High protein seems to be a common thread in trend diets these days - promising to help you both lose weight and gain muscle. But just because protein is in a lot of foods, doesn't always mean they are a great source of it.
Let’s take a look at what makes a high quality protein food and which choices can maximize your health benefits and best help you meet your fitness goals.
The best types of high protein foods include:
- Lean Proteins
- Proteins High in Healthy Fats
- Pure Protein Foods
- High Protein Dairy Options
- Vegan Proteins
- Protein Supplements
What Are Good Protein Sources?
Whether you’re trying to gain muscle or lose weight, calories have to be considered in your diet plan. So it’s worth paying attention to how much protein per calorie you are actually getting from your choices.
Without a doubt animal sources of protein (meat, fish, eggs, and dairy) are going to provide the most amount of protein per calorie - plants just can't compare in protein density. But of course, that doesn't mean all animal proteins are created equal, or that they’re always the best source of protein for you either. And what about supplements?
When looking at your protein you can follow the rule of tens.
Excellent sources of protein should contain at least 10 grams of protein per serving (per FDA guidelines). For the most nutrient dense choices, look for at least 10g per 100 calories.
The type of protein you eat also matters. There are actually hundreds of thousands of different proteins, which are made up of amino acids. Luckily only those containing the 9 essential amino acids are vital for us to eat!
Proteins are considered high quality when they provide us with the amino acids each of us need to function every day.
When a food item contains all of the essential amino acids we need, it’s called a complete protein. Complete proteins are found in meat or animal products like eggs and dairy.
When two different foods combined meet all of our essential amino acid needs, they’re called complementary proteins.
10 Lean Proteins
Lean proteins are essentially protein options that are lower in fat. This matters because fat is calorically dense and can add a significant amount of calories to your food choices if you aren't paying attention.
For example, peanut butter is often considered a source of protein. But it only provides 7 to 8 grams per serving - and each serving is nearly 200 calories and 16 grams of fat. Compared to a lean protein option like nonfat Greek yogurt that offers twice the protein (14 to 20 grams) for half the calories.
Some of the best sources of lean proteins include:
When looking at animal proteins in specific, opting for lean is also a way to cut out more saturated fat from your diet, with the exception of fatty fish that provide a valuable source of omega-3 fatty acids. High intakes of saturated fat may contribute to increased risk factors for heart disease.
10 Proteins High in Healthy Fats
High-fat proteins can be just as good for you as low-fat protein options. It all depends on your personal nutrition needs and dietary goals.
A little healthy fat such as that you may get from nuts and seeds can be a great addition to help add calories when trying to gain muscle.
These foods also tend to be more satiating - keeping your appetite in check when trying to cut calories. It is a balancing act, figuring out what macro ratios work best for you.
Fat can also slow the absorption of protein and carbs. This may be beneficial if you are looking for long-lasting energy.
Quality proteins that are high in fat and low in carbs include:
- Chia Seeds
- Sunflower Seeds
While some of the nuts may seem like they have a higher carbohydrate content at first glance, their net carbs are actually low.
Higher fat options work well during pre-workout meals and lean proteins are best for post workout recovery.
10 Pure Protein Foods
Some foods come pretty close to being considered pure protein in our diet.
The below foods are packed in protein, with little to no carbohydrates or fat, making them great options to boost your protein for the day without adding extra calories or unwanted carbs.
Pure protein foods include the following:
10 High Protein Dairy Options
Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt can actually be a great source of proteins, especially for vegetarians who don’t have meat options to choose from.
- Low Fat Greek Yogurt
- Low Fat Cottage Cheese
- Parmesan Cheese
- Swiss Cheese
- Gouda Cheese
- Gloucester Cheese
- Colby Cheese
- Blue Cheese
- Mozzarella Cheese
- Reduced Fat Milk 2%
Cheese is high in fat, but is a great option for those focusing on high protein, high fat and ultra low carb diets, like the keto diet.
On the other hand, calories can quickly get out of control with cheeses. Low-fat dairy choices are ideal for minimizing calories and the less desirable saturated and trans fats.
Additional High Protein Vegan Choices
The hardest part about finding high protein vegan options, is that most plant-based sources are also a source of fat or carbs - making it a challenge to get a lot of protein per calorie on a vegan diet.
But eating a high protein vegan meal plan is still possible. Vegans are able to get all of the protein they need by eating complementary proteins.
Some more high protein vegan options that haven't already been discussed include:
- Squash & Pumpkin Seeds
- Beyond Burger
- Peanut Butter
For a deep dive on all plant proteins read Plant Based Protein Food List.
Protein supplements and protein powders are an easy way to get an extra protein boost.
If using protein powder for muscle building purposes post workout, research suggests that 20 grams or more of just about any complete protein is sufficient (1,2,3,4). Whey, soy and casein are often all popular choices. Casein, unlike whey, is a long-acting protein – meaning it is absorbed more slowly over time. And some research suggests that casein may be effective in promoting muscle growth when taken before bed (5).
But these should be utilized as supplements instead of replacement for a healthy diet. It’s recommended to get more nutrients from foods where you can. Whole food proteins provide more volume and might be more satiating than in liquid or powder form. In other words, you probably won't feel as full adding a 20-gram protein scoop to your drink or food, compared to a 4-ounce portion of meat or fish.
Bottom Line: Protein is essential for our bodies. Being thoughtful about which proteins you choose to include in your diet can help you optimize your health and fitness goals.
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