15 high-protein foods that could help support your health and weight loss goals
There’s no debate: Our bodies need protein to function. But in recent years, popular weight-loss plans have spotlighted this nutrient as the most important part of your diet. So what’s the deal? While there’s no magic pill for weight loss or overall health, high-protein foods should be an essential component of your daily meals and snacks, explains Jackie London, registered dietitian. “By eating protein consistently throughout your day, you’re automatically making more satisfying food choices that will help you feel energised and stay fuller, longer—which may also help minimise between-meal grazing.” she says.
We asked WW’s nutrition experts to shed more light on why protein is so important, how it relates to weight management, and some of the best sources of protein. Here’s the lowdown on 15 protein-rich foods, plus 42 delicious recipes to try:
The importance of protein-rich foods
Proteins are one of three macronutrients (along with carbohydrates and fats) that our bodies need to work, explains Angela Goscilo, registered dietitian and nutrition manager at WW. “These provide us with energy and serve as building blocks for muscles and tissues,” she adds. Simply put, protein helps power nearly every system in the body—from strengthening bones, muscles, and cartilage to helping cell tissues repair and regenerate.
High-protein foods are so important because they contain essential amino acids that our bodies rely on that we can only get from food. Protein itself is made of 20 amino acids, and while the human body can produce 11 of these on its own, the remaining 9 must come from our diet. Not to mention, many protein-rich foods also contain other key nutrients, such as B group vitamins (like niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and riboflavin), selenium, choline, phosphorus, zinc, copper, vitamin D, vitamin A, and vitamin E, depending on the food.
While our bodies need micronutrients like vitamins and minerals in smaller amounts, protein is something we need in larger quantities. Here’s where things get a little tricky: There’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation on how many grams of protein you should eat. The current recommended dietary intake (RDI) for protein is 0.75 grams per kg of bodyweight for women and 0.84 grams per kg of bodyweight for men. Meaning? A female who weighs 65 kg needs about 49 grams of protein per day. That said, most of us are consuming more protein than our baseline needs, according to London. “So as a dietitian, I’d rather you focus on eating various protein-containing food rather than the nutrient itself,” she adds.
Which foods are high in protein?
When you think of protein-rich foods, you likely picture meat and other animal products. And you’re right! But while red meat, poultry, and eggs are good sources of protein they’re not the only ones.
Plant-based proteins are great additions to any diet—regardless of whether you’re vegan or vegetarian. Research suggests that replacing some animal proteins with plant-based sources could have positive health benefits: A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American College Of Cardiology linked the consumption of a mostly plant-based diet to a 41% lower risk of developing heart failure. Meanwhile, a 2014 meta-analysis of 37 studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked vegetarian, vegan, or semi-vegetarian diets with lower blood pressure.
Most plant-based sources don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids, but there’s a simple solution: eat a variety!
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Australians recommends aiming for 2-3 serves of foods from the protein food group a day, depending on your age. What does that look like?
- 65 grams cooked lean beef or lamb
- 80 grams cooked lean poultry
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup cooked legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas or cannellini beans).
Regardless of your eating style, there are so many delicious (and surprising!) protein-rich foods to add to your diet. Check out some of the best sources of protein:
The best sources of protein
1. Chicken breast
Chicken is a staple in many diets and for good reason! It’s a great source of protein, lower in saturated fat than some red and processed meats, and it packs a nutrient-dense mix of unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. For the leanest cut with the most protein, opt for grilled skinless chicken breast or skinless BBQ chicken breast—one 80 grams serving delivers about roughly 24 grams of protein. You’ll also get key nutrients like selenium (which supports the immune system) and choline, which plays a role in memory, mood, muscle control, and heart health.
Try chicken breasts in these recipes:
2. Beef mince
From burgers to BBQ, beef is a key ingredient in many recipes. When it comes to protein, a 65 gram serve of lean beef mince contains roughly 21 grams. Keep in mind, beef mince and other red meats are often higher in unhealthy saturated fats than other protein sources, London says. “You can still enjoy beef, just aim to add a mix of other lean options (like beans and seafood) to your diet,” she recommends.
Try beef mince in these recipes:
Nutritionally, 100 gram serve of salmon provides approximately 23 grams of protein and is packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in their most bioavailable form (a.k.a. the most useful to your body). Salmon is also a source of potassium, vitamins B6 and B12, and naturally provides vitamins A and D.
Salmon is a great way to help meet your omega-3 fatty acid requirements—enjoy it on your morning bagel, in pasta, baked with veggies, or even as a dip! You can also try experimenting with other fish like cod, snapper, or trout.
Try salmon in these recipes:
Canned tuna is a great source of vitamin D and omega-3’s, and as a shelf-stable lean protein source, it can’t be beat for convenience! A 100 gram serving of tuna in brine, drained has around 26 grams of protein. You’ll also get other key nutrients, including potassium, selenium, and calcium.
Try canned tuna in these recipes:
Prawns are a delicious addition to many dishes and like salmon, are packed with omega-3s and protein. 85 grams of cooked prawns deliver roughly 23 grams of protein. Prawns contain minimal saturated fat per serving, making it a lean source of protein and a heart-healthy option.
Try prawns in these recipes:
While no single food you eat can make or break your health, eggs are considered one of the best sources of protein available, London says. They’re inexpensive, readily-available, nutrient-dense, and super versatile. One large 60 gram egg contains around 8 grams of protein. They’re also rich in choline, vitamins A and B12, and are one of the few foods that are natural sources of vitamin D.
Try eggs in these recipes:
One cup of skim milk provides about 9 grams of protein. Despite being made from protein-rich nuts and seeds, plant-based milks (like almond, soy, or macadamia) have lower protein levels. If you can’t tolerate lactose, lactose-free skim milk provides the same amount of protein as regular skim milk, or soy milk typically has the highest protein content of all plant-based milks at about 9 grams per serving.
Try milk in these recipes:
Cheese is a delicious way to add flavour to nearly any dish, and let’s face it, what doesn’t taste better with a little cheese? The addition can infuse your meals with extra protein and nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and potassium. ⅓ cup of mozzarella delivers around 9 grams of protein, ½ cup of cottage cheese has 19 grams, and, hard cheese like Parmesan has close to 11 grams of protein per 30 gram serving.
Like beef and other red and processed meat, cheese is a source of saturated fat. “The added benefit to full-fat hard cheeses is that they typically have stronger flavours, so you may find yourself using less,” London says. “This means you’ll still get the taste without overloading on saturated fat.”
Try cheese in these recipes:
9. Greek yoghurt
Plain Greek yoghurt is one of the most useful dairy-aisle finds—you can swap it for sour cream in dips or mayo in chicken salad; use it as a baking ingredient; add it to smoothies; or enjoy straight-up with fruit, nuts, or nut butter for a satisfying breakfast or snack.
Unflavoured 99% fat free Greek yoghurt delivers approximately 20 grams of protein per 200g serve. You’ll also hit around 25% of the recommended dietary intake of calcium with each serve.
Try Greek yoghurt in these recipes:
Lentils are part of the powerhouse food group known as pulses—the dry, edible seed of beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas. Pulses aren’t just great sources of plant-based protein: They’re packed with fibre, minerals, and B group vitamins. Nutritionally, 1 cup (200g) serving of cooked lentils provides around 11 grams of protein. Eating lentils (and other pulses) as a part of a healthy pattern of eating has been linked to reducing risk of chronic disease.
Try lentils in these recipes:
Chickpeas are a stellar plant-based, nutrient-packed source of protein and fibre—one cup (175g) of canned, drained chickpeas delivers about 11 grams of protein and 10 grams of fibre. Other nutrient highlights include B group vitamins and soluble fibre, a type of indigestible carbohydrate that helps to slow digestion and absorption in your GI tract and has been associated with reducing risk of heart disease as a part of an overall healthy pattern of eating.
Try chickpeas in these recipes:
While peanuts are most often grouped in with nuts, they’re actually legumes. That explains why they’re a bit higher in protein—a 30 gram serving of peanuts has about 7 grams of protein. For comparison, almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pistachios contain around 5–6 grams of protein per 30 grams. Nut or legume, adding more of these plant-proteins to your diet is always a good idea since they provide healthy fats (in addition to protein and fibre).
What’s more, replacing less nutritious snacks with nuts may help with weight management and has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and certain age-related diseases. In fact, substituting nuts for three servings of meat per week is associated with decreased risk of inflammatory biomarkers, according to a 2016 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Try peanuts in these recipes:
Adding edamame to meals and snacks is a simple way to boost your protein intake since a 75g serve of the shelled soy beans delivers roughly 9 grams of plant-based protein. The filling combo of fibre and protein promotes satiety, making it an excellent choice. Research also suggests that soy protein may help lower LDL cholesterol and is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Tofu is another great soy protein—a 75g serving packs about 9 grams and is low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fats.
Try edamame in these recipes:
14. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds or pepitas are a stellar source of plant-based protein. One 30g serving of pumpkin seeds (about 85 seeds) has roughly 9 grams of protein. Munch on them alone or sprinkle over salads or your morning oats. They’re also a source of key nutrients like iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.
Try pumpkin seeds in these recipes:
15. Hemp seeds
Another small-but-mighty protein source, just 3 tablespoons of hemp seeds provides about 10 grams of plant-based protein. Thanks to their mild flavour, which is similar to pine nuts, you can add them to nearly everything from salads and soups to cereal and smoothies. Despite their name, hemp seeds don’t contain any cannabidiol (CBD) or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). If hemp seeds aren’t for you, sunflower, sesame, and chia seeds are also rich in protein.
High-protein foods and weight loss
High-protein foods can be helpful when it comes to weight loss because of the effect of protein on satiety (how full and satisfied you feel after eating). Research suggests that protein is the most filling macronutrient, followed by carbs and then fat. Plus, the body uses more energy to digest protein: “It takes more work to break protein into smaller amino acids that can be absorbed,” Goscilo explains. However, additional research is needed to determine exactly how this process helps you feel fuller for longer.
Ultimately, there’s no ideal macronutrient profile for weight loss, but eating protein-rich foods may also help preserve muscle mass during your weight loss journey. Muscle is lost on most weight loss programs; however, according to a 2013 study, higher protein intake helps preserve lean body mass. Research also suggests that it may be better for muscle health to consume a moderate amount of protein at each meal throughout the day rather than packing the entire goal amount into one.
Popular high-protein diets
In the average diet of an otherwise healthy person, protein can account for 10–35% of daily energy, according to the US Institute of Medicine. This wide range means there’s conflicting opinions on what exactly constitutes a high-protein diet. However, the upper limit of protein intake is more clear: A 2006 review in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism defines excessive protein intake as anything above 35% of your daily energy, and suggests it could lead to potential health risks like increased insulin levels, digestion issues, and more. The same study suggests that 25% of energy coming from protein might be more optimal for weight loss—without potential risks of overconsumption.
The majority of protein-focused diets are also low-carb, and weight-loss plans touting the benefits of this approach have been around for decades. While the recommended carb amounts differ, they typically call for eating less than 45-65% of daily energy from carbohydrates. Research has found low-carb diets effective for weight loss, but since these plans can be restrictive, people may find them difficult to adhere to long-term.
Here’s the lowdown on other popular high-protein diet plans:
- Ketogenic diet: Also known as “keto,” this program is often grouped in with high-protein diets or low-carb, but it’s actually more of a high-fat diet. The standard ketogenic diet recommends 70% energy come from fat, 20% from protein, and 10% from carbs.
- Paleo diet: This plan takes inspiration from our prehistoric ancestors and relies on foods presumed to be available during the Stone Age. You’ll get protein from lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Fruit, vegetables, and herbs are allowed, but the diet excludes other protein-rich foods like dairy, grains, beans, and legumes.
- Carnivore diet: Like its name suggests, this diet instructs you to eat only animal products. Meat, poultry, eggs, and certain dairy products are permitted, but that’s where the list ends. Unlike the other plans that recommend a lower carb intake, this one (backed by no scientific studies) aims for zero carbs.
How you build your plate on any high-protein diet is critical since some of the more restrictive eating plans could have negative health implications. For instance, opt for protein-rich foods that are too high in fat, and you may experience nausea, diarrhea, and other unpleasant side effects. On the other hand, replace too many nutrient- and fibre-rich foods (like fruit, veggies, and wholegrains) with high-protein ones in an effort to limit carbs and you could deal with constipation or micronutrient deficiencies.
“Any attempt to omit entire food groups or limit intake of a specific food group or category of nutrients comes at the cost of your long-term health,” London says. “An approach to weight-loss that, by design, limits your intake of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet like veggies and fruit can come with adverse physiological and biochemical side effects, which may make losing and maintaining weight even more difficult.”
The bottom line: Are you eating enough high-protein foods?
In this case, the better question might be are you eating enough types of protein-rich foods? After all, according to a 2018 analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, most adults exceed the recommended intake of protein—consuming an average of 88 grams a day. As we said before, there’s no one-size-fits-all recommended protein intake. But for comparison, most women need around 46 grams of protein per day, and men need 56 grams, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Australians. While you may be getting enough of the macronutrient, not all sources are created equal—proteins can be lean or high in saturated fats.
Case in point: The amount of protein in a pork chop and piece of salmon are similar, but the pork has more than three times the saturated fat. Similarly, beef and certain cheeses are typically higher in saturated fat, which can raise bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and have been linked to increased risk of heart disease or stroke. Current guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat intake, but that doesn’t mean you have to revamp your entire eating style. Instead, consider incorporating more healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) found in nuts, seeds, and seafood.
Fats can be part of a healthy pattern of eating, along with various protein sources. It’s all about finding a balance, London says. Try adding more plant-based and lean protein sources into your diet by designating one meatless meal a day, swapping ground beef for turkey or chicken the next time you make chilli, or opting for seafood a couple nights a week. Find inspiration for meat-free meals here.