23 Best High Protein Foods for Muscle Gain and Fat Loss
Protein is an important part of a healthy diet.
Our body uses protein to build and repair important body tissues.
Muscles, connective tissue, and skin are all composed of protein.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for dietary protein is 0.36 grams (g) per pound of body weight per day.
This is equivalent to 72 g protein per day for a 200 pound male and 54 g protein per day for a 150-pound female.
In ounces, that’s about 10 oz of cooked meat for adult men and 7-8 oz for adult women.
Many people believe this is not enough protein.
It’s true that the RDA has its limitations.
The recommended total protein intake reflects how much protein we should eat each day to avoid protein deficiency and keep from getting sick.
Evidence suggests we should be eating more high-protein foods for optimal health.
The ideal level of protein intake may be 0.50 g protein per pound of bodyweight or greater (1) and could be even higher for older adults.
Recently the dietary guidelines for Americans (DGA) have shifted away from providing a goal for daily intake of protein.
Instead, the DGA emphasizes choosing high-quality sources of protein with each meal.
How can you be sure you are getting enough protein each day and are choosing the best sources of protein for your body?
This article will help you understand why the quality of protein foods you choose is important.
We will discuss the health benefits of including more protein-rich foods in your diet, and you will learn about 23 of the best high protein foods that should be part of any healthy eating pattern.
Determining Protein Quality
What we refer to as a protein is actually many smaller compounds called amino acids joined together.
There are 20 amino acids that can combine together to form a protein.
Nine of these amino acids are considered essential nutrients, meaning our body cannot make them and we must get them via food intake of high-quality dietary protein.
Of the nine essential amino acids, three are branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) called valine, leucine, and isoleucine.
The term branched chain refers to the composition and structure of the BCAAs.
They have a slightly different shape compared to other amino acids.
A food is considered a complete protein source if it contains all nine essential amino acids.
Animal products including foods like red meat, seafood, eggs, dairy foods, and other lean meats contain complete proteins that include the BCAAs.
Plant foods often contain a surprising amount of plant protein.
However, unlike animal proteins, most plants are often lacking in one or more essential amino acids and are not considered complete.
Soy products and quinoa are the exceptions, they also are considered complete proteins.
To evaluate how well our body is able to use the protein in a specific food we can look at the digestible indispensable amino acid score (DIASS).
This method of evaluating protein quality replaces the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) which you may be familiar with (2).
The DIASS measures dietary factors to determine how well our body is able to digest the amino acids found in foods.
Proteins from animal sources have the highest DIASS scores (3) reflecting their higher quality and ease of digestibility.
In summary, there are many protein-rich foods but not all of them have the same beneficial effects on our bodies.
Vegetarian proteins should absolutely be part of a healthy eating pattern, however, animal foods contain the most high-quality protein.
Benefits of A High Protein Diet
Three macronutrients are considered the building blocks of the food groups; protein, carbs, and fat.
Dietary patterns generally differ on the composition of what is considered a healthy diet, but the following are considered acceptable ranges over the long run for the different food groups:
- 45-65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates
- 20-35% from fats
- 10-35% from quality protein
Some healthy eating patterns recommend a lower intake of fat while others like keto recommend a very low carbohydrate intake.
At the end of the day, there is not a significant difference in health outcomes from any healthy eating pattern.
Whether it’s low carb or low fat, pick the plan that works best for you and stick with it.
When your energy intake provides over 20% of your calories from protein that is considered a high protein diet.
Increasing protein-energy intake is linked with improvements in many health outcomes including a lower risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, hypertension, and a stronger immune system.
A high protein diet has been also shown to help with weight loss.
Studies have found that replacing carbohydrates with protein boosts the production of appetite-suppressing hormones.
This leads to a significant increase in your sense of satiety or fullness after a meal, reduces your energy requirements, and leads to healthy weight loss (4).
Another beneficial effect of a high protein diet is that it increases thermogenesis or the energy expenditure needed to break down the foods we eat (5).
This is another way in which high protein foods increase satiety, causing us to eat less and reduce total energy intake.
Protein and Physical Activity
Protein is one of the key building blocks of muscle tissue.
Eating enough food sources of high-quality protein after a workout helps boost your nutrient intake and ensure the preservation of existing muscle mass.
It can be a great way to increase your strength and reduce body fat.
Increasing your activity level and living an active lifestyle also increases your daily energy expenditure and helps improve your body composition. It also helps you keep an optimum body mass index.
Previous studies have found that eating plenty of protein can help increase lean body mass and strength in active individuals after engaging in regular physical activity (6).
Strength athletes and endurance athletes with a higher level of physical activity may require a higher protein intake.
They should consider protein supplements, protein powder, or eating extra foods from the protein foods group to help meet their needs.
Most other individuals can meet their needs simply by choosing the right types of protein foods.
To help meet your daily protein intake to the optimal level, here is a list of 23 healthy high protein foods that you should include in a balanced diet.
23 Best High-Protein Foods to Eat More Of
Eggs are considered a protein powerhouse.
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 vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin B-12, riboflavin, thiamin, and 35% of the dietary reference intakes (RDI) of choline, an essential for brain health.
Eggs are also rich in many essential minerals including phosphorus and selenium, an antioxidant in the body. One large egg provides 28% of the daily value of selenium.
The protein in eggs is split between the egg whites and the yolk.
Egg protein contains all of the essential amino acids including the BCAAS valine, leucine, and isoleucine needed for proper health.
The majority of the vitamins and minerals are concentrated in the egg yolk. Eat whole eggs to get all of the health benefits.
A recent study found that eating eggs can help regulate body weight and reduce belly fat (7).
Replacing carbohydrates with protein foods, for example, replacing breakfast cereals with scrambled eggs boosts the production of appetite-suppressing hormones and increases satiety.
Hard-boiled eggs can make a great snack.
Or you can try adding 2-3 scrambled eggs with a handful of avocado and some chopped veggies like spinach and onions to coconut flour tacos for a great high-protein breakfast.
One large egg has 6 grams of protein and 78 total calories.
Look at Omega-3 eggs to help increase your daily intake of these important Omega 3 fatty acids.
Skinless chicken breast is one of the most popular foods consumed in the United States with higher protein loads.
Poultry’s popularity is largely due to its versatility and the fact that it is a high-protein food that is low in saturated fat and low in cholesterol.
Cooked chicken breast with the skin removed is a great option to include in a healthy eating pattern.
Three ounces of cooked chicken contains 24 g protein with 117 calories of total energy.
To add some flavor to chicken, coat it with a spice mix of smoked paprika, garlic powder, sea salt, and black pepper.
Then cook it in a healthy fat like olive oil or coconut oil.
Serve with a side of steamed broccoli, red onions, asparagus, or roasted cauliflower for a complete high protein meal.
3. Lean Meat
Lean meat is an excellent source of protein and vitamin B-12.
To be considered lean, the USDA states that a 3 oz serving of meat must have less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol.
Lean meat refers to many cuts of meat including red meat, lean beef cuts like sirloin, burgers, grass-fed beef, and bison.
Regular meat intake gives you an easy way to increase your consumption of nutrient-dense foods.
A 3 oz cooked sirloin steak, about the size of a deck of cards, contains 25 g protein, 175 calories, and 40% of the RDI of both vitamin B-12 and zinc.
Grilling is a good way to cook lean meats.
Serve with a side of sautéed mushrooms for a complete low-carb high protein meal.
Avoid processed red meats like hot dogs or sausages, these foods are staples of a western diet and clinical trials have found that a high food intake of processed red meat food products is associated with a higher risk of developing colon cancer (8).
Fish including salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, halibut, trout, shrimp, tilapia, cod, and shellfish are major sources of Omega-3 fatty acids in our diet.
What is often overlooked is that fish like tilapia are nutrient-dense foods.
For example, salmon is a great choice because it is one of the few food-based sources of vitamin D in our diets.
A three-ounce serving of wild salmon that is broiled or baked contains 20 grams of protein, 118 calories, and about 1 gram of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA.
A serving of salmon also provides 177% of the RDI of vitamin B-12, 64% of the RDI of vitamin D, 58% of the RDI of selenium, and several other vitamins and minerals including niacin.
There is strong evidence to suggest that regular intake of oily fish and Omega-3 fatty acids as part of a Mediterranean diet pattern full of fresh fruits, veggies, lean meat, seafood, and whole grains may play an important role in protecting against cognitive decline commonly seen in aging (9).
5. Dairy Foods
Dairy foods and beverages are good sources of protein.
The amount of protein in cow’s milk is the same in both low-fat milk and whole milk.
Only the total fat content is different.
Foods and beverages from the dairy food group are some of the best food sources of potassium, calcium, and vitamin A in our diets.
Dairy proteins include whey protein and casein protein.
Casein digests slowly while whey digests quickly and is better suited for workout recovery and muscle growth
The DGA recommends 2.5 cups of low-fat dairy foods from this food group each day.
Cottage cheese is a fresh cheese dairy product that is not aged.
Dairy products including cottage cheese and chocolate milk are popular post-exercise recovery snacks because of their mix of whey and casein.
Both are easily absorbed proteins that our body can readily use to help increase muscle protein synthesis and build muscle mass.
Low-fat cottage cheese contains 12 grams of protein per half-cup serving with just 92 calories.
For comparison, a 1 cup serving of low-fat milk contains 120 calories and 8 g protein.
Cottage cheese is a high sodium food containing 15% of the RDI of sodium per 1/2 cup serving.
Look for low sodium options and be sure to limit your daily allowance to just one serving per day.
6. Parmesan Cheese
Hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano are great sources of protein.
One tablespoon of Parmesan cheese contains 1.5 g protein with just 21 total calories.
It’s a low-calorie cheese with lower lactose content and is great for weight loss.
Like most other cheeses, Parmesan cheese is high in sodium so be careful to limit yourself to one serving per day.
Use Parmesan cheese as a seasoning to add a little extra protein and flavor to soups and pasta.
7. Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt is processed differently than regular yogurt.
The result is a more concentrated product that is thicker with two to three times more dietary protein than regular yogurt.
The majority of protein in yogurt is casein, while the whey is removed during processing to create Greek yogurt.
Probiotics, the live bacterial cultures found in yogurt have been shown in clinical trials to reduce inflammation, which has been linked to many health conditions including depression and gut disorders (10).
A 6-ounce container of plain nonfat Greek yogurt contains 17 g protein, 100 calories, 18% of the RDI of calcium, an important nutrient for bone health and is a great source of potassium, vitamin A and vitamin B12 as well.
Full-fat Greek yogurt will have the same amount of protein per serving as low-fat dairy products but is much higher in total calories due to the significant increase in total fat content.
To up your dietary protein intake, add Greek yogurt to smoothies, use it in place of sour cream or eat it plain with a handful of berries to increase your intake of dairy protein.
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 pork loin and pork chops.
A 3 ounce serving of boneless pork tenderloin contains 23 g protein,131 calories, and is a great source of thiamine, one of the B vitamins used for energy production.
Inadequate daily protein intake may increase the risk of sarcopenia or the age-related loss of muscle tissue that occurs in older adults (11).
A serving of lean pork as part of a healthy eating pattern can contribute to a higher protein intake.
Turkey is often thought of as a Thanksgiving staple.
However, turkey deserves a place in your regular meal rotation with other poultry products as a healthy low-fat protein source with similar content of nutrients to chicken breast.
Turkey is also rich in many vitamins and minerals including niacin, vitamin b12, and tryptophan.
Next time you are at the supermarket, a lean turkey breast can be a great addition to your shopping cart to help increase your intake of protein at mealtime.
A 3 ounce serving of roasted turkey breast is a nutrient-dense food with 26 g protein and 125 total calories.
Try using cooked turkey in place of deli meat.
Deli meat is loaded with sodium, eating freshly cooked protein can help limit your sodium intake and improve your heart health.
10. Chia seeds
Chia seeds are one of the best plant sources of protein.
They are full of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants including calcium and a healthy dose of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an important omega-3 fatty acid.
One serving of chia seeds, equal to 2.5 tablespoons or 28 grams, has 5 g protein, 150 calories, 8 grams of dietary fiber, and 6 grams of ALA.
Another high-protein seed to try is hemp seeds. Three tablespoons of hemp seeds have 9.5 g protein with 166 calories and 2.6 grams of ALA.
Chia seeds are very high in soluble fiber. Research has shown that soluble fiber can help fight belly fat, in part because of its ability to promote satiety.
Individuals who increased their intake of soluble fiber by 10 grams per day saw a 3.7% decrease in belly fat over a five-year period (12).
Adding a small amount of chia seeds to your morning smoothie is one of the best options for increasing your protein consumption.
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 that can help increase your nutrient intake.
One tablespoon of dried spirulina has 4 g protein, 11% of the RDI of iron, 21% of the RDI of copper, 15% of the RDI of riboflavin (vitamin B2), and only 20 calories.
Add a scoop of spirulina to a smoothie or morning beverage to help increase your nutrient intake.
Lentils are the edible seeds of a class of plants called legumes.
They are a staple in the diet of vegetarians and vegans because they are such a rich source of protein and an excellent source of iron. Cooked lentils provide 16 grams of protein per cup.
There are 207 calories and 14 grams of satiety-inducing 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.
If you want a high protein intake and food that can help shrink your waistline consider adding lentils to your healthy eating pattern.
13. Peanut Butter
Peanuts are not actually nuts. They are a member of the legume family.
Peanut butter is very popular in American culture and with good reason.
One tablespoon has 3.5 g protein, 3.5 grams of carbs, and 96 calories. Be sure to choose peanut butter where the only ingredients are peanuts, oil, and sea salt.
Many cheaper peanut butters contain several grams of sugar and calories that can get in the way of your weight loss efforts.
A little peanut butter can go a long way. Add a scoop of peanut butter to a sandwich or a piece of fruit for a nutritious snack.
Nuts including almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pistachios are excellent plant-based dietary protein sources.
Do not be scared off by the high-fat content of nuts.
The DGA recommends including nuts as a healthy protein source.
In a large population-based study dietary patterns with high nut consumption were shown to be associated with improved heart health, a significantly reduced risk of death from cancer, and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and heart disease during the study period.
A 1/4 cup serving of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, 18 grams of fat, and 164 calories.
Almonds are an excellent source of magnesium and vitamin E with 23% of the RDI per serving.
A 1/4 cup serving of cashews contains 4 grams of protein, 16 grams of fat, and 165 calories.
Cashews are an excellent source of copper with 98% of the RDI per serving.
Nut butters are a protein-packed alternative to whole nuts.
A tablespoon of unsalted almond butter has, 9 grams of fat, 3 grams of protein, and 98 calories.
Like almonds, they are also a great source of vitamin E with 25% of the RDI per serving.
Your best bet is to eat nuts as a healthy snack or add a small amount of your favorite nuts to a stir fry.
15. Pumpkin Seeds
You may not think the seeds of a pumpkin belong in the protein foods group, but they do.
Pumpkin seeds are edible and a great source of protein.
One ounce of pumpkin seeds has 8.5 g of protein 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.
Pumpkin seeds taste great when roasted.
To roast them, toss them in olive oil or another oil, plus sea salt, pepper, and other seasonings you desire.
Spread them on a baking sheet and roast them in the oven at 300F for 30 to 40 minutes, or until brown and crunchy.
Soy protein is one of the only plant-based sources of all nine essential amino acids.
Edamame are whole, immature soybeans harvested before they are fully ripened.
They are often served steamed with a pinch of salt.
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.
Pick up a pack of frozen edamame on your next trip to the grocery store and toss them in your freezer.
They make a great snack when you are craving a salty treat.
For a protein-packed vegetarian dinner, stir fry them with sesame oil, low-sodium soy sauce, tomato, bell peppers, and your choice of sauce. Serve it with a side of sweet potato or brown rice.
Green peas are not often thought of as healthy plant foods but they belong on any list of nutritious high protein foods.
A 1 cup serving 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, a healthy dose of several B vitamins including folic acid, and a small amount of vitamin C.
18. Tofu and Tempeh
Tofu and tempeh are high-protein soy foods and are often used as a plant-based substitute for people who want to reduce their intake of meats.
Both foods are staples of a plant-based low-calorie diet.
One cup of tofu has a protein content of 44 grams and 362 calories.
One cup of tempeh has a protein content of 34 grams and 319 calories.
Amaranth is a small grain that is a nutrient-dense food.
It is gluten-free, has protein levels comparable to many animal products, and can be used in dishes or stir-fries in place of rice or couscous as it has a similar texture.
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.
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.
One cup of cooked quinoa has 222 calories, 5 grams of fiber, and provides 8 grams of protein.
21. Whole Grains
Whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet.
When a grain is refined most of the fiber and many of the beneficial nutrients are removed.
This lack of fiber means refined grains can raise blood sugar levels, spike insulin, and make it more difficult to manage type 2 diabetes.
Whole grains include brown rice, barley, and rye. They are an excellent source of dietary fiber and surprisingly high in protein.
The DGA recommends making at least half of your grains whole grains each day.
Try using whole grain bread for sandwiches and buns, and look for whole-grain crackers at the grocery store.
Oats are a gluten-free whole grain that can be an important source of minerals, vitamins, and dietary 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.
Mix oatmeal with cinnamon, a handful of dried cranberries, and a chopped apple for a delicious breakfast or filling dessert.
The oat flour is also increasingly popular in cakes, pancakes, and other dessert baking.
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.
In a study of more than 6,000 middle-aged and older adults, those who reported eating seeds at least five times a week had 32% lower levels of C-reactive protein compared to people who ate no seeds (13).
Lower C-reactive protein is associated with low levels of inflammation.
Beans, like lentils, are the edible seeds of a class of plants called legumes.
Popular beans include black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, white beans, and chickpeas, otherwise known as garbanzo beans.
Beans are high in protein, fiber, and are full of other beneficial nutrients.
Chickpeas have a protein content of 15 grams per cup along with 263 calories and 13 grams of fiber.
They are often ground up to make hummus, a favorite go-to snack for many people. Hummus and cucumbers make an excellent snack to help up your intake of protein.
A study of overweight and obese adults found that eating 5 cups of beans and legumes per week leads to many beneficial effects such as a smaller waistline, lower blood glucose, and improved blood pressure (14).
If you are following a low-carb diet, legume tends to have a higher ratio of carbohydrates than other protein sources.
Be sure to check with a dietitian if they are right for you.
The Final Word On High-Protein Foods
Protein is essential for optimal health in the human body.
Not only is a high protein diet more filling than a diet full of carbs, but it can also boost your metabolism and increase your daily energy expenditure.
Protein intake can also play a key role in weight loss and reduce risk factors related to the development of cardiovascular disease (2).
There are many plant-based high protein foods including soy and legumes that are great options to include in your diet, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan.
The best part is that each type of protein contributes to a healthy eating pattern.
Plant foods generally have fewer calories and more grams of fiber.
Animal proteins are an important part of the protein food group because they provide all of the needed amino acids.
Choose high protein snacks like nuts, seeds, and protein shakes to increase your protein intake and satiety between meals.
Try to include a variety of protein foods and low-fat dairy products in your diet each day, and work with a dietitian or nutritionist if you need more help planning healthy high protein meals.
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