Protein is an essential part of any diet, but getting adequate amounts of this vital nutrient can be challenging. 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 proteins do a lot of work in our bodies,” Caroline Soucy, a registered dietitian in Dallas, Texas, and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells TODAY.com.
They repair muscles and tissues, and help build muscles, bones and cartilage, says Susie. “In addition, (protein) also drives many metabolic reactions and helps our immune system,” she says.
“Protein is a macronutrient, meaning we need fairly large amounts of protein to maintain health,” Julia Zampano, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, tells TODAY.com.
Zampano says that 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.
And you may feel hungry again and again. “Protein is really satisfying,” explains Zampano. So if you find yourself feeling hungry despite eating enough calories, it could be a sign that you need more protein in your diet.
How much protein should you eat?
Experts say the right amount of protein to eat in a day will depend on your age, weight, gender and activity level, so protein needs can vary widely from person to person.
Zampano says that with the rise of trendy paleo- and keto-style diets, people are generally more aware of their need for protein than in the days when low-fat diets were more popular. She adds, “But most people don’t know how much protein they need and they don’t know how much protein they’re taking in.”
Susie says the recommended dietary allowance for protein is a good place to start, which is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For older adults, this increases to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. “This is the minimum amount, the basic requirement,” she explains.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, actively trying to build more muscle, or have other health concerns (like osteoporosis), your protein intake should increase. Experts say a registered dietitian can give you specific recommendations for your specific circumstances.
Zampano says most of the people she works with need 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day.
Another way to think about it, Zampano says, is to aim to get 20 to 40 grams of protein at each meal. She adds, “And make sure that, if you eat some 20-gram meals, you follow up with a 40-gram meal and then have some 10-gram snacks.” It helps to consume small amounts of protein throughout the day, rather than trying to meet your protein intake all at once.
Best High-Protein Foods
Experts say the best high-protein foods generally include lean meat and fish, eggs, dairy, beans, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Poultry, especially lean chicken breasts, are a great source of protein. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 4-ounce serving of skinless, boneless chicken breast contains 26 grams of protein, and it’s so versatile that it can be used in many different types of dishes, from salads and pasta dishes to simple roasted sheet pan meals. Can be included in recipes. ,
Like chicken breast, turkey breast meat also contains plenty of protein. But you can also try using lean ground turkey in meatballs, pasta sauce, taco fillings, and stir-fry recipes.
Easily grilled for sushi, pan-fried, or eaten raw, salmon is a great high-protein fish choice. The USDA says 3 ounces of salmon has about 17 grams of protein.
Tuna is another high-protein fish that can be cooked in a number of ways. Try cooking fresh tuna loin with pesto couscous for a light but filling meal. Or use canned tuna in salads or sandwiches. A 3-ounce tuna steak provides 24 grams of protein and one can of canned light tuna has about 16 grams of protein.
The Mayo Clinic says lean beef includes certain cuts of beef, such as round tip roast and top sirloin steak. And this category also includes lean ground beef, which can be used in meatballs, stuffed peppers, burgers, lasagna, and more. A 3.5-ounce serving of 90% lean ground beef contains about 18 grams of protein.
Susie says one cup of Greek yogurt will give you about 10 grams of protein, while a standard single-serving container can come in at up to 15 grams. This is an obvious easy choice for breakfast, featuring nutrient-rich berries, seeds and nuts. Try blending it into smoothies or freeze it into a slab for some frozen yogurt bursts.
If you’re looking for vegetarian protein sources, tempeh is a great choice, says Zampano, and it has 31 grams of protein per cup.
Made from fermented soybeans formed into cake-like blocks, this versatile food has a subtle nutty flavor, slightly chewy texture and can be cooked in almost any sauce for a delicious meal.
Once again a trendy food, paneer is packed with many health benefits. Just half a cup of low-fat cottage cheese will give you 12 grams of protein. And, similar to Greek yogurt, cheese can be mixed with other healthy ingredients for breakfast or as a snack, or it can be added to other foods, including eggs, to boost protein content.
Zampano says that when moving toward higher-protein foods, people tend to go straight to meat and dairy, while ignoring plant-based foods like beans, legumes, and lentils.
Susie says three-quarters cup of cooked black beans provides about 10 grams of protein. “It can be added to salads, served as a side dish or mixed with meat when making tacos,” she says. As a bonus, beans are also high in fiber, which is great for gut and heart health.
Susie says, I am a big fan of eggs. They are very versatile. Be it fried eggs or hard boiled eggs, they will be a wonderful choice. One large egg contains about 6 grams of protein.
Pulses come with a lot of nutritional benefits. According to the USDA, just one cup of cooked lentils provides about 18 grams of protein and more than 15 grams of fiber. They’re a great addition to soups and stews, and warm lentils can be the base of a filling protein-rich bowl topped with vegetables and your choice of egg, cheese, and meat or tofu.
Experts say legumes like chickpeas are another excellent plant-based source of protein. The USDA says you’ll get about 14 grams of protein and more than 12 grams of fiber in one cup of chickpeas.
Chickpeas are a great addition to salads, or you can try roasting them with your favorite spices for a crunchy high-protein snack.
Both nuts and nut butters are good sources of protein and healthy fats. Peanuts, 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 of these easy choices for a healthy protein boost.
Flax seeds are probably some of the most popular high-protein seeds, with 2 grams per tablespoon, says Susie. These can easily be sprinkled on yogurt with granola or mixed into protein and fruit smoothies. But if you prefer sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds, that’s fantastic, she says.
If you are looking for high-protein nuts, almonds are definitely for you. Just one ounce of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, 14 grams of fat and 6 grams of fiber, making these crunchy nuts an especially satisfying and nutritious snack.
Pistachios (6 grams of protein per ounce) and walnuts (4 grams of protein per ounce) are also good choices to include in high-protein and high-fiber homemade trail mix.
Zampano points out that seitan, another meatless source of protein, is made from wheat gluten. You can also make it 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 famous protein-rich meat alternative, tofu is made from fermented soybeans. And, depending on your chosen tofu texture, it can be fried, baked, added to soups or turned into a sweet pudding.
Adding chia seeds to your morning yogurt or lunch salad bowl is an easy way to increase the protein and fiber content. Or refrigerate chia pudding overnight, mix with peanut butter and top with fresh fruit. One ounce of chia seeds will give you about 5 grams of protein and about 10 grams of fiber.
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