Protein is an essential part of any diet, but getting enough of this important nutrient can be challenging. Fortunately, there are plenty of protein-rich foods to choose from to keep your meals exciting, filling, and delicious.
The amino acids that make up protein “do so much in our bodies,” Caroline Susie, a registered dietitian in Dallas, Texas, and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells TODAY.com.
They repair muscle and tissue and help build muscle, bone and cartilage, says Susie. “In addition to that, (protein) also drives a number of metabolic reactions and helps our immune system,” he says.
“Protein is a macronutrient, which means we need fairly large amounts to maintain health,” Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, tells TODAY.com.
If you don’t get enough protein in your diet, you may notice frequent muscle fatigue, difficulty building muscle, weak and brittle nails, or dry and dull hair, Zumpano says.
And you may find yourself hungry often. “Protein is really satisfying,” Zumpano explains. So if you find yourself hungry even though you’re eating enough calories, it could be a sign that you need more protein in your meals.
How much protein should you eat?
The right amount of protein to eat per day depends on your age, weight, gender and activity level, experts say, so protein needs can vary greatly from person to person.
With the rise of trendy paleo and keto-style diets, people tend to be more aware of their need for protein compared to the days when low-fat diets were more popular, Zumpano says. “But most people don’t know how much protein they need, and they don’t know how much they’re taking in,” she adds.
A good place to start is with the recommended amount of protein, which is 0.8 grams of protein per day per kilogram of body weight, says Susie. In older adults, it increases to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. “It’s a minimum, a basic requirement,” he explains.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, actively trying to gain muscle, or have other health concerns (such as osteoporosis), your protein intake should increase. A registered dietitian can give you specific recommendations for your unique circumstances, experts say.
According to Zumpano, most people he works with need 1 to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.
Another way to think about it, Zumpano says, is to aim for 20 to 40 grams of protein at each meal. “And make sure that if you have a few 20-gram meals, that you have a 40-gram meal and then a few 10-gram snacks,” she adds. This also helps to spread your protein intake throughout the day instead of trying to get it all at once.
The best protein foods
In general, the best protein-rich foods include lean meats and fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds, experts say.
Poultry, especially lean chicken breast, is a great source of protein. A 4-ounce serving of skinless, boneless chicken breast contains 26 grams of protein, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is versatile enough to use in a wide variety of dishes, from salads and pasta dishes to simple roast sheet pan meals. .
Like chicken breast, turkey breast is high in protein. But you can also try using lean ground turkey in meatballs, pasta sauces, taco fillings, and stir-fries.
Easily grilled, pan-fried or eaten raw in sushi, salmon is a great protein-rich fish option. According to the USDA, a 3-ounce serving of salmon has about 17 grams of protein.
Tuna is another protein-rich fish that can be cooked in many ways. Try searing fresh tuna fillets with pesto couscous for a light but filling meal. Or use canned tuna in a salad or sandwich. A 3-ounce tuna steak contains 24 grams of protein, and a can of light tuna contains about 16 grams of protein.
Lean beef includes certain cuts of beef, such as round sirloin and sirloin, the Mayo Clinic says. And the category also includes lean ground beef that can be used in meatballs, stuffed peppers, burgers, lasagna and more. A 3.5-ounce serving of 90% lean beef has about 18 grams of protein.
A cup of Greek yogurt gives you about 10 grams of protein, Susie says, while a standard single-serve container can have up to 15 grams. It’s an apparently easy choice for breakfast, topped with nutrient-dense berries, seeds and nuts. Try blending it into a smoothie or freezing it in a slab for a frozen yogurt crust.
If you’re looking for plant-based sources of protein, tempeh is a great option, Zumpano says, with a whopping 31 grams of protein per cup.
This versatile food is made from fermented soybeans shaped into a cake-like block. It has a subtle nutty flavor, a slightly chewy texture and can be cooked in almost any sauce for a tasty meal.
Once again a trendy food, cottage cheese contains plenty of health benefits. Just half a cup of low-fat cottage cheese gives you 12 grams of filling protein. And like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese can be added to other healthy ingredients for breakfast or a snack, or mixed with other foods like eggs for added protein.
When looking for protein-rich foods, people tend to go straight to meat and dairy, Zumpano says, not forgetting plant-based foods like beans, legumes and lentils.
Three-quarters of a cup of cooked black beans provides about 10 grams of protein, says Susie. “It can be added to a salad, served as a side, or mixed with meat when you make tacos,” he says. As a bonus, beans are also high in fiber, which is great for gut and heart health.
I’m just a big fan of eggs, says Susie. They are very versatile. Whether it’s scrambled eggs or hard-boiled eggs, they’re a great option. One large egg contains about 6 grams of protein.
Lentils have many nutritional benefits. Just one cup of cooked lentils provides nearly 18 grams of protein and more than 15 grams of fiber, according to the USDA. They’re a great addition to soups and stews, and warm lentils can be the base of a rich, protein-rich bowl topped with veggies and your choice of egg, cheese, and meat or tofu.
Legumes like chickpeas are another excellent plant-based source of protein, experts say. In one cup of chickpeas, you’ll find about 14 grams of protein and more than 12 grams of fiber, the USDA says.
Chickpeas are a great addition to a salad, or you can try roasting them with your favorite spices for a crunchy protein-rich snack.
Nuts and nut butter are both good sources of protein and healthy, filling fats. Peanuts, which are technically a legume, provide 12 grams of protein per cup. And 2 tablespoons of peanut butter gives you about 7 grams of protein. This makes both easy options for a healthy protein boost.
Flaxseeds are probably the most popular protein-rich seed, says Susie, with 2 grams per tablespoon. They can be easily sprinkled on top of yogurt with granola or mixed into a protein and fruit smoothie. But if you like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds, that’s great, she says.
If you’re looking for protein-rich nuts, almonds are an obvious choice. Just one ounce of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, 14 grams of fat, and 6 grams of fiber, all of which make these crunchy nuts a particularly satisfying and nutritious snack.
Pistachios (6 grams of protein per ounce) and walnuts (4 grams of protein per ounce) are also good options to include in your protein- and fiber-rich homemade trail mix.
Seitan, another meat-free protein source, is made from wheat gluten, Zumpano explains. You can even make it yourself at home using water and flour.
It has a fibrous texture that can be pulled apart, making it similar to shredded chicken or pork, and a 2-ounce serving of seitan contains about 17 grams of protein.
Perhaps the most well-known protein-rich meat alternative, tofu is made from fermented soybeans. And depending on the tofu texture you choose, it can be fried, fried, mixed into soup, or turned into a sweet pudding.
Adding chia seeds to your morning yogurt or lunch salad bowl is an easy way to increase the protein and fiber content. Or try making chia pudding overnight in the fridge, mixed with peanut butter and topped with fresh fruit. An ounce of chia seeds gives you nearly 5 grams of protein and nearly 10 grams of filling fiber.
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