23 Super Healthy High Protein Foods You Should Be Eating

High protein breakfast

Protein functions as an important building block in the body. Muscles, connective tissue, and skin are all composed of proteins. 

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. This is equivalent to 72 grams per day for a 198 pound male and 62 grams per day for a 171-pound female. 

There is evidence to suggest we should be eating more high protein foods and that ideal intake levels could be 0.50 grams per pound or greater (1).

These recommendations may vary based on activity level, age, and health status. 

Increasing protein intake can also play a role in weight loss. Replacing carbohydrates with protein boosts the production of appetite-suppressing hormones. This leaves you feeling full for longer, reducing your calorie intake and leading to weight loss (2). 

To meet your daily protein needs, here is a list of 23 healthy foods high in protein that you should include in your diet. 

1. Eggs 

Eggs are nutritional superstars. They are one of the healthiest sources of protein we can add to our diet. Low in saturated fat, they are an excellent source of several vitamins including 35% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of choline which is essential for brain health. 

Eggs are also rich in many essential minerals including selenium, an antioxidant in the body. One large egg provides 28% of the RDI of selenium. 

The protein in eggs is almost entirely concentrated in the egg whites and contains all of the essential amino acids needed for proper health. The majority of the vitamins and minerals are concentrated in the egg yolk. 

Eat whole eggs for maximum health benefits. A large egg has a protein content of 6 grams and 78 total calories (3).

2. Chicken

Chicken breast is one of the most popular foods consumed in the United States. Chicken’s popularity is largely due to its versatility and the fact that it is high in protein and low in saturated fat and cholesterol. 

Baked chicken breast with the skin removed contains 24 grams of protein per three ounces serving while providing only 117 calories (4). 

3. Lean Beef 

Lean beef is a nutrient-dense source of protein. To be considered lean, the USDA states that a 3 ounce serving of cooked beef must have less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 mg of cholesterol. 

Lean ground beef includes ground round or ground sirloin. Lean steaks include skirt steak and sirloin steak. 

A 3 ounce cooked sirloin steak has a protein content of 25 grams, 175 calories, and 40% of the RDI of both vitamin B12 and zinc (5). 

4. Seafood

Fish including salmon, tuna, sardines, and shrimp are major sources of Omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. 

What is often overlooked is how many other nutrients are contained in a serving of fish. For example, salmon is one of the few food-based sources of vitamin D in our diets. 

A 3 ounce serving of wild salmon that is broiled or baked contains 20 grams of protein,118 calories and about 1 gram of Omega-3s DHA and EPA. It also provides 177% of the RDI of vitamin B12, 64% of the RDI of vitamin D, 58% of the RDI of selenium, and several other vitamins and minerals (6). 

5. Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese is a fresh cheese product that is not aged. It is popular as a post-exercise recovery snack because of its mix of whey and casein, two proteins found in dairy, help repair muscle tissue, and build muscle mass. 

Low fat cottage cheese contains 12 grams of protein per half-cup serving with just 92 calories (7).

Cottage cheese is a high sodium food containing 15% of the RDI of sodium per half-cup serving. Look for low sodium options and be sure to stick to just one serving per day.

6. Parmesan Cheese

Hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano are great sources of protein. One tablespoon of Parmesan cheese has a protein content of 1.5 grams with just 21 calories (8). 

Like most other cheese Parmesan cheese is high in sodium so be careful not to include too much cheese in your daily diet. 

7. Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is processed differently than regular yogurt. The result is a more concentrated product that is thicker with a protein content two to three times higher than regular yogurt. 

A 6-ounce container of plain nonfat Greek yogurt contains 17 grams of protein, 100 calories and 18% of the RDI of calcium with is an important nutrient for bone health (9). Full-fat Greek yogurt will have the same amount of protein per serving but is much higher in calories due to the increased fat content.

8. Pork Tenderloin

Pork is rated in the same way as beef by the USDA and must meet specific guidelines to be considered lean. The leanest cuts of pork are the tenderloin and chops. 

A 3 ounce serving of boneless pork tenderloin contains 23 grams of protein and 131 calories (10). 

9. Turkey

Turkey is often thought of as a Thanksgiving staple. However, turkey deserves a place in your regular rotation as a healthy low-fat protein source that is very similar to chicken breast in terms of nutritional value.

A 3 ounce serving of roasted turkey breast has a protein content of 26 grams and 125 total calories (11). 

10. Chia seeds

Chia seeds are a top plant-based food high in protein. They are full of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants including a healthy dose of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid.

One serving of chia seeds, equal to 2.5 tablespoons or 28 grams, has a protein content of 5 grams, 150 calories, 8 grams of fiber, and 6 grams of ALA (12). 

Another high protein seed to try is hemp seeds. Three tablespoons of hemp seeds have a protein content of 9.5 grams with 166 calories and 2.6 grams of ALA (13).

11. Spirulina

Spirulina is a type of algae that can grow in both fresh and saltwater. Spirulina is usually consumed in supplement form and is a very low-calorie protein food high in many nutrients.

One tablespoon of dried spirulina has a protein content of 4 grams, 11% of the RDI of iron, 21% of the RDI of copper, 15% of the RDI of riboflavin (vitamin B2) and only 20 calories (14). 

12. Lentils

Lentils are the edible seeds of a class of plants called legumes. 

Lentils are a staple in the diet of vegetarians and vegans because they are such a rich source of protein. Cooked lentils provide 16 grams of protein per cup. There are 207 calories and 14 grams of fiber with 90% of the RDI of folate, 37% of the RDI of iron, and 23% of the RDI of zinc in a serving as well (15).

13. Peanut butter

Peanuts are not actually nuts, they are a member of the legume family like lentils. Peanut butter is very popular in American culture and with good reason. One tablespoon has a protein content of 3.5 grams and 96 calories (16).

14. Nuts

Nuts including almonds and cashews are excellent plant-based protein sources. In a large population-based study nut consumption was shown to be associated with a significantly reduced risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular events during the study period (17).

One-quarter cup of almonds contains 6 grams of protein and 164 calories. Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E with 23% of the RDI per serving (18).

One-quarter cup of cashews contains 4 grams of protein and 165 calories. Cashew are an excellent source of copper with 98% of the RDI per serving (19). 

Nut butters are a protein-packed alternative to whole nuts. A tablespoon of unsalted almond butter has a protein content of 3 grams and 98 calories. Like almonds, they are also a great source of vitamin E with 25% of the RDI per serving (20). 

15. Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are edible and a great source of protein. 

One ounce of pumpkin seeds has a protein content of 8.5 grams and 163 calories (21). They are also a rich source of several nutrients including 42% of the RDI of magnesium, an under consumed mineral in many diets.

16. Edamame

Edamame are whole, immature soybeans harvested before they are fully ripened. They are often served steamed and salted. 

Shelled edamame contains 188 calories and 18.5 grams of protein per cup. Edamame is also a good source of potassium with 20% of the RDI per serving, and one of the best sources of folate with greater than 100% of the RDI (22). 

17. Peas

Green peas are not often thought of as healthy but they belong on any list of nutritious high protein foods. 

One cup of cooked green peas has a protein content of 8.5 grams and 134 calories. Peas are also high in fiber with 9 grams per serving and they provide a variety of other nutrients including 40% of the RDI of vitamin K and a healthy dose of several B vitamins (23).

18. Tofu and Tempeh

Tofu and tempeh are high in protein and often used as a plant-based substitute for meat in many recipes. Both foods are staples of a plant-based diet. 

One cup of tofu has a protein content of 44 grams and 362 calories (24).

One cup of tempeh has a protein content of 34 grams and 319 calories (25). 

19. Amaranth

Amaranth is a small grain that is packed with nutrients. It is gluten-free, high in protein, and can be used in dishes in place of rice or couscous. 

Cooked amaranth contains 9 grams of protein per cup which provides 251 total calories. It also provides 105% of the RDI of manganese which is important for brain health, 40% of the RDI of magnesium, and 36% of the RDI of phosphorus (26). 

20. Quinoa

Quinoa has received a lot of attention as a superfood in recent years and with good reason. Quinoa is one of few plant-based foods that contains all nine essential amino acids, something usually reserved for animal protein sources.

Cooked quinoa 222 calories, 5 grams of fiber and provides 8 grams of protein per serving (27).

21. Oats 

Oats are a gluten-free whole grain that can be an important source of minerals, vitamins, and fiber in our diets. 

One cup of cooked plain instant oatmeal prepared with water provides 5.5 grams of protein, 163 calories, and 4.5 grams of fiber (28). 

22. Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower seeds are the fruit of the sunflower plant. They usually come enclosed in a black and white shell that is not edible. They can also be purchased shelled and ready to eat.

One ounce of shelled sunflower seeds has a protein content of 5.5 grams, 165 calories, and 50% of the RDI of vitamin E (29).

23. Beans

Beans, like lentils, are the edible seeds of a class of plants called legumes. Popular beans include black beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas, otherwise known as garbanzo beans. Beans are high in protein, fiber, and full of other beneficial nutrients. 

Chickpeas have a protein content of 15 grams per cup along with 263 calories and 13 grams of fiber (30).

The Final Word

Protein is essential for optimal health. Not only is protein more filling than carbohydrates or fats, it can also boost your metabolism, play a key role in weight loss and reduce risk factors related to the development of heart disease (2). 

There are many plant-based high protein foods that are good options to include in your diet, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan.

Choose high protein snacks like nuts, seeds, or protein bars to keep you full between meals. Try to include a variety of protein sources in your diet each day. 

References

  1. Elango, Rajavel, et al. “Evidence That Protein Requirements Have Been Significantly Underestimated” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care.” LWW, 2010, journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Fulltext/2010/01000/Evidence_that_protein_requirements_have_been.11.aspx.
  2. Leidy, Heather, et al. “Role of Protein in Weight Loss and Maintenance.” OUP Academic, Oxford Academic, 29 Apr. 2015, academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/101/6/1320S/4564492.
  3. “Egg, Whole, Cooked, Hard-Boiled.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173424/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  4. “Chicken Breast, Baked or Broiled, Skin Not Eaten, from Pre-Cooked.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/782102/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  5. “Beef, Top Sirloin, Steak, Separable Lean and Fat, Trimmed to 0″ Fat, Select, Cooked, Broiled.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168633/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  6. “Fish, Salmon, Coho, Wild, Cooked, Dry Heat.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173719/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  7. “Cheese, Cottage, Low Fat.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/781707/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  8. “Cheese, Parmesan, Grated.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171247/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  9. “Yogurt, Greek, Plain, Nonfat.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170894/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  10. “Pork, Tenderloin, Baked.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/781936/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  11. “Turkey, Whole, Breast, Meat Only, Cooked, Roasted.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171496/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  12. “Chia Seeds.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/784468/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  13. “Seeds, Hemp Seed, Hulled.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170148/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  14. “Seaweed, Spirulina, Dried.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170495/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  15. “Lentils, Dry, Cooked, Fat Not Added in Cooking.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/784289/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  16. “Peanut Butter, Lower Sodium.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/784417/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  17. Guasch-Ferré, Marta, et al. “Frequency of Nut Consumption and Mortality Risk in the PREDIMED Nutrition Intervention Trial.” BMC Medicine, BioMed Central, 16 July 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3738153/.
  18. “Nuts, Almonds.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170567/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  19. “Cashews, Unsalted.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/784375/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  20. “Nuts, Almond Butter, Plain, without Salt Added.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168588/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  21. “Pumpkin Seeds, Unsalted.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/784459/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  22. “Edamame, Cooked.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/784302/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  23. “Peas, Green, Cooked, Boiled, Drained, without Salt.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170420/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  24. “Tofu, Raw, Firm, Prepared with Calcium Sulfate.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/172475/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  25. “Tempeh.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/174272/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  26. “Amaranth Grain, Cooked.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170683/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  27. “Quinoa, Cooked.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168917/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  28. “Oatmeal, Instant, Plain, Made with Water, Fat Not Added in Cooking.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/785471/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  29. “Sunflower Seeds, Plain, Unsalted.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/784460/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
  30. “Chickpeas, Canned, Drained, Fat Not Added in Cooking.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/784271/nutrients. Accessed 13 June 2020.
Matt Knight

Matt Knight, RDN, LDN - Contributor

Matt is a registered dietitian and freelance writer based in Naperville, IL. He is passionate about eating real, local foods, and translates the science of nutrition into easy to understand, simple, and actionable steps with his writing.

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