In our busy lives, it can be easy to fall into bad habits, like ignoring high protein foods. We might be making the effort to insert some exercise into our schedule, but if we’re not paying attention to our nutritional requirements, our athletic endeavors may prove fruitless.
Takeaway or ready-meals offer tempting, quick, and convenient solutions to our food needs when pushed for time—but they may lack the essential elements our body requires to remain healthy and build or maintain muscle.
Protein is one of those essential nutrients—its importance shouldn’t be underestimated. It isn’t just one of the key building blocks for tissue, it can also affect our energy reserves, growth, and the formation of blood cells.
It’s possible to boost protein intake through supplementation with the numerous powders and shakes on the market. But it’s surprisingly simple to obtain more than adequate amounts of this macronutrient from food sources alone.
This article explains exactly what protein is and why we need it. Most importantly, I have included my top 25 high protein foods—enabling you to remain fit and healthy without the need to purchase expensive supplements.
What Is Protein?
Protein is an essential compound for the human body. Scientifically speaking, they’re amino acid chains connected together through peptide bonds.
Required for many physiological processes, proteins can be taken into the body through foods such as meat, eggs, fish, dairy, nuts, and grains.
Why Do We Need Protein?
Without proteins, our bodies cannot function correctly. In extreme circumstances, protein malnutrition can eventually lead to death.
Many amino acids can be synthesized by the human body—that is, a chemical reaction occurs to produce them from molecules in the body.
However, there are nine (arguably eight—there’s debate over histidine) essential amino acids the body cannot create. They have to be ingested through our diet.
A lack of these important amino acids can cause health issues and impair the function of our bodies.
The Benefits of Consuming High Protein Foods
Consuming high protein foods replenishes our stores of this vital macronutrient, providing numerous benefits to the body. Here are a few of its key positive effects.
Helps Tissue Growth and Health
Your body is in a constant state of flux. Tissues are continually being broken down and replaced.
Usually, this is in balance, where the breakdown equals the rebuilding. However, during times of illness, injury, or pregnancy, this can fall out of sync—your body requires more protein than it can synthesize.
Making certain sufficient protein is ingested through food ensures healthy tissue regrowth.
Boosts the Immune System
When your body plays host to unwelcome viruses or bacteria, it responds by creating antibodies (immunoglobulins) which target the illness-causing visitors for destruction.
What’s particularly impressive is that, once identified, the body remembers exactly what antibodies are required to fight a particular bacterium. So should you succumb to the same infection again, it simply pulls the antibody from its “stores” and fights it more efficiently.
Studies have indicated that protein enhances the immune system and is responsible for the production of antibodies. A lack of protein makes you more susceptible to disease and infection. This process, although a little complicated, is very interesting. This video explains the protein-antibody process in a thorough yet understandable way.
When you think of an energy-providing macronutrient, the first group that springs to mind is probably carbohydrates. Yet proteins provide exactly the same amount of energy as carbs (4 calories per gram)—only lipids (fats) provide more at 9 calories per gram.
That being said, carbs are the body’s go-to nutrient for energy requirements. They don’t have such a wide variety of physiological benefits as protein, and they are metabolized much more quickly into energy.
However, during times of fasting, or intense exercise, carbohydrates may not be able to provide an adequate energy supply. That’s when protein steps in to assist. Think of it as an emergency fuel tank.
Enhances Weight Loss
When thinking about shedding the pounds, your first consideration may be to concentrate on the level of fat in your diet. Yet protein has powerful effects on weight loss.
First, it boosts the metabolism. The more protein a portion of food contains, the more thermogenic it is—meaning it raises the internal temperature of the body. This elevates the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which requires fuel—this is found in your fat stores.
Second, it reduces the production of ghrelin—the hunger hormone. This compound stimulates the desire to eat. If you’re not hungry, you’re less likely to overdo it on unnecessary foods.
Third, protein-rich foods create a greater feeling of satiety than those lower in this macronutrient. Therefore, there’s less chance of overeating and reaching for that second portion.
Improves Skin, Hair, Nail, and Tendons
Many proteins, such as elastin, keratin, and collagen, provide structure to your body tissues.
Collagen is essential for strong and flexible tendons while also providing a more elastic and smoother skin. The latter aspect is the reason why it’s used frequently in the beauty industry.
Keratin promotes healthy nails and hair. A lack of it can lead to brittle fingernails and lackluster hair.
Elastin forms the expanding and contracting structure of internal organs such as the kidneys and lungs, allowing them to move as required without damage or rupture.
Improves Nutrient Transport
The muscles, tissues, and organs of the body all require nutrients to function properly, but the nutrients cannot transport themselves.
Proteins act as a delivery system for them, distributing minerals and vitamins to the parts that need them most.
One of the more widely known of these transporting proteins, and probably the most important, is hemoglobin. This compound is responsible for delivering life-supporting oxygen to the body’s cells. Here’s a short video illustrating the function of this protein.
Therefore, eating foods high in protein improves the use of consumed vitamins and minerals.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the recommended protein intake is 56 grams per day for men and 46 grams per day for women, equating to around 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
However, because individual requirements for protein can vary depending on lifestyle, this should be taken purely as a guideline.
Who Needs High Protein Foods?
If you’re employed in an industry that’s very physically demanding, you will need more protein than people who live a more sedentary lifestyle.
In particular, those who are undergoing heavy endurance exercise (running, cycling, or swimming) will require a greater protein intake. Research has indicated that this is required to prevent the loss of lean muscle, which can occur if energy demands are high.
Protein is the building block of muscle. People who are looking to make large muscle gains through resistance exercise require high volumes of protein to fuel this muscle growth.
This is why many bodybuilders supplement with daily protein shakes—they cannot reach their protein targets through food intake alone.
Experts have indicated that the 0.36 grams per pound of body weight are too low for people of more mature years.
It appears that 0.59 grams per pound are more beneficial. This is due to the fact that protein is essential for the high nitrogen balance required as we age. Also, proteins are used less efficiently in the elderly than younger people.
People Recovering from Injury or Illness
Injury and illness place the body under stress, requiring it to repair and rebuild. Some studies indicate that over 0.90 grams of protein per pound of body weight may be required for optimal recovery.
As a guide, here’s a handy protein calculator that takes into account lifestyle, sex, and age.
The Top 25 Tasty High Protein Foods
Here’s my pick for the top 25 high protein foods that actually taste good. All of these can help to ensure adequate levels of protein are ingested—without the need for supplementation. Eating these foods will help to achieve the benefits listed earlier.
All protein values have been taken from the United States Department of Agriculture database and assume a serving of three ounces (unless otherwise stated).
Protein content: 16 grams
An ideal food to consume when looking at overall body health.
Not only high in the all-important protein, it also has a generous amount of omega-3 fatty acids. These compounds can boost the immune system, improve eye function, offset the chance of Alzheimer’s disease, promote a healthy fetus, reduce inflammation, and enhance cardiovascular well-being.
What’s more, salmon contains selenium, vitamin D, and potassium. Due to its high fat content, it’s ideal for those people following a keto diet.
2. Beef (Grass-Fed)
Protein content: 23 grams
An absolute powerhouse of protein, providing nearly half of your daily requirement.
While all beef has excellent protein-providing qualities, cattle fed on grass as opposed to grain have shown to produce healthier polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can lead to improved cardiovascular function and a healthy insulin balance.
Protein content: 17 grams
These edible legume seeds are ideal as a protein source for vegans and vegetarians or for those looking to lower their weekly meat intake.
They have anti-inflammatory properties, can raise HDL (good) cholesterol, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, and reduce blood pressure. This is in addition to the many nutrients they contain, such as fiber, manganese, iron, potassium, and phosphorus.
4. Black Beans
Protein content: 16 grams
Another excellent choice if you don’t wish to consume meat—they’re packed with as much protein as salmon.
Simple to cook and flavor, they are a great choice for those aiming to improve their fiber intake. Not only are they good for digestion and keeping you regular, but they also act as an appetite suppressant.
This is beneficial if you’re trying to drop weight by controlling your food intake yet find yourself hit by cravings throughout the day.
Black beans are also effective energy boosters and mood enhancers and can help to control blood sugar levels.
5. Homemade Bone Broth
Protein content: 19 grams (per cup)
Nothing can beat the fantastic taste of a simply prepared homemade bone broth. It’s also ideal as a winter warmer.
But forgetting about its comfort food properties for a second, when made correctly this soup is a powerful protein provider.
Consuming this broth will provide you with the minerals of magnesium, selenium, and calcium, plus the additional benefits of enhancing the immune system and raising bone and joint health.
Protein content: 20 grams
Containing over a third of your protein requirement in just one breast, chicken is an excellent way to replenish those protein stores—without piling on the fat. Removing the skin makes it a healthier option—only around 1 gram of fat per serving. Hence, it is suitable for those watching their waistlines.
Chicken is B-vitamin rich, which helps to strengthen the eyes, promote a healthy heart, and lower bad cholesterol. Ideally, try to source organic free-range chickens that have had a pleasant life and have not been injected with growth enhancers or antibiotics.
Plus, it’s tied for the fourth highest protein content in our list of high protein foods.
Protein content: 7 grams (per egg)
If you recall from earlier in this article, I indicated that there are nine essential amino acids the body cannot manufacture, and therefore we require them from food intake.
Eggs are masters of providing all of these amino acids, with some studies indicating they have the highest biological count than any other source. It’s generally thought around four grams of protein is located in the yolk, with the remaining three grams contained in the white.
With over 18 vitamins and minerals, they’re a potent source of nutrients, which makes them one of the top high protein foods. Plus, they have been shown to reduce the onset of cardiovascular disease and improve eyesight.
8. Probiotic Yogurt
Protein content: 10 grams
A useful protein provider that can be a quick snack, dessert, or breakfast meal.
While all yogurts contain live cultures, choosing a probiotic type will ensure the body is dosed with healthy bacteria. This can improve digestive tract health, reduce bloating, lift your spirit, and assist with weight loss.
Yogurt is an ideal food to be kept in the fridge for those times you want a quick nutritional fix—preventing you from buying unhealthy takeaway or a bag of chips from the grocery store.
9. Goat Cheese
Protein content: 21 grams
An ideal food on its own or as part of a salad or sprinkled onto hot dishes, such as spaghetti Bolognese.
Unlike cow milk–based products, goat cheese doesn’t contain the A1 casein protein. Instead, it has the A2 version. This makes it easier to digest than cheese sourced from cows. Studies have shown that A1 casein is more likely to increase gut inflammation and trigger symptoms of lactose intolerance than A2.
Furthermore, it’s been suggested goat cheese suppresses the appetite more than cow milk.
Protein content: 10 grams (0.5 cups)
Another handy go-to snack when you’re feeling a little peckish—or as an addition to stews, broths, and curries.
On top of their high protein value, these nuts contain a whole host of antioxidants, are high in vitamin D, and can reduce LDL cholesterol.
Alternatively, if nibbling nuts isn’t your thing, consider using some of the healthier nut spreads on the market. Although, try to steer clear of the often heavily salted peanut butter and look for an almond or cashew base.
11. Cottage Cheese
Protein content: 14 grams (0.5 cups)
A must for any fridge. This food can be added to a salad, eaten on its own, or used as a spread for wholemeal toast or crackers.
With a protein hit of 14 grams in every half cup, it’s a useful way to improve your protein intake without consuming meat. Cottage cheese contains the protein casein, which is very slow to be digested. This means it enables you to feel fuller for longer and provides long-lasting muscle-building effects.
12. Whole Milk
Protein content: 8 grams (per glass)
Unfortunately, many people cannot tolerate milk. Studies have indicated that around 65 percent of the worldwide population has difficulty in digesting this foodstuff, reaching 90 percent in those with an East Asian heritage.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the milk tolerant 35 percent, it’s an excellent source of protein. Add to drinks, soups, cereals, or just enjoy on its own. Additionally, it includes high levels of calcium that promotes bone health and riboflavin (the B2 vitamin), essential for cell function and iron absorption.
Protein content: 3 grams
A super-vegetable that’s almost a meal on its own. Eating broccoli provides high amounts of vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B-6, iron, and magnesium.
While this vegetable does not contain as much protein as many of the other foods in this list, it delivers a hefty dose when compared to its calorie count—and better than most other vegetables.
Hence, a meal combining meat or fish together with broccoli as a side is an ideal way to boost protein intake.
Protein content: 8 grams (per cup)
Despite being originally cultivated over 4,000 years ago in Peru for human consumption, it’s only been in recent years quinoa has gained massive popularity for its ability to function as a superfood.
A relative of spinach, its seeds are harvested for edible use and brimming with nutritional goodness. In addition to its eight grams per cup of protein (including all the essential amino acids), it’s high in B vitamins, fiber, and magnesium.
Containing the flavonoid quercetin, quinoa can reduce inflammation and reduce the risk of cancer.
Finally, unlike seeds from wheat, quinoa is completely gluten free.
15. Ezekiel Bread
Protein content: 5 grams (per slice)
Bread is probably the last thing that springs to mind for high protein foods if you’re following a healthy diet. It’s high in carbs, salt, and gluten.
However, if you do need that bread fix, Ezekiel bread is the answer. Containing no sugar at all, it’s made from a blend of wheat, barley, millet, spelt, lentils, and soybeans. The key is that these ingredients are all allowed to sprout before they are used—which dramatically increases their nutritional content.
Comparatively speaking, Ezekiel bread contains more protein per slice than standard bread—and is an all-around healthier option.
16. Pumpkin Seeds
Protein content: 15 grams
Whether using pumpkin for the traditional jack-o’-lantern or as an ingredient in a tasty pie, the seeds are often neglected and thrown away.
This is a shame, because they form a powerful nutritional snack once roasted. Alternatively, they can be purchased preroasted from most grocery and health food stores.
Sprinkle them on salads as a side to your main meal or just use them as a convenient snack when the hunger pangs begin to bite.
With five grams of protein per ounce, they can be an invaluable way of achieving your protein intake goals. Furthermore, these seeds are high in fiber, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron. Experts have shown that these powerful pellets of protein can also reduce LDL cholesterol.
17. Brussels Sprouts
Protein content: 4 grams (per cup)
Like broccoli, Brussels sprouts are an excellent way to boost protein intake through vegetables.
Ideally, they should be steamed and allowed to retain their crunchy texture—boiling can destroy some of the excellent nutrients contained within. On top of their 4 grams per cup of protein, they’re high in calcium, iron, potassium, and phosphorus.
In addition to the many nutritional benefits, research has also indicated that they can help to stabilize blood sugar levels.
18. Tuna – Top of Our High Protein Foods List
Protein content: 25 grams
Like salmon, tuna is extremely high in protein. However, ensure you purchase a fish from sustainable sources—pole caught is considered the ideal.
Tuna contains selenium, a proven antioxidant able to reduce the chance of developing cardiovascular disease and cancer.
In addition, it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and vitamin D. Try to avoid the canned varieties and instead look for fresh tuna. Steaming or grilling are the healthiest methods of preparation.
19. Corned Beef (Canned)
Protein content: 20 grams
Sometimes you just don’t have the time or inclination to prepare a meal, yet you know you need that satisfaction only meat can provide. Corned beef could be the answer.
Often considered a St. Patrick’s Day food, it’s a versatile meat that can be eaten cold, stewed, added to a salad. or made into a hash. Canned versions contain only slightly less (20 grams) protein than their fresh counterparts (24 grams). That makes it an excellent fast meat source to have with vegetables.
What’s more, it’s high in iron. However, use this food as a treat not a staple. It contains quite generous amounts of fat and salt—so go easy.
Protein content: 21 grams
If you’re looking to add a little kick to your dishes, as well as ensuring your protein intake is catered for, chorizo can provide the answer.
This Spanish cured pork sausage is excellent sliced on its own or added to scrambled eggs, pizza, or broths, providing a salty, spicy, smoky flavor. Its 21 grams per three-ounce content puts it up there with the best of the other meats—while adding a little Mediterranean flair.
Be careful—some chorizo can be high in fat. Look for those that indicate on the label they have a low-fat content or examine the sausage for signs of excess fat marbling.
Chorizo contains generous amounts of iron, magnesium, and vitamin D, the latter making it ideal for people who don’t venture into the sunshine as much as they should.
21. Roast Turkey Breast
Protein content: 19 grams
You don’t have to wait until the fourth Thursday in November every year to enjoy the protein-rich roasted turkey. In fact, purchasing this tasty bird outside of the Thanksgiving period can often prove a cheaper alternative to chicken (per pound of weight).
As with chicken, I recommend that you remove the skin, particularly if watching your fat intake. Try to buy a fresh turkey, not the deli-sliced type that can often include added water, salt, sugar, or flavorings.
Turkey is a good source of niacin, which can lower cholesterol, relieve the symptoms of arthritis, and enhance mental function.
22. Tofu (Bean Curd)
Protein content: 13 grams
Tofu can work as an excellent meat alternative—making it ideal for vegans and vegetarians. Formed from the curds of soy milk, it has been a staple food in China for over 2,000 years, despite many people considering it a modern invention.
With 13 grams of protein but only around two percent fat, it’s a good choice for people watching their weight. However, it’s a food that requires some flavoring, marinade, or sauce, as it can be a little bland otherwise. That being said, once consumed, it’s an excellent filler, leading to feelings of satiety very quickly.
It’s been shown to alleviate blood vessel inflammation, lower heart attack risk, and reduce the risk of breast cancer.
23. Green Peas (Frozen)
Protein content: 7 grams (per cup)
A handy ingredient that can be kept in the freezer and takes just minutes to cook—making it a useful convenience vegetable (although technically speaking, it’s a legume like peanuts and beans).
Interestingly, in many cases, frozen peas have proven to retain more of their important nutrients than the fresh variety.
Use them as a side or add to soups, curries, stir-fries, and stews for an extra protein kick. In addition to their protein content, peas contain other beneficial nutrients, including numerous antioxidants.
Their high fiber content will also assist with digestion and lead to a feeling of fullness.
Protein content: 15 grams
This meat substitute, made from the fungus Fusarium venenatum, provides 15 grams of protein.
The standard product is suitable for vegetarians—though for vegans there is a specific type that uses potato protein to bind the formulation, as opposed to egg albumin.
There is evidence indicating that it lowers cholesterol levels, gives a feeling of greater satiety than that provided by chicken, and can provide a dietary form of treatment for diabetes.
25. Cheddar Cheese – Top of Our High Protein Foods List
Protein content: 25 grams
A cheese packed full of protein. Although there are some with a higher content (Parmesan, for example, has 32 grams)—it’s one of the more versatile cheeses and easiest to eat.
Consume on crackers or wholemeal toast, grate onto your favorite chili, or mix into soups.
Furthermore, it’s an excellent source of calcium, promoting healthy bones and teeth and regulating blood pressure.
Can You Eat Too Many High Protein Foods?
Consuming anything to an extreme is assumed to be harmful for our health. We are often warned about watching our intake of fats, carbohydrates, alcohol, and sugar.
There’s been increasing speculation that consuming excess amounts of protein is equally as bad as those groups mentioned above—but there’s little evidence for this.
If you consume more protein than you require, the surplus is extracted through the kidneys and expelled through the urine. While, naturally, this will make them work a little harder, it’s been shown to make no difference to their overall health.
The only exception to this is in men and women who are already suffering from advanced kidney disease. In these circumstances where kidney function is impaired, it would be wise to consult with a health practitioner before embarking on a high-protein diet.
Elevated protein ingestion has also been suggested as a factor behind the onset of osteoporosis. The theory is that protein may increase the acidity of the body, with calcium then dispersing from the bones to neutralize the acid.
However, extensive research in 2017 illustrated that, instead of causing damage to the bones, high protein intake actually improved bone condition.
The bottom line is this. Protein is good for you—you should be more concerned that you’re consuming too little rather than too much.
High Protein Foods Summary
Protein is a powerful macronutrient essential for many of the body’s most important processes, including:
- Building muscle
- Repairing tissues
- Promoting fat loss
- Boosting the immune system
- Providing a backup energy reserve
- Strengthening bones, tendons, ligaments, hair, skin, and nails
- Transporting essential nutrients throughout the body
- Enhancing injury recovery
In the 21st century, we lead busy lives, and our nutritional requirements can often be forgotten, leading us to take a quick fast-food fix that doesn’t deliver the important compounds we need for our health.
However, as illustrated in this article, the best high protein foods are easy to obtain, tasty, and often take just a few minutes to prepare.
Unless you’re a bodybuilder looking to make superhuman muscle gains, all your protein requirements can be easily met through your diet.