Protein Foods

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

Protein Goal

Since most MyNetDiary members are trying to lose weight and/or manage their prediabetes or diabetes, MyNetDiary uses a macronutrient distribution to encourage intake of healthy fats and protein while controlling carb intake. The goals are within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for fat, carbohydrates, and protein developed by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. These ranges support intake of essential nutrients while also limiting risk of chronic diseases.

Macronutrient Acceptable Range* MyNetDiary Goal
Fat 20—35% of calories 35% of calories
Carbohydrate 45—65% of calories 45% of calories
Protein 10—35% of calories 20% of calories

* See Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges in DRI tables

If you follow an eating pattern that requires a different macronutrient distribution range, then simply customize your macronutrient goals.

You can customize your macronutrient goals on any device with a Premium membership. You can also customize your goals if you use the standalone Diabetes Tracker application.

MyNetDiary’s recommended intake for protein is 20% total calories, which is within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range of 10% - 35% of total calories. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein (using a standard reference weight for each) is 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men. Ideally, aim for at least 60 grams of protein per day while on a reduced calories intake. Adequate protein intake plus a weight resistance program will help preserve muscle as you lose weight.

If you are an athlete, then your protein requirements are likely higher, especially if you are also following a reduced calories intake. You can read the Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance for more detailed information about protein and other nutrients. The intake goal for athletes is typically between 1.2 g - 2.0 g per kg of body weight. That is about 0.5 g - 0.9 g per lb of body weight.

Protein Basics

Protein is found in both plants and animals. Animal sources of protein (meat, fish, poultry, game, and dairy) are complete. That is, they provide all essential amino acids needed to build proteins. Some animal proteins are also high in calories due to fat content. Choose types that are lean or trim excess fat and avoid deep-fat frying. Cold water fish and seafood are excellent choices for protein since they also contain heart healthy omega-3 fats.

Plant sources of protein are also good sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. However, they are low in one or more essential amino acids that make up a complete protein. Eating a variety of plant proteins throughout the day will insure that enough of each essential amino acid is consumed. Also, eating even small amounts of animal protein along with plant proteins makes it a complete protein.

Some plants are particularly high in protein, such as dried beans and peas (legumes), nuts, seeds, grains and grain products. Contrary to popular belief, no single source of plant protein is complete, not even quinoa. But even if you are vegan, this is not an issue if you simply eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day.

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.

Plant sources of protein are typically high in either carbs (legumes, grains) or fats (nuts and seeds). If you are vegan and trying to lose weight, then plan your choices so that you stay within your calories budget. If you have diabetes and/or you are trying to control carb intake, then plan your choices so that you stay within your carb budget for meals. You might find you can tolerate more carbs per meal using legumes given their high fiber content. Check your blood glucose before and two hours after your meal to see how you respond. For more tips on managing your diabetes, read Diabetes Basics.

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 provide the most amount of protein for the least number of calories.

Food: Skinless chicken breast, grilled 3, oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.20
Protein: 26 g
Calories: 128
Vitamins & Minerals: Vitamin B6, niacin, selenium, phosphorus

Food: Seitan, 3 oz

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.20
Protein: 18 g
Calories: 90
Vitamins & Minerals: Iron

Food: Tilapia, cooked, 3 oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.20
Protein: 22 g
Calories: 109
Vitamins & Minerals: Selenium, vitamin B12, niacin, phosphorus, vitamin D

Food: Egg whites only, ⅔ cup (164g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.20
Protein: 18 g
Calories: 89
Vitamins & Minerals: Selenium, riboflavin

Food: Plain Greek-style yogurt, nonfat, 5.2 oz (150g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.19
Protein: 15 g
Calories: 80
Vitamins & Minerals: Vitamin B12, riboflavin, phosphorus, selenium

Food: Clams, 3 oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.17
Protein: 22 g
Calories: 126
Vitamins & Minerals: Vitamin B12, selenium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin A

Food: Salmon, wild Coho, cooked, 3 oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.17
Protein: 20 g
Calories: 118
Vitamins & Minerals: Selenium, vitamins B12, D, and B6, niacin, selenium, phosphorus

Food: Beef, bottom round, trimmed, cooked, 3 oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.17
Protein: 24 g
Calories: 144
Vitamins & Minerals: Selenium, zinc, vitamins B12 and B6, niacin, iron, phosphorus

Food: Pork, tenderloin, lean, cooked, 3 oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.16
Protein: 26 g
Calories: 159
Vitamins & Minerals: Selenium, thiamin, phosphorus, vitamin B12 and B6, riboflavin

Food: Cottage Cheese, 2%, ½ cup (113g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.14
Protein: 13 g
Calories: 90
Vitamins & Minerals: Phosphorus, vitamin B12, riboflavin, selenium

Food: Soy burger (Morningstar Farms Grillers Original), 1 burger (64g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.11
Protein: 15 g
Calories: 130
Vitamins & Minerals: Thiamin, vitamin B12, niacin

Food: Hamburger, ground 80/20, cooked
3 oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.10
Protein: 22 g
Calories: 213
Vitamins & Minerals: Vitamin B12, zinc,selenium, niacin, iron, phosphorus

Food: Milk, nonfat (skim), 1 cup (245g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.10
Protein: 8 g
Calories: 83
Vitamins & Minerals: Vitamins B12, A, and D, riboflavin, phosphorus, calcium

Food: Tofu, extra firm, 3 oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.10
Protein: 8 g
Calories: 77
Vitamins & Minerals: Selenium, iron, and calcium

Food: Tempeh, cooked
3 oz (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.09
Protein: 15 g
Calories: 167
Vitamins & Minerals: Manganese, copper, phosphorus, riboflavin, magnesium

Food: Egg, hard boiled, 1 large

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.08
Protein: 6 g
Calories: 78
Vitamins & Minerals: Selenium, vitamin B12, riboflavin

Food: Lentils, cooked, ½ cup (100g)1 oz hulled

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.08
Protein: 9 g
Calories: 115
Vitamins & Minerals: Folate, manganese, copper, phosphorus, iron, and fiber

Food: Soy milk, plain, fortified, 1 cup (240 ml)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.08
Protein: 7 g
Calories: 90
Vitamins & Minerals: Riboflavin, thiamin, vitamins A, B12, and D, calcium, copper

Food: Dried beans/peas, variety average, cooked, ½ cup (112g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.07
Protein: 7 g
Calories: 105
Vitamins & Minerals: Fiber, folate, manganese, copper, iron

Food: Pumpkin seeds toasted, hulled, 1 oz (28g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.06
Protein: 9 g
Calories: 163
Vitamins & Minerals: Manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, iron

Food: Almonds, 1 oz (28g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.04
Protein: 6 g
Calories: 162
Vitamins & Minerals: Vitamin E, manganese, copper, riboflavin, magnesium

Food: Sesame Seeds toasted, 1 oz (28g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.03
Protein: 5 g
Calories: 160
Vitamins & Minerals: Copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, calcium, thiamin

Food: Hummus (chickpea and sesame paste), ⅓ cup (85g)

Protein Grams / Calorie: 0.03
Protein: 4 g
Calories: 145
Vitamins & Minerals: Manganese, vitamin B6, copper

Sample Day

Getting enough protein should not be a problem for either meat eaters or vegans. Here’s a sample day’s intake of protein foods that provides at least 60 grams:

Meat Eater Vegan
1 hard boiled egg (6g)
1 container fruit Greek yogurt (13g)
3 oz chicken breast (26g)
3 oz salmon (20g)
1 cup cooked steel cut oats (7g)
1 cup soy milk (7g)
3 oz extra firm tofu (8g)
⅓ cup cooked quinoa (3g)
1 tbsp pumpkin seeds (4g)
½ c chickpeas (7g)
2 corn tortillas (3g)
1/3 cup black beans (5g)
3 oz seitan (18g)

Parting Thoughts

  • To help reduce hunger between meals and support muscle mass during weight loss, aim for 20g of protein at each meal or 60g or more daily.
  • 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.
  • Protein bars are generally not necessary and they add extra calories, fat, sugar, and sodium to the diet. Consider low carb protein powders or shakes if you need a protein supplement.
  • 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 these posts on vegetarian eating at MyNetDiary and the comprehensive position paper on vegetarian diets, written by vegetarians at the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

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

Last Updated on May 14, 2018

Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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