lower blood pressure.
Hit your quota with this list of dietitian-approved high-protein foods that fit within any eating style.
High-Protein, High-Fat Foods
1. Full-Fat Greek Yogurt
Skip the "zero" cartons and snack on yogurt made with whole milk (generally about 4 percent fat). In addition to the appetite-taming fat, each serving provides around 20 grams of protein. "Compared to regular yogurts, full-fat Greek is way more satisfying since it helps stabilize blood sugar levels," says Alpert. Stick to plain-flavored varieties (you can add your own natural sweeteners if it's too tart) to make sure added sugar doesn't sneak up on you.
Try this: Sweet Potato and Chive Dip
Whether you prefer plain pecans, almond butter on your midday sandwich, or the crunch of cashews in your homemade trail mix, you'll score a satisfying amount of protein (about 5 grams per ounce), fat, and fiber from nuts. "Nuts are a trifecta of healthy eating," says Alpert. "They offer a blend of all three macronutrients, which again helps to balance blood sugar, and they are a vegan source of protein." (Here are more high-protein foods for vegans.)
Try this: Pistachio-Crusted Tilapia
High-Protein, High-Carb Foods
Thanks to beans, it really is possible to reach your recommended amount of daily protein without meat. Stock your pantry with garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, and cannellini beans to toss into salads, stir into soups, and blend into hummus. (These 13 homemade hummus recipes are particularly tasty.) Not only will you net about 15 grams of protein per cup, depending on the particular variety, but "heart-healthy plant-based proteins [also] provide fiber, B vitamins, iron, folate, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc," says Olson. Plus, there's no need to fear the carb count, adds Alpert. "Most of the carbohydrates are related to the high fiber count, so they are still quite healthy and a great option for a meatless protein."
Try this: High-Protein Vegan Southwestern Salad
4. Lentil Pasta
Filling your diet with high-protein foods doesn't mean that a bowl of pasta is off-limits. A 2-ounce serving of pulse-based noodles (pulses are dried peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas) offers a reasonable 2.5:1 ratio of carbs to protein (35 grams and 14 grams, respectively), plus more fiber than its flour-based cousin. "Utilizing a variety of protein sources throughout the day allows you to meet your protein needs while hitting your fat, carbohydrate, and vitamin needs," says Olson.
Try this: Bolognese Green Chile Chorizo Pasta Sauce Over Rigatoni (using lentil rigatoni)
High-Protein, Low-Carb Foods
Get cracking with this quick-cooking, remarkably versatile, vegetarian-friendly option. One egg provides 6 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of carbs, and no, you shouldn't freak over the 190 milligrams of cholesterol: One review in the British Medical Journal found no link between egg consumption and cholesterol-related heart disease or stroke risk. Kind of makes you want breakfast for dinner, doesn't it? (Milk is also a good source of protein with fat-free milk offering up 8.4 grams for an 8-ounce glass.)
Try this: Breakfast Pizza Quiche
6. Wild-Caught Salmon
While any animal protein is naturally low in carbs and high in protein, both Alpert and Olson are fond of wild salmon for its strong omega-3 stats. "Mix up your diet with lean proteins and options that are higher in fat, such as fish, to cover your nutritional needs for essential micronutrients such as iron, B vitamins, and zinc," says Olson. One 3-ounce fillet adds 17 grams of protein to your daily Rx. (BTW, here's the difference between farm-raised and wild-caught salmon.) There are other seafood options that offer up high-protein counts for just a 4-ounce serving: rainbow trout (27.5g), bluefin tuna (34g), and canned tuna (26g).
High-Protein, Low-Fat Foods
7. Chicken Breasts
Grilled chicken is the go-to bodybuilder pick for a reason: One 3.5-ounce serving of boneless, skinless chicken breast has less than 4 grams of fat while offering a hefty 31 grams of protein—all for just 165 calories. Stick to grilling, roasting, or baking rather than pan-frying or deep-frying if you're keeping an eye on fat intake. Other high-protein meat options are sliced deli turkey breast (6g for 1 ounce) and lean sirloin beef (34g for a 4-ounce serving).
Try this: Open-Faced Chicken Bruschetta Sandwiches
Quinoa is a popular one on the list of high-protein foods because it's also gluten-free, vegetarian, and low in fat, says Alpert. The ancient grain offers up 8 grams of protein for every cooked cup, making it an excellent side dish to any meal. If you're looking for other plant-based, high-protein foods consider creamy peanut butter (8g for 2 tablespoons), edamame (11g for 1/2 cup), and firm tofu (20g for 1/2 cup).
Try this: Vegan Rainbow Quinoa Salad