Protein Foods

Wondering how to add protein to your diet without getting too many calories or too much saturated fat? Fear not! There are plenty of healthful protein sources that can fit into your eating plan.

Protein Basics

Protein is found in varying amounts in almost all plant and animal foods. Animal sources of protein (meat, fish, poultry, game, and dairy) are complete - that is, they provide all the essential amino acids needed for protein building in the human body. Unfortunately, animal proteins can also be high in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Choose those that are lean or nonfat and prepare by roasting, grilling, sautéing, braising, or steaming rather than deep-fat frying. Cold water fish and seafood are excellent choices for protein since they also contain heart healthy omega-3 fats - just don’t ruin the nutrient profile by deep-fat frying.

Plant sources of protein are loaded with dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals, but they are generally less digestible and low in one or more amino acids that make up a complete protein for humans. Eating a variety of high protein plant foods throughout the day will insure that enough of each essential amino acid is consumed. Some plants are particularly high in protein, such as dried beans and peas (legumes ), nuts, seeds, and grains such as wheat (spelt, Seitan) , millet, corn, oatmeal, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, teff , and wild rice.

Soy products (tofu, soy milk, veggie burgers, and tempeh) are highly digestible and provide a greater concentration of protein in smaller serving sizes than plain soybeans and other legumes. They can be extremely helpful in meeting protein requirements for vegans with small appetites.

Protein for the Calories

Take a look at the chart below for foods ranked by protein content per calorie. Foods higher up on the list are those that provide the most amount of protein for the least number of calories.

Protein Grams / Calorie Food Protein Calories Good Sources of Other Nutrients
0.22 Chicken, skinless breast
3 oz cooked
20 g 90 Niacin, selenium, B6
0.20 Seitan
3 oz
18 g 90 Iron (fortified), Alert: high in sodium
0.19 Boca Meatless Burger Original Vegan
1 patty (2.5oz)
13 g 70 Dietary fiber, iron (fortified)
0.17 Clams 22 g 126 Iron, zinc, potassium, copper, selenium, B12
0.17 Cottage cheese, 1%
½ cup
14 g 81 B12, Alert: high sodium
0.17 Salmon, wild Coho
3 oz cooked
20 g 118 Omega-3 fats, potassium, selenium, B12, Vitamin D, niacin
0.14 Roast beef, lean
3 oz cooked
23 g 159 Iron, zinc, B12
0.11 Cheese, low fat string
1 stick
8 g 70 Calcium, B12
0.11 Oysters 16 g 140 Zinc, iron, copper, selenium, B12
0.10 Skim milk
1 cup
8 g 83 Calcium, potassium, riboflavin, B12, Vitamins A & D (fortified)
0.10 Tofu, firm
3 oz
8 g 75 Iron and calcium depending upon brand
0.09 Tempeh
3 oz cooked
15 g 167 Potassium, dietary fiber, calcium (if fortified), iron (if fortified)
0.08 Egg, hard boiled
1 large
6 g 78 B12, Alert: high cholesterol
0.08 Lentils
½ cup cooked
9 g 115 Dietary fiber, iron, zinc, potassium, folate, magnesium
0.08 Soy milk, plain 1 cup 7 g 90 Fortified to match cow’s milk: calcium, potassium, riboflavin, B12, Vitamins A & D
0.06 Dried beans/peas, variety average
½ cup cooked
8 g 125 Dietary fiber, iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium
0.06 Pumpkin seeds toasted
1 oz hulled
9 g 148 Dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, zinc
0.05 Hummus (chickpea and sesame paste)
¼ cup
5 g 102 Dietary fiber, iron, folate
0.04 Almonds
1 oz (22 nuts)
6 g 170 Dietary fiber, Alpha Linoleic Acid (essential omega-3 fat), magnesium, Vitamin E
0.03 Sesame Seeds toasted
1 oz (2 tbsp)
5 g 160 Dietary fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium
0.03 Sunflower seeds toasted
1 oz hulled
5 g 165 Dietary fiber, Linoleic acid (essential fat), zinc, folate, Vitamin E

Protein Requirements

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg body weight (0.4 g/lb) for adults. Based on the RDA, a 200 lb (91 kg) person would need about 73 grams of protein. Aim to meet your RDA with mostly complete proteins.

Many of us eat more than our RDA for protein, which is safe for most of us. The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for protein is between 10% - 35% of total calories. MyNetDiary’s Personalized Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is set at 20% of total maintenance calories. If you customize your calories and nutrients, then be sure to at least meet your RDA level for protein and not go below it. Please read, “Customizing Your Nutrient Goals” for more help.

Sample day intake of protein foods to meet 70 gram goal:

Meat Eater Vegan
½ cup egg beaters (12g)
1 container yogurt (7g)
2 cups skim milk (16g)
2 tbsp peanut butter (8g)
2 slices bread (8g)
3 oz salmon (20g)
1cup Kashi Go Lean (10g)
2 cups soy milk(14g)
1c cooked cous cous (9g)
½ c chickpeas (6g)
½ c kidney beans (7g)
Morningstar Garden Veggie Patty (10g)
1 cup lentil soup (8g)
1 cup cooked brown rice (5g)

Parting Thoughts

  • To help reduce hunger between meals and for best protein utilization, eat good quality protein at each meal.
  • Treat nuts and seeds as healthy fats rather than a significant protein source if you are trying to lose weight.
  • Getting more than the RDA for protein is generally safe for healthy people but choose foods that are lower in saturated fat, cholesterol, calories, and sodium.
  • Protein bars and powders are generally not necessary and they add extra calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium to the diet.
  • Complete proteins and adequate calories are both necessary for good protein nutritional status.
  • For a great reference on protein, see the DRI online chapter
  • Vegans: for more help on protein and other nutrients, read my article on vegetarian eating.

If you have questions about the material covered in this article, please be sure to post them in Community Forum.

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE
Disclaimer: Please note that we cannot provide personalized advice and that the information provided does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit a medical professional.

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