Among nutrients, protein has the best publicist in the world — news about its importance in your diet is everywhere. But unlike other faddish foods — dietary Kardashians, if you will — we can’t say too much about it.
Protein is essential not just for bulking your biceps, but for revving your metabolism, boosting your brainpower, trimming your middle and generally realizing your flat-belly goals. Men should aim for 56 grams a day; women, 46. You should make it a goal for protein to play a starring role in each meal.
But you don’t have to scarf shakes or chase chickens like Wile E. Coyote to get enough. There are diverse, surprising options to enjoy at any time of day, from breakfast to snacktime to before bed. We’ve rounded up the best protein sources, and the most optimal times to eat each.
TO GAIN MUSCLE
Here are the foods you need to grow muscle—fast.
1. Grass-Fed Beef
Protein Payout: 4 oz strip steak, 133 calories, 26 g protein
When it comes to steak or burgers, go grass-fed. It may ding your wallet, but it’ll dent your abs. Grass-fed beef is naturally leaner and has fewer calories than conventional meat: A lean seven-ounce conventional strip steak has 386 calories and 16 grams of fat. But a seven-ounce grass-fed strip steak has only 234 calories and five grams of fat. Grass-fed meat also contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, according to a study published in Nutrition Journal, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Protein Payout: 4 oz, 166 calories, 23 g of protein
While grass-fed beef is an excellent choice, bison’s profile has been rising in recent years, and for good reason: It has half the fat of and fewer calories than red meat. According to the USDA, while a 90%-lean hamburger may average 10 grams of fat, a comparatively sized buffalo burger rings in at two grams of fat with 24 grams of protein, making it one of the leanest meats around. But wait, taking a chance on this unexpected meat will earn you two healthy bonuses: In just one serving you’ll get a full day’s allowance of vitamin B-12, which has been shown to boost energy and help shut down the genes responsible for insulin resistance and the formation of fat cells; additionally, since bison are naturally grass-fed, you can confidently down your burger knowing it’s free of the hormones and pollutants than can manifest themselves in your belly fat.
Protein Payout: 3 oz. cooked breast, 142 calories, 26 g protein
A 3 oz. cooked chicken breast contains only 142 calories and 3 grams of fat, but packs a whopping 26 grams of protein — more than half of the day’s recommended allowance. But the go-to protein can be a fail on the taste front. (Our casual poll on the taste of plain breast elicited answers ranging from “air you cut with a knife” to “wet sock.”) The good news: With just a little creativity, you can make it a savory post-gym dinner or an impressive date-night meal.
Protein Payout: Quarter-pound turkey burger, 140 calories, 16 g protein
Lean and protein-rich, turkey is no longer an automatic substitute for red meat–this bird deserves props on its own. A quarter-pound turkey burger patty contains 140 calories, 16 grams of protein and eight grams of fat. Additionally, turkey is rich in DHA omega-3 acids—18 mg per serving, the highest on this list—which has been shown to boost brain function, improve your mood and turn off fat genes, preventing fat cells from growing in size. Just make sure you buy white meat only; dark contains too much fat. And know that you’re doing your health a double solid by grilling at home: Restaurant versions can be packed with fatty add-ins to increase flavor. Not your problem, since it’s going straight from the grill to your plate (ideally with the best spices to burn fat and peppers mixed in).
5. Shelled Pumpkin Seeds
Protein Payout: 1 oz, 158 calories, 9 g protein
Dr. Lindsey Duncan, a nutritionist who’s worked with Tony Dorsett and Reggie Bush, is a big fan of pumpkin seeds. “A handful of raw pepitas or dry roasted pumpkin seeds can give you a natural jolt to power through a workout,” he says. “They’re a good source of protein, healthy fats and fiber, keeping you feeling full and energized longer, and contain manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc, which provide additional energy support to maximize gym time.” Throw them into salads and rice dishes or eat them raw. Looking for more delicious ways to eat pumpkin? Check out these 8 amazing ways to eat pumpkin this fall!
Protein Payout: 16 grams per ½ cup
Mas macho than its softer cousin, tofu (which can lead to man boobs), tempeh is made from soy beans, rather than soy milk. As a result, it’s closer to a whole food, and keeps more of its protein, about 50% more than tofu.
TO LOSE WEIGHT
And here are the foods you need to feel slimmer than ever.
Protein Payout: 3 oz, 77 calories, 16 g protein
You already knew fish was rich in protein but you might be surprised to learn that halibut tops fiber-rich oatmeal and vegetables in the satiety department. The Satiety Index of Common Foods, an Australian study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, ranks it the number two most filling food—bested only by boiled potatoes for its fullness factor. A separate Australian study that compared the satiety of different animal proteins found a nutritionally similar white fish (flake) to be significantly more satiating than beef and chicken; satiety following the white-fish meal also declined at a much slower rate. Study authors attribute the filling factor of white fish like halibut to its impressive protein content and influence on serotonin, one of the key hormones responsible for appetite signals. Just make sure you avoid tilapia.
Protein Payout: 4 oz patty, 194 calories, 29 g protein
Lower that eyebrow you’re raising. Ostrich meat is the rising star of the grill. While it’s technically red and has the rich taste of beef, it has less fat than turkey or chicken. A four-ounce patty contains nearly 30 grams of the muscle building nutrient and just six grams of fat. Plus, one serving has 200% of the daily recommended allowance of vitamin B-12. This exotic meat can also help whittle your middle: Ostrich contains 55 milligrams of choline, one of these essential nutrient for fat loss. And it’s not as hard to find as it sounds—ostrich is increasingly available in supermarkets around the country.
Protein Payout: 4 oz, 124 calories, 24 g protein
A longtime enemy of doctors and dieters, pork has been coming around as a healthier alternative of late — as long as you choose the right cut. Your best bet is pork tenderloin: A University of Wisconsin Study found that a three-ounce serving of pork tenderloin has slightly less fat than a skinless chicken breast. It has 24 grams of protein per serving and 83 milligrams of waist-whittling choline (in the latter case, about the same as a medium egg). In a study published in the journal Nutrients, scientists asked 144 overweight people to eat a diet rich in fresh lean pork. After three months, the group saw a significant reduction in waist size, BMI and belly fat, with no reduction in muscle mass! They speculate that the amino acid profile of pork protein may contribute to greater fat burning.
10. Wild Salmon
Protein Payout: 3 oz, 121 calories, 17 g protein
Don’t let salmon’s relatively high calorie and fat content fool you; studies suggest the oily fish may be one of the best for weight loss. (In fact, it makes our list of the fatty foods that will help you lose weight.) In one study, participants were divided into groups and assigned one of three equi-caloric weight loss diets that included no seafood (the control group), lean white fish, or salmon. Everyone lost weight, but the salmon eaters had the lowest fasting insulin levels and a marked reduction in inflammation. Another study in the International Journal of Obesity found that eating three 5-ounce servings of salmon per week for four weeks as part of a low-calorie diet resulted in approximately 2.2 pounds more weight lost than following a equip-calorie diet that didn’t include fish. Wild salmon is leaner than farmed, which is plumped up on fishmeal; and it’s also proven to be significantly lower in cancer-linked PCBs. So go wild — literally. This is a protein-rich fish you don’t want to miss!
11. Light Canned Tuna
Protein Payout: 3 oz, 73 calories, 16 g protein
Tuna or to-not? That is the question. As a primo source of protein and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), canned light tuna is one of the best and most affordable fish for weight loss, especially from your belly! One study in the Journal of Lipid Research showed that omega 3 fatty acid supplementation had the profound ability to turn off abdominal fat genes. And while you’ll find two types of fatty acids in cold water fish and fish oils—DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—researchers say DHA can be 40 to 70 percent more effective than EPA at down regulating fat genes in the abdomen, preventing belly fat cells from expanding in size. But what about the mercury? Mercury levels in tuna vary by species; generally speaking, the larger and leaner the fish, the higher the mercury level. Bluefin and albacore rank among the most toxic, according to a study in Biology Letters. But canned chunk light tuna, harvested from the smallest fish, is considered a “low mercury fish” and can–and should!–be enjoyed two to three times a week (or up to 12 ounces), according to the FDA’s most recent guidelines.
Protein Payout: 1 egg, 85 calories, 7 g protein
Eggs might just be the easiest, cheapest and most versatile way to up your protein intake. Beyond easily upping your daily protein count, each 85-calorie eggs packs a solid 7 grams of the muscle-builder! Eggs also boost your health: They’re loaded with amino acids, antioxidants and iron. Don’t just reach for the whites, though; the yolks boast a fat-fighting nutrient called choline, so opting for whole eggs can actually help you trim down. When you’re shopping for eggs, pay attention to the labels. You should be buying organic, when possible. These are certified by the USDA and are free from antibiotics, vaccines and hormones. As for color, that’s your call. The difference in color just varies based on the type of chicken—they both have the same nutritional value, says Molly Morgan, RD, a board certified sports specialist dietician based in upstate New York.
TO POWER UP A SMOOTHIE
Blend these and drop fat—in seconds!
Protein Payout: 1 cup (cooked), 41 calories, 5 grams of protein
Popeye’s favorite veggie is a great source of not only protein, but also vitamins A and C, antioxidants and heart-healthy folate. One cup of the green superfood has nearly as much protein as a hard-boiled egg—for half the calories. Looking to get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck? Be sure to steam your spinach instead of eating it raw. This cooking method helps retain vitamins and makes it easier for the body to absorb the green’s calcium content. Add a handful to soups, omelets, pasta dishes and veggie stir-fries, or simply steam it and top with pepper, garlic, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. And don’t feel like you have to double down on the greens. Spinach is one of the 10 greens healthier for you than kale.
14. 1% Organic, Grass-Fed Milk
Protein Payout: 8 oz, 110 calories, 8 g protein
Organically raised cows are not subject to the same hormones and antibiotics that conventional cows are; no antibiotics for them means no antibiotics for you. Grass fed cows have been shown to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (good) and two to five times more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than their corn and grain fed counterparts. CLA contains a group of chemicals which provides a wide variety of health benefits, including immune and inflammatory system support, improved bone mass, improved blood sugar regulation, reduced body fat, reduced risk of heart attack, and maintenance of lean body mass. While skim milk may be lowest in calories, many vitamins are fat-soluble, which means you won’t get all the benefits of the alphabetical nutrients listed on your cereal box unless you opt for at least 1%.
Protein Payout: 1 cup, 112 calories, 4.2 g protein
The highest-protein fruit, guava packs more than 4 grams per cup, along with 9 grams of fiber and only 112 calories. With 600% of your DV of Vitamin C per cup — the equivalent of more than seven medium oranges! — the tropical fruit should merengue its way into your shopping cart ASAP. And while you’re at the store, be sure to pick up some of these other surprising high-protein foods.
16. Chia Seeds
Protein Payout: 1 oz, 138 calories, 5 g protein
One of the hallmarks of a balanced diet is to have a good ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s. A 4:1 ratio would be ideal, but the modern American diet is more like 20:1. That leads to inflammation, which can trigger weight gain. But while eating a serving of salmon every day isn’t exactly convenient, sprinkling chia seeds—among the most highly concentrated sources of omega-3s in the food world—into smoothies, salads, cereals, pancakes or even desserts is as easy a diet upgrade as you can get.
17. Vegan Protein Powder
Protein Payout: 15 to 20 grams per scoop
More and more research is showing that when we add plant proteins to our diets, our bodies respond by shedding fat. In a 2015 study in the Journal of Diabetes Investigation, researchers discovered that patients who ingested higher amounts of vegetable protein were far less susceptible to metabolic syndrome (a disease that ought to be renamed “diabolic syndrome”—it’s basically a combination of high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and obesity). That means eating whole foods from vegetables—and supplementing with vegan protein powder—is one of the best ways to keep extra weight at bay. A second study in Nutrition Journal found that “plant protein intakes may play a role in preventing obesity.” Vega One All-in-One Nutritional Shake, Vega Sport Performance Protein, and Sunwarrior Warrior Blend are three we love—find 150+ delicious recipes in Zero Belly Cookbook.
Protein Payout: 8 grams per tablespoon
Spirulina is a blue-green algae that’s typically dried and sold in powdered form, although you can also buy spirulina flakes and tablets. Dried spirulina is about 60 percent protein and, like quinoa, it’s a complete protein, meaning it can be converted directly into muscle in the body. A tablespoon delivers 8 grams of metabolism-boosting protein for just 43 calories, plus half a day’s allotment of vitamin B12. It’s a great option if a blended vegan protein isn’t available.
19. Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Protein Payout: 2 g per 2 Tbsp
Mix some cocoa powder into your smoothie for a boost of more than just flavor. In addition to delivering a gram of protein for every 12 calories, it will also give you 4 grams of fat-burning fiber and 20% of your daily value for the essential muscle-making mineral manganese.
TO BEAT THE 3PM SLUMP
20. Peanut Butter
Protein Payout: 2 tablespoons, 191 calories, 7 grams of protein
This creamy spread is downright addictive. While eating too much peanut butter can wreak havoc on your waistline, a standard two-tablespoon serving provides a solid dose of muscle-building protein and healthy fats. According to a 2014 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consuming peanuts can prevent both cardiovascular and coronary artery disease — the most common type of heart condition. Look for the unsalted, no sugar added varieties without hydrogenated oils to reap the most benefits. If you’re tired of plain old PB&J sandwiches, try stirring the spread into hot oatmeal, smearing it on fresh produce, or blending it into your post-workout smoothie.
21. 2% Greek Yogurt
Protein Payout: 7 oz, 150 calories, 20 g protein
Yogurt may be one of your key allies in weight-loss efforts. A study printed in the Journal of Nutrition found that probiotics like the ones found in creamy, delicious yogurt helped obese women lose nearly twice the weight compared to those who did not consume probiotics. Both sets of subjects were on low-calorie diets, but after 12 weeks, the probiotic poppers lost an average of 9.7 pounds, while those on placebos lost only 5.7. Bonus: the subjects who were given the good bacteria continued to lose weight even after an additional 12 weeks, an average of 11.5 pounds to be accurate! The group that didn’t get the probiotic boost? They maintained their 5.7 pound initial loss, but didn’t trim down further. The good bacteria in probiotics can help ramp up your metabolism and improve your immune system, but it pays to be picky about your sources. Yogurt’s a great way to get a.m. protein and probiotics, but to get the healthiest yogurt you’ll have to read labels; most are packed with added sugars that exceed their protein levels. To speed up the process, use our indispensable guide to the best brand name yogurts for weight loss.
22. Shelled Pumpkin Seeds
Protein Payout: 1 oz, 158 calories, 9 g protein
Dr. Lindsey Duncan, a nutritionist who’s worked with Tony Dorsett and Reggie Bush, is a big fan of pumpkin seeds. “A handful of raw pepitas or dry roasted pumpkin seeds can give you a natural jolt to power through a workout,” he says. “They’re a good source of protein, healthy fats and fiber, keeping you feeling full and energized longer, and contain manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc, which provide additional energy support to maximize gym time.” Throw them into salads and rice dishes or eat them raw.
Protein Payout: 1 oz, 164 calories, 6 g protein
Think of each almond as a natural weight-loss pill. A study of overweight and obese adults found that, combined with a calorie-restricted diet, consuming a little more than a quarter-cup of the nuts can decrease weight more effectively than a snack comprised of complex carbohydrates and safflower oil—after just two weeks! (And after 24 weeks, those who ate the nuts experienced a 62% greater reduction in weight and BMI!) For optimal results, eat your daily serving before you hit the gym. Almonds, rich in the amino acid L-arginine, can actually help you burn more fat and carbs during workouts, a study printed in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found.
TO STOP LATE-NIGHT SNACKING
Protein Payout: 4 grams per fruit
High in healthy monounsaturated fats, avocados, one of the essential superfoods, also deliver a surprising dose of protein. Another reason to make guacamole your go-to appetizer.
Protein Payout: 4 grams per serving
You may know about the protein packing power of Portabella mushrooms because they show up in place of burgers at some restaurants. But most mushrooms deliver about 4 grams of protein per serving, for less than 40 calories. They’re also a great source of selenium, a mineral that’s essential for proper muscle function.
26. Chickpea Pasta
Protein Payout: 14 grams per serving
Traditional wheat pasta is a pretty solid protein player, with 7 grams per serving. But upgrade to Banza pasta, made with chickpeas, and you’ll double that number, while also enjoying 8 grams of fiber and only about half the carbs of your average pasta dinner.
Protein Payout: 1/2 cup, 109-148 calories, 7-10 grams of protein
Beans are good for more than just your heart. They’re loaded with proteins, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that can benefit your brain and muscles, too. Not to mention, they digest very slowly, which can help you feel fuller, longer, and fuel weight loss efforts without causing feelings of deprivation. Look for easy-to-use, pre-cooked BPA-free varieties that come in a pouch or a box. Add them to soups and salads or mix them with brown rice and steamed vegetables to create a hearty—yet healthy—dinner. Big into snacking? Mix black beans with some salsa and corn, and serve with some whole grain crackers (just make sure they are one of our go-to healthy crackers for weight loss) in place of your favorite packaged dip.
28. Black Rice
Protein Payout: 10 grams per ¼ cup uncooked
Once known as Forbidden Rice because only emperors were allowed to eat it, black rice is one of the hottest new food trends, and for good reason. It’s higher in protein and fiber than its cousin, brown rice.
Protein Payout: 6.5 grams per ¼ cup
All nuts are high in protein, but pistachios may have additional metabolic powers, making them one of the best-ever high protein snacks. A brand new study by scientists in India looked at 60 middle-aged men who were at risk for diabetes and heart disease. They gave the two groups similar diets, except that one of these groups got 20 percent of their daily calories from pistachios. The group that ate the pistachios had smaller waists at the end of the study period; their cholesterol score dropped by an average of 15 points, and their blood sugar numbers improved as well.
Protein Payout: 6 grams per ½ cup serving
Perhaps the very best thing you can dip a chip into, hummus delivers a gram of protein for each 36 calories. Made from chickpeas and olive oil, it’s as healthy as a food can get.