10 High Protein Foods to Fuel Your Body & Build Muscle
While the other two macronutrient groups, fats and carbohydrates, are often disagreed upon by nutritionists and health experts (is low carb or low fat the best approach?), pretty much everybody agrees that the human body needs plenty of high quality protein to survive and thrive, not to mention that studies prove time and again that high protein diets are excellent for weight loss (1).
In most westernized societies, protein insufficiency isn’t a major problem, but often the quality of protein commonly consumed is sub par, which in and of itself can lead to major problems.
What is Protein?
First of all, let’s make sure we have a solid understanding of what protein is, and its role in the body. Proteins are a combination of amino acids that play key roles in bodily processes such as metabolism, muscle development and cell function. Nine amino acids are considered essential amino acids, as they cannot be created by the body and must be obtained from foods.
The RDA (recommended daily allowance) of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (to convert your weight from pounds, divide it by 2.2). This would equate to roughly 10-15% of your daily calorie intake, although many health experts would actually consider this quite low, and athletes will do better with a significantly higher protein diet (not to mention a diet higher in carbohydrates and good fats, too).
Remember, for an person or even the average gym-goer doing light to moderate exercise, protein needs do not change much. But for someone participating and training for events or doing intensive strength and/or cardio workouts, the caloric need rises, and protein tops the list.
In this article, first we’ll look at several specific foods that are exceptionally high in protein and nutrient dense, and then we’ll end with a more comprehensive list of a wider variety of sources.
Top 10 High Protein Foods
Eggs are a complete protein source, meaning that they provide all essential amino acids that the body needs in equal amounts. Egg whites are almost 100% protein (and the part that people are most likely to react to, so waiting until year one with an infant is advised), and the egg yolk is an incredibly rich source of important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy fats. 1 egg offers about 7 grams of protein (2), so 2-3 eggs would be 1 serving of protein in a meal.
[Recipe: How to Make the Perfect Hard Boiled Egg]
Chicken is probably the most commonly consumed source of protein in the US, and opting for organic or (ideally) pasture raised chicken whenever possible is best in order to avoid potentially harmful hormones and antibiotics used in conventionally raised poultry. Along with being an excellent protein food, it also offers significant amounts of selenium, phosphorous and vitamin B6. 1 chicken breast of approximately 6-8 oz. offers around 50 grams of protein (3), and is lower in calories than other meat options.
Although plant sources are significantly lower in protein than animal sources, there are certainly higher protein and more nutrient dense options to choose from if you don’t consume meat or other animal products. Almonds definitely top the list of vegetarian protein options, offering 6 grams per 1 ounce serving (about 1 tablespoon) (4), and being loaded with fiber, magnesium and vitamin E.
Beef (especially grass fed beef), is one of the best protein sources available. Only 3 ounces of lean beef offers 22 grams of protein (5), plus you benefit from the myriad of key nutrients like iron and vitamin B12. If the beef is grass fed, feel free to choose fattier cuts, as the fat in good quality beef is highly beneficial, too. However, if conventionally raised beef if your only option, stick to leaner cuts.
Calorie for calorie, tuna is almost all protein (this fish is very low in fat and calories). It is also quite convenient and easy in a pinch, as you can simply open a can of (hopefully wild) tuna, add it to a salad, and you’ve got yourself a healthy meal. A whopping 94% of the calories in tuna come from protein, and 1 cup contains 39 grams (6).
Perhaps the all around best vegetarian protein source is lentils, which are not only an easy and delicious legume to prepare, but also offer 18 grams of protein per one cup serving (7). Lentils are also high in iron, potassium, magnesium and fiber, and should definitely be part of your diet if you do not eat animal products (unless, of course, you have an allergy or sensitivity).
Wild fish and seafood is one of the healthiest foods on the planet, as they are not only high in protein but also one of the best sources of heart healthy, omega 3 fatty acids. The exact protein content will vary depending on the type of fish you choose, but most offer roughly 20 grams per 3 oz. serving.
[Related: Health Benefits of Fish Oil]
8. Turkey Breast
It doesn’t have to be Thanksgiving to enjoy turkey, as it is equally as good of a protein choice as chicken. It is always a good idea to vary your protein sources, as eating the same source day in and day out can not only set you up for potential food sensitivities and allergies, but also means you’re missing out on the nutrients offered in other foods. Switch up your chicken for turkey sometimes, and you’ll still be getting 23 grams per 3 oz. serving (8).
9. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are perhaps more widely known for their high nutrient content, being particularly rich in immune-boosting zinc, iron and magnesium. What you might not realize is that pumpkin seeds also offer a pretty major bang for their buck in terms of protein content, coming in at 5 grams of protein per 1 ounce serving (9). Enjoy these tasty seeds roasted or raw, although the raw version offers slightly more nutrients.
10. Whole Milk
With this protein source, quality truly does matter above all else. Opt for organic, whole milk, and if you can go the extra mile to find raw milk with your local farmer or at a farmers market, even better. Whole dairy is a “building food,” which means it can cause weight gain if consumed often (so if weight gain is your goal, go for it), One cup of whole milk contains 8 grams of protein (10), along with a long list of key nutrients and healthy fats. Interestingly, if you are lactose intolerant, you very well might tolerate raw milk just fine, as the enzyme lactase that helps out body to process lactose is killed in the pasteurization process.
What Foods are High in Protein?: The List
- Fish and seafood
- Cheese (raw is best)
- Cottage and cream cheese
- Whole, organic milk
- Whole, organic yogurt
- Whole wheat
- Egg noodles
- Tempeh from soy beans (avoid tofu and other forms of processed soy)
Nuts and Seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Pine nuts
- Sunflower and sesame seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- **Butters made from these nuts and seeds
- Sun dried tomatoes
- Lima beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Dried apricots
- Dried peaches
High quality protein powder (grass fed whey, hemp or pea are all good options)
So, there you have it. Getting enough high quality protein in your diet is of utmost importance for both overall health and weight management. Pair your protein with healthy fats and plenty of nutrient dense vegetables and fruits, and you’re in good shape for optimal energy and disease prevention.
(Read this next: 13 High Fiber Foods to Keep Your Gut Healthy)