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Top 23 High-Protein Foods to Eat (for Weight Loss and Muscle Gain)

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High-protein foods - Dr. Axe

Did you know that your organs, tissues, muscles and hormones are all made from proteins? High-protein foods supply nutrients that are used by every part of the body to develop, grow and function properly.

Because proteins are involved in just about every body function, it’s important that you consume foods high in protein every day, ideally with every meal.

Studies show that eating a high-protein diet has a number of health benefits. Not only does it prevent symptoms of protein deficiency, but it also helps you maintain and lose weight, stabilizes your blood sugar levels, improves your ability to learn and concentrate, reduces brain fog, and supports your muscles and bones.

Many people make the mistake of trying diets that involve calorie counting and deprivation. On a high-protein diet, you will feel more satiated after eating, and you won’t have to deal with the blood sugar highs and lows that lead to cravings and moodiness.

You’ll be surprised to see how many foods you can eat on a high-protein diet. Even people on a vegetarian or vegan diet, who sometimes turn to processed foods for energy, have enough high-protein foods to choose from.

So how can you eat a lot of high-protein foods while sticking to a balanced diet? Let’s take a look at some of the best high-protein foods for overall health.

Top 23 High-Protein Foods

1. Grass-Fed Beef

  • 3 ounces: 22 grams of protein

Grass-fed beef is one of the best high-protein foods that you can find. Not only does it supply almost 50 percent of your recommended daily value of protein, but it’s also a rich source of vitamins A and E and powerful antioxidants.

Grass-fed beef nutrition has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and improve blood sugar levels due to its protein and healthy fat content.

2. Organic Chicken

  • 3 ounces: 21 grams of protein

One chicken breast supplies over 30 percent of your recommended daily value for protein, making it an excellent high-protein food option that can easily be added to healthy lunch and dinner recipes.

Chicken is also a source of B vitamins, like niacin and vitamin B6, which are important for lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease, treating diabetes, supporting metal health and lowering LDL cholesterol levels.

Choose organic chicken to ensure that the chicken was fed organic food grown with no pesticides, received no antibiotics and was given access to the outdoors.

3. Protein Powder from Bone Broth

  • 1 serving (¼ cup): 20 grams of protein

Protein powder made from bone broth is packed with protein and powerful amino acids that support gut integrity and detoxification. It also contains beneficial minerals, including potassium, calcium, selenium and magnesium.

With just one serving of this protein powder, you ingest the healing benefits of bone broth like improving joint health, reducing cellulite, boosting your immune system and helping to deal with leaky gut.

4. Lentils

  • 1 cup: 18 grams of protein

Eating lentils is a great plant-based protein food for vegans and vegetarians to get enough protein in their diets. A cup of lentils checks a lot of boxes off the nutrient list, including protein, dietary fiber, folate, manganese, iron, phosphorus, potassium and B vitamins, just to name a few.

The protein and other nutrients in lentils helps boost cardiovascular health, aid digestion, regulate blood sugar levels, and alkalize the body and balance its pH level.

5. Wild-Caught Salmon

  • 3 ounces: 17 grams of protein

Wild-caught salmon is one of the healthiest high-protein foods around because it’s also high in omega-3 fatty acids and a slew a vitamins and minerals — including vitamin B12 (with well over 100 percent of your daily value from a three ounce piece); vitamin D; selenium; vitamins B3, B6 and B5; and potassium.

Its healthy fats make it a perfect protein for the keto diet meal plan. Meanwhile, the benefits of salmon nutrition promote the health of your entire body, including your brain, bones, heart, eyes, skin and cells.

6. Black Beans

  • 1 cup: 15 grams of protein

Black beans are another high-protein food that can be consumed by people following a vegetarian or vegan diet. Black beans are an excellent source of both protein and fiber, which can help to make you feel full and satisfied after eating, while also controlling your blood sugar levels so you don’t experience blood sugar highs and lows.

The protein and fiber duo found in black beans also helps the body absorb nutrients and release acids into the bloodstream, which makes you feel energized and helps to cleanse your digestive tract.

Top 11 high-protein foods - Dr. Axe

7. Natto

  • ½ cup: 15 grams of protein

Natto is a fermented food that’s made by soaking whole soybeans, steaming them and adding healthy bacteria into the mixture. Natto offers an array of health benefits due to its protein, manganese, iron, copper, magnesium, vitamin K and vitamin C (just to name a few) content.

8. Eggs

  • 1 large free-range egg: 7 grams of protein

Did you know that eggs are one of the best low-carb, high-protein foods since they have a complete amino acid profile, plus healthy fats? That means eggs contain all nine of the essential amino acids that we need to get from our food.

Add eggs to your diet to boost your heart health, aid in weight loss, prevent metabolic syndrome and boost skin health.

Eggs also are rich in biotin, which helps improve protein absorption. Vitamin B6 also plays an important role in protein absorption as it helps enzymes break down the protein and carries the disassembled amino acids to the blood.

But keep in mind, to get the full health benefits of eggs, stick to organic, free-range eggs, which guarantee the hens are allowed to roam, wander, perch and have a good quality of life. Plus, free-range eggs, when compared to eggs from caged hens, contain more vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids and less cholesterol.

9. Yogurt

  • 6 ounces: 6–9 grams of protein

Yogurt is a great source of protein, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals, and full of beneficial probiotics that help to improve the microflora in your gut, thereby supporting your digestion and the absorption of nutrients.

Adding this high-protein, probiotic food to your diet can boost your immune system, support weight loss and regulate your mood.

This is why probiotic yogurt is considered a superfood. While Greek yogurt is a common go-to, you can also try yogurt made from goat or sheep’s milk.

Keep in mind that yogurt is more than a healthy breakfast food, it can also be used in place of mayo or sour cream in all sorts of recipes.

10. Goat Cheese (and Other Raw Cheeses)

  • 1 ounce: 7 grams of protein

Goat cheese comes from beneficial goat milk, which contains A2 casein protein (instead of A1 casein that’s found in cow’s milk) and is therefore easier to digest.

Cheeses like goat cheese and feta cheese provide a good amount of protein per serving, and they help promote nutrient absorption and supply medium-chain fatty acids that boost energy levels and help lower cholesterol.

11. Almonds (and Other Nuts)

  • ¼ cup/23 almonds: 5 grams of protein

Almonds are a healthy snack that contains protein, antioxidants, unsaturated fatty acids and fiber. Almonds nutrition, including vitamins like riboflavin and minerals like magnesium, help protect your heart from cardiovascular disease, reduce inflammation, support cognitive function, improve the health of your skin and control blood sugar levels.

If you don’t want to reach for a handful of almonds or other nuts, nut spreads can be another high-protein food option, such as almond or cashew butter.

12. Lamb

  • 3 ounces: 25 grams of protein

Lamb is one of the best sources of essential nutrients including iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, not to mention that it’s high in protein.

Similar to grass-fed beef, it does contain a decent amount of fat, including saturated fat. However, it also supplies high amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is linked with benefits including improve satiety and help with weight management.

13. Sardines

  • 4 ounces: 22 grams protein

Sardines are a sustainable and inexpensive source of omega-3s, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D, B vitamins, selenium and protein. They are one of the best natural sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids in the world, which are linked with benefits such as anti-inflammatory effects, heart health and cognitive health.

14. Kefir

  • 1 cup: 10 grams of protein

Also called “drinkable yogurt,” kefir is a cultured dairy product that offers probiotics, calcium, potassium and more. It’s generally even higher in probiotics than yogurt but also has a more tart taste.

Research suggests that yogurt and kefir are great high-protein foods for weight loss due to their filling quality, calcium and other nutrients. Just like with yogurt, opt for organic, plain (no sugar added), full-fat kefir for the most benefits.

15. Hemp Seeds and Protein Powder

  • 4 tablespoons of powder (30 grams): 12 grams protein

Hemp protein powder is a great option for vegetarians and vegans. It’s one of the best plant protein powders because it contains 20 amino acids, including all nine essential amino acids that your body can’t produce on its own.

The powder is made from hemp seeds, which have barely or even no measurable levels of THC, so it’s completely healthy, safe and legal. Plus, it contains omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, iron, potassium and calcium too.

16. Whey Protein

  • 1 scoop (28 grams): 20 grams protein

Whey protein is commonly used by athletes and bodybuilders because of its muscle-enhancing effects. It helps you build muscle as well as speeds up muscle recovery.

According to research, whey protein is also one of the best proteins because of its impressive amino acid content and how quickly it can be digested.

Related: Casein Protein: The Impressive Benefits of the Other Dairy Protein Powder

17. Tempeh

  • 3 ounces: 15 grams of protein

Tempeh is a plant-based protein made from fermented soybeans. It has a nuttier taste and firmer texture than tofu, which makes it more appealing to some people.

In addition to providing protein, it has probiotics, antioxidants, isoflavones, manganese, copper, phosphorus and magnesium that can help keep cholesterol down, boost bone health and stabilize blood sugar.

18. Nutritional Yeast

  • 2 tablespoons: 8 grams of protein

Loved among plant-based eaters for its cheese-like taste (despite being totally dairy free), nutritional yeast is very high in B vitamins, zinc, fiber and also offers a decent amount of vegan protein.

Nutritional yeast is an ingredient that is grown on mixtures of cane and beet molasses and then goes through a fermentation process. It’s available as yellow flakes, granules or in powder form and is typically sprinkled over dishes or used to enhance the taste and texture of soups and sauces.

19. White Beans (Navy Beans)

  • 1 cup: 17 grams of protein

Assuming you can digest them well, beans are some of the healthiest high-protein, low-fat foods available. White beans are low on the glycemic index and also full of folate, thiamine, potassium, magnesium, and iron. They even make a good substitute for potatoes and tofu in recipes.

20. Liver (Chicken or Beef)

  • 1 ounce: 7 grams of protein

Why is eating liver good for you? In many cultures, beef liver, chicken liver and duck liver are considered superfoods due to their very high content of essential nutrients, especially vitamin A, iron, and B vitamins (particularly B12).

Some experts even say that ounce for ounce, liver is probably more nutritious than any other high-protein foods.

Adding liver to your diet, even in small amounts, is a good way to help prevent anemia, support cognitive health, aid in fertility and detoxification, and more.

Related: Are Organ Meats and Offal Healthy to Eat?

21. Cottage Cheese

  • 1 cup: 28 grams of protein

Much like greek yogurt, cottage cheese packs an impressive amount of protein even when eaten in small servings. This high-protein, low-calorie food is also loved by athletes and low-carb dieters because it provides important nutrients like calcium.

Because it’s high in phosphorus, when combined with calcium it can help build strong bones. It also supplies you with B12, B6 and folate, all of which support proper function and development of the brain, nerves, blood cells and more.

22. Pea Protein Powder

  • 33 grams: 24 grams of protein

If you really want to boost your amino acid intake, but don’t want to eat meat or fish, consider adding plant based protein powder to your meals. Pea protein is a high-protein vegetarian food that also provides nutrients like iron and some calcium.

It’s considered one of the best vegan protein powder options for those with allergies because it’s free of soy, dairy and other added ingredients that may cause issues for those with food sensitivities.

23. Sprouted Whole Grain Bread

  • 2 slices: 9 grams of protein

Soaking and sprouting whole grains, such as wheat berries, barley, etc., allows more of their protein to be easily digested. Sprouted breads, such as Ezekiel bread, may also be easier to digest than processed breads, plus they provide more absorbable minerals due to having decreased antinutrient content.

Related: Microbial Protein: A More Sustainable Vegan Protein or All Hype?

8 Health Benefits of Protein

What does protein do to your body? Here are some of the top benefits of a high-protein diet:

1. Boosts Muscle Mass

Including plenty of foods high in protein in your diet is necessary to build and maintain healthy muscle mass, while also supporting tendon, ligaments and other body tissue. While high-protein foods are important for bodybuilding, they are also necessary for developing leaner muscles as well.

When your diet is lacking in amino acids, “muscle wasting” (or muscle atrophy) can take place when your muscle fibers are broken down to support your body’s energy needs.

High-protein foods are especially important after exercise, since physical activity like strength training purposefully damages muscle tissues so they can repair and grow back stronger. For the process to happen effectively, you need some extra protein to help repair the damage.

While protein alone won’t enhance athletic performance, research shows that eating protein benefits performance when eaten before and after exercise. It helps increase muscle recovery, promotes muscle synthesis and serves as effective muscle ache treatment.

2. Helps Manage Your Weight by Filling You Up

Although some research studies show conflicting results regarding high-protein diets versus low-protein diets for maintaining an ideal weight or losing weight fast, there’s plenty evidence that protein helps make you feel full and can prevent overeating.

Studies show that controlled calorie intake in association with a moderately high protein intake can be an effective and practical weight-loss strategy.

Some of the reasons this is true? Protein functions to increase satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrates or fats, helping to prevent overeating and snacking.

It’s usually much easier to overeat carbohydrates, especially if they’re refined or sweetened, than it is to overeat healthy protein foods.

Eating protein also creates a process in the body known as thermogenesis, which requires the body to expend more energy (calories) in order to digest food. At the same time, protein helps ward off muscle loss that can result from a low-calorie diet, which makes certain protein foods beneficial for weight loss.

3. Stabilizes Blood Sugar Levels

Insulin is a hormone that’s required for carbohydrates, fat and protein to be metabolized. However, carbohydrates require much more insulin than fat or protein does.

The major determinate of blood sugar levels is the glycemic index response from the foods you eat, so while eating high-carb and high-sugar foods results in fluctuations in blood sugar levels, eating high-protein foods does the opposite.

Eating foods with protein has a minimal effect on blood glucose levels and can, in fact, slow down the absorption of sugar during a meal. This means a low-carb, high-protein diet can help prevent spikes in blood glucose, which is especially important for preventing type 2 diabetes, balancing energy levels, and keeping your appetite and mood in check.

4. Improves Your Mood

Certain amino acids from high-protein foods are needed to balance hormones naturally, control your mood and act as a natural remedy for anxiety. According to studies, proteins help neurotransmitters function and synthesize hormones like dopamine and serotonin that calm us and keep our outlook positive.

Many people who are lacking in key amino acids start experiencing weakness, moodiness, and increased anxiety or signs of depression for this reason. Because protein helps stabilize glucose in your blood, it also prevents mood changes, irritability and cravings that can occur due to fluctuating blood sugar levels.

5. Promotes Healthy Brain Function and Learning

Proteins are needed to make enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters that are critical for cognitive function. As your mother may have told you when you were a kid, eating a healthy breakfast sets the tone for the day and prepares you to learn and remember information.

The brain requires a steady supply of amino acids in order to keep concentration, focus and energy levels up. Studies show that when amino acid deprivation takes place, learning and coordination suffers, but once all necessary amino acids are reintroduced into the diet, learning and motor skills improve.

6. Helps Maintain Strong Bones

Many studies now show that a positive association exists between eating more foods with protein and better bone health.  The effects of protein on bones also relate to the specific high-protein foods being eaten and intake of important bone-building nutrients like calcium and magnesium.

A diet high in protein from whole, nutrient-rich foods can help heal broken bones and prevent bone weakness, fractures and even osteoporosis by increasing calcium absorption and helping with bone metabolism.

Recent studies in the elderly in the U.S. show that the greatest bone losses occur in people with low protein intake of 16–50 grams per day. It’s believed that when someone eats a low level of protein, insulin-like growth factor production is reduced, which in turn has a negative effect on calcium and phosphate metabolism in the bones and bone formation.

7. Protects Heart Health

Some studies show that an inverse relationship between protein intake and risk of heart disease has been observed in adults, as higher protein diets appear to one of the natural remedies for high blood pressure. Also, substituting carbohydrate foods with protein results in lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

One reason this might be true is because higher protein diets balance blood sugar and tend to help prevent other heart disease-related causes, including obesity and diabetes.

8. Slows Aging and Promotes Longevity

One of the key roles of high-protein foods is helping the body synthesize glutathione, often called the “master antioxidant.” Glutathione is stored within our own cells and helps us detox and reduce carcinogens that age us.

Animal and human studies both show that adequate protein intake is crucial for the maintenance of glutathione and helps the body stay in a state of balanced “homeostasis.”

Glutathione deficiency contributes to oxidative stress, which plays a key role in age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, cancer and viral infections.

Research shows that diets that include enough foods that are high in protein can help to treat muscle loss due to aging (called sarcopenia). A diet that has adequate levels of protein helps slow the aging process by keeping muscle mass intact, supporting strong bones, and maintaining high cognitive and immune function.

In the elderly, amino acid deficiencies can potentially lead to eye problems like cataracts, heart problems, muscle loss, weakness and mood changes.

As you age, your body is less capable of synthesizing amino acids on its own, which is one reason why the amount of muscle you have tends to decrease over the years while fat accumulates. This makes it even more important for you to eat plenty of protein-rich foods to support not only a healthy body weight, but to keep your memory sharp, energy up, and strength and balance in place.

Top eight benefits of high-protein foods - Dr. Axe

Related: Threonine: The Amino Acid Needed for Collagen Production

Protein for Vegans and Vegetarians

You don’t have to eat meat or animal products to follow a high-protein diet. There are actually plenty of plant foods high in protein.

For those of you on a vegetarian or vegan diet, focus on these vegan high-protein foods to increase your consumption:

  • tempeh
  • lentils
  • beans (black beans, lima beans, pinto beans, chickpeas)
  • nuts (almonds, peanuts, pistachios, cashews)
  • nut butter (almond butter, cashew butter, sunflower seed butter)
  • brown rice
  • oats
  • quinoa
  • seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds)
  • leafy greens (spinach, kale)

Related: Halloumi: Why You Should Try This Unique, Protein-Rich Grilling Cheese

How Many Protein Foods Should We Eat Every Day?

We all need a different level of protein based on our exact needs. For example, your body weight, gender, age, and level of activity or exercise all determine how much protein is best for you.

There are also some health conditions that require people to either eat more or less protein-rich foods than the average person. And athletes need to eat even more foods for energy and performance, including plenty of quality protein.

That being said, there are some general protein guidelines that can serve as a good recommendation to aim for each day. According to the USDA, the recommended daily intake of protein for adults who are at an average weight and activity level is:

  • 56 grams per day for men
  • 46 grams per day for women

The amounts above are the minimum amount of protein you should aim for each day, assuming you are otherwise healthy and are moderately active. These amounts are equal to eating about 0.36 grams of protein for every pound that you weigh.

More ideally, take your body weight and multiply that number by 0.5. The result is the amount in grams of protein you should ideally aim to eat each day.

For example, a woman who weighs 150 pounds should aim to eat 75 grams of protein daily, and a man who weighs 180 pounds should shoot for 90 grams.

Overall, start by making about 30 percent of your plate a high-quality source of protein at every meal. This ensures you eat enough throughout the day to meet your needs and prevents you from overeating carbs and junk foods.

It’s best to eat small amounts of protein throughout the day instead of a very large serving only once or twice. This gives your body the right amount of protein it needs at any given time, since only so much can be utilized at once (the rest will be stored as fat or eliminated).

Because your body cannot store protein, eating it throughout the day is the surest way to balance your blood sugar levels, ward off hunger and support your metabolism. This is especially important around the time of exercise when protein-rich pre-workout snacks can go a long way.

Related: Best Pre-Workout Foods (and Best Foods for Athletes)

How to Follow a High-Protein Diet

The general rule that I like to follow for consuming protein is eating 50 percent of your body weight in grams of protein per day. Like I said, that means if you weigh 160 pounds, you should be consuming about 80 grams of protein per day.

If you’re looking to burn fat on a high-protein diet, then you’ll want to consume even more protein, about 70 percent of your body weight. For people weighing 160 pounds, multiply 160 by 0.7, which gives you 112, so consume close to 100 to 115 grams of protein every day to burn fat more easily.

An easy way to wrap your head around consuming enough protein in one day is to divide the amount of grams you want to eat by the number of meals you consume. If you eat three meals every day and you want to consume 80 grams of protein, then that’s about 25 grams of protein per meal.

Now break that down even further — 25 grams of protein is about a three-ounce serving (about the size of a deck of cards) of grass-fed beef, organic chicken or wild-caught salmon. Combine your meat with a serving of beans and you have plenty of protein in your meal already.

Even leafy greens or vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts contain some protein, so adding these vegetables and raw cheese to an omelette is another great way to consume over 25 grams of protein per meal.

And to address your mid-day hunger, there are plenty of high-protein snacks that you can turn to. Examples of protein-rich snacks include black bean hummus, yogurt bites, deviled eggs and even cashew butter chocolate chip cookies.

Which fruit has the most protein? Fruit is generally very low in protein, but if you eat a decent amount of fruit it can add up.

Some of the best options for obtaining protein include guavas, avocados, apricots, kiwifruit, blackberries, oranges, bananas, cantaloupe, raspberries and peaches.

Research shows that a high-protein diet can help you decrease body fat and improve satiety by:

  • increasing the secretion of satiety hormones
  • reducing appetite-stimulating hormones
  • decreasing the need for more food for energy
  • improving glucose homeostasis

Following a high-protein diet can help you preserve lean body mass while losing weight. People on a low-calorie diet sometimes notice that along with body fat, they are losing muscle too.

Luckily, eating high-protein foods can help you to avoid that.

A high-protein diet also creates thermogenesis, a bodily process that requires the body to burn more calories for energy so it can properly digest food. So many diets don’t work because we put ourselves into starvation mode, but a high-protein diet allows you to eat plenty of nutrient-dense, filling foods so you feel full and still lose weight.

Related: What Is Tripe Meat? 4 Reasons to Eat This Offal

Recipes

With such a variety of delicious high-protein foods to choose from, the recipe options are plentiful. You can prepare recipes with one main high-protein ingredient or with a combination of foods that are high in protein.

Here are some healthy recipes containing a good amount of protein, with both meat and meat-free options:

And just to give you a few more options, try some of these protein shake recipes and bone broth recipes, in addition to other high-protein foods.

Risks and Side Effects

Some people are concerned that kidney or liver function can suffer when their diets are too high in protein. However, there isn’t much evidence that a well-rounded diet that has moderate to high levels of high-quality protein will cause problems in otherwise healthy people.

Similarly, as mentioned earlier, protein seems to help with bone and heart health, as opposed to preventing risks for worsened health conditions.

Tha said, eating very high levels of protein is correlated with some health risks in certain instances.

What happens when you eat too much protein? Eating more calories in general than your body can use, whether from protein or another source, will not result in better health and will contribute to weight gain.

Very high protein might also lead to digestive problems like constipation, changes in blood sugar levels, and possibly bacteria and yeast growth in the gut.

Neglecting other nutrients and eating a large amount of protein can also put stress on your organs while they work to balance your body’s pH level (since animal foods can be acidic in nature), plus proteins make your body remove more nitrogen waste products from your blood.

Of course, eating a well-rounded diet that’s varied in terms of foods is important for optimal health. Just like you wouldn’t want to consume large amounts of sodium, you do not want to overcome any food, even high-protein foods.

To sum it up, protein plays a big part in a healthy diet, but quality is key — plus you don’t want to simply load up on high-protein foods all day long without eating enough vegetables, fruit and healthy fats.

Final Thoughts

  • The protein found in foods is used by every part of the body to develop, grow and function properly.
  • Proteins are long chains of amino acids, which are essential molecules for all metabolic processes.
  • When you don’t eat a range of high-protein foods, you become at risk of deficiencies in certain amino acids, which can result in many health issues, including low energy, mood swings, difficulty losing weight, poor sleep, low immunity and unstable blood sugar levels.
  • What foods are high in protein? Some of the best high-protein foods include grass-fed beef, organic chicken, lentils, wild-caught salmon, black beans, natto, eggs, yogurt, goat cheese, almonds and protein powder made from bone broth, whey, peas and hemp seeds.
  • For people who don’t eat animal products, there are plenty of plant-based protein options, including nuts, seeds, beans, leafy greens and grains like quinoa.
  • To follow a high-protein diet, eat 50 percent of your body weight in grams of protein per day. If you’re on a muscle building diet or looking to burn fat, consume about 70 percent of your body weight in grams of protein.
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