If you’re reading this, chances are you’re looking to amp up the amount of high-protein foods in your diet and pack on that muscle.
“Protein is the building block for bones, skin, cartilage, and muscles, so it’s critical for muscle growth and development. It’s also necessary for repairing tissues, keeping cells healthy, helping to form new cells and for making antibodies to fight off illnesses,” said Lyssie Lakatos, R.D.N. and Tammy Lakatos Shames, R.D.N., The Nutrition Twins and founders of The 21-Day Body Reboot. “Protein is also important for hormone regulation and for creating digestive enzymes and red blood cells use protein to carry oxygen throughout your body.”
But what exactly can a diet composed of high-protein foods coupled with low-fat fare do for your health? As it turns out, quite a bit. “A high protein-low fat diet can help to keep blood sugar and energy levels stable, keep you feeling satisfied, and prevent energy crashes that make you crave a quick-me-up (sugar!),” said Lakatos and Shames, adding that so long as you include ample vegetables, some fruit, a modest amount of fiber-filled, wholesome carbohydrates, and some good-for-you-fat with a high-protein, low-fat diet, it can be a sustainable, healthy diet that can help you to stay lean and protect against chronic disease. “And by choosing low-fat protein sources such as fish, low-fat dairy, poultry breast, pulses (beans) and tofu, you’ll be steering away from high calorie, fatty protein sources like fatty meats, that typically come with saturated fat and that raise cholesterol, increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and obesity,” they say.
As with all diets, there are various considerations people should keep in mind when adopting a high-protein, low-fat diet. A healthy high-protein diet is more than just focusing on getting lean protein, emphasize Lakatos and Shames. “Consuming adequate amounts of veggies (and some fruit) is critical for disease fighting nutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory benefits and for helping to boost fiber,” they offer, adding that even when adopting a low-fat diet, small amounts of healthy fat sources, such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados, are key for providing satiety, as well as acting as a nutrient booster to help absorb the nutrients from produce. Fats also serve a role in hormone production. “Many people think that a high-protein diet needs to omit carbs, but wholesome carbohydrates such as oats, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, and beans, etc., should be included in modest portions to make the eating plan sustainable and to help to protect against heart disease, diabetes and cancer, while also helping to stave off cravings for simple carbs and assisting in preventing constipation,” they say.
If you’re looking to reduce your fat consumption and eat more protein, these are some of the best foods you can eat to give your body the nutrients it needs—and avoid those it doesn’t.
Kefir is a fermented dairy beverage that’s like drinkable yogurt, and it’s surprisingly high in protein and low in fat, containing 11 grams of protein per cup and 0 grams of fat. Plus, “as with other dairy foods, Kefir is high in calcium giving you the bone health benefits,” says Ashley Holmes Roth, M.S., R.D.N. Add in some non-fat milk for an even more protein-packed smoothie, along with your favorite fruit and some greens, like kale or spinach, she says.
Salmon is good, but it’s time to give snapper a shot. Snapper is a leaner fish, making it a good low-fat, high-protein option. “Snapper has 22 grams of protein and 1.5 grams of fat per 3 oz serving, and it’s also high in selenium,” an antioxidant that fights inflammation in the body, says Roth.
This fish has 20 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of fat per 3 oz. serving. “A serving of Mahi Mahi will also get you the total selenium you need for an entire day,” Roth says. Its firmer texture makes it versatile too. You can bake, sear, grill, or roast it.
“Turkey contains 20 grams of protein per 3 oz serving. It’s a versatile, lean source of animal protein, meaning it contains all essential amino acids, and it brings all the benefits of many B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12),” Roth says. “Turkey is also a great source for phosphorus, which is important for bone health.” Use it as a substitute for ground beef in a burger or meatballs, or bake or roast it with lemon and herbs, like rosemary or sage.
Shellfish can also be a low-fat, high-protein option. Shrimp, for instance, has 20 grams of protein per 3 oz. cooked and only 0.3 g of fat. “It’s basically pure protein and low in calories (a 3-oz serving is about 80 calories),” says Maggie Moon, MS, R.D.“My favorite shortcut is buying fresh shell-on shrimp that has already been de-veined by the grocery store. It saves a ton of time and fresh shrimp cooks quickly since you skip the defrost wait time.”
No surprises here. Chicken breast offers 27 grams of protein per 3 oz. cooked and only 3 grams of fat. Sick of eating grilled? It tastes great smoked too.
A six-ounce serving contains 17 grams of protein. “Greek yogurt also provides calcium for bone health and potassium for healthy muscles,” Moon says. Use Greek yogurt as a swap for sour cream and mayonnaise, or as a base for salad dressings and dips.
Lentils are a great low-fat source of protein—and they’re good for vegans, too. “One cup cooked has 18 grams of protein and 0.8 grams of fat. Not only are lentils full of protein, but they have loads of iron, folate, and fiber,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, R.D.
While Lakatos and Shames note that tofu is a fantastic way to get plant protein, they say you can step it up by choosing sprouted tofu. “Sprouted tofu tastes the same, but it’s made from sprouted soybeans (versus cooked soybeans),” they say. “Sprouted soybeans boost the protein content as well as the nutrients and anti-inflammatory components, making them easier to digest and absorb.” As Lakatos and Shames point out, sprouted tofu has more fiber, protein (10 grams of protein per three ounces), and calcium and slightly more calories than regular tofu. Also, we’ll home in on a pea protein powder vs. protein powder
Low-fat cottage cheese
A half cup contains 13 grams of protein for 1 gram of fat and 90 calories. If you hate the taste of the stuff, try slathering some on toast and top with whatever vegetables you want. Boom. You have yourself an easy lunchtime sandwich.
The canned stuff, packed in water, has 20 grams of protein and 3 grams of fat in a three-ounce serving. Try it in place of grilled chicken breast or salmon in your favorite salad recipe.
Its made from soybeans, like tofu. But unlike tofu, tempeh is fermented, giving it a pleasant funkiness and firmer texture. It’s great in stir-fry, but also delicious seared and stacked onto a sandwich. A four-ounce serving has 21 grams of protein for 2 grams of fat.
It’s a lean red meat you might overlook. A three-ounce serving of roasted bison meat contains a hefty 24 grams of protein for only 2 grams of fat. Seek out a bison steak. Grill it up. Grunt.
Tenderloin is often the leanest cut in most animals, and the same holds true with the pig. In a four-ounce serving of pork tender there’s 20 grams of protein and 3 grams of fat. If you don’t want to cook the cut whole, save time by cutting it into chunks and grilling as kabobs.
They’re also known as “garbanzo beans,” which is really fun to say. Beyond that, these legumes (they’re actually neither peas or beans!) contain 14 grams of protein for 4 grams of fat. Try them tossed into a chili or ground beef for tacos. Shout “garbanzo!” as you do so.
This grain has 8 grams of protein and 4 grams of fat per cup. Okay, so it’s not the highest protein item on the list, but it is one of the highest-protein grains you can eat. If you haven’t had a tabbouleh made with quinoa yet, get on that.
Remember what you read a few slides back about tenderloin? If you do, you’ll known that tenderloin is lean. The beef version contains 19 grams of protein for 5 grams of fat. Try it in steak form.
This lean whitefish has a little more firmness to it, which means that it works equally well on the grill as it does formed into fish cakes. Three ounces of halibut contains only 1 gram of fat for 19 grams of protein.
Yes, lima beans! One cup contains 8 grams of protein for 1 grams of fat. Add them to a chicken soup for a hearty, satisfying meal.
Pea protein powder has some advantages over other types of protein powder, say Lakatos and Shames. For instance, pea protein has been shown to build muscle just as well as popular dairy based protein powders, they say. “And compared to other plant protein powders, it’s got another edge; brown rice can contain arsenic, while soy protein powders can contain contaminants if they’re not organic, and they can pose an allergy risk for many people,” explain Lakatos and Shames.
“A great source of iron, pea protein powder can be helpful for vegans who may typically choose other plant proteins that are low in iron.” Even better, with pea protein powder it’s easier to meet the recommended “1½ cups per week of pulses for heart health benefits, including lower blood pressure and lower blood cholesterol.” You don’t have to tell us to rev up our blender twice.
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