Protein is the word – and the macronutrient - on everyone's lips at the moment. Bodybuilders and athletes have long known the benefits of a protein rich diet for performance, power and lean muscle growth, and the runaway popularity of protein rich diets like Atkins and Paleo is bringing the benefits of eating protein into the public consciousness like never before.
Just as there is a wide variety of people who can benefit from eating a high protein diet, there is a variety of foods that are high in protein – something that can fit everyone's needs.
Protein Rich Foods for Weight Loss
High protein foods can be of huge benefit to anyone trying to cut weight. It is well known that high levels of protein consumption can lead to feelings of satiety, or fullness, which can curb overeating (1). Weight loss relies upon taking in less energy than the body is using. Muscle uses more energy than fat. Weight loss places the body into a catabolic state, where the risk of burning muscle for energy is increased. It has been shown that eating a diet rich in protein prevents muscle breakdown, preserving strength as well as a higher basal metabolic rate that will help the body shed fat faster (2). Finally, very low carbohydrate ketogenic diets are rising in popularity amongst athletes and those interested in weight loss. These type of diets rely heavily on protein as a source of energy and nutrition and are showing some success (3).
There are of course exceptions, but people looking to lose weight generally lean toward low-fat and low-carb options to obtain their protein needs. Here are some options:
Steamed chicken breast: One of the best known low calorie options, steamed chicken breast is versatile and can form the basis of many meals. It comes in at about 25% protein and is very low in fat and carbs. Remove the skin to further reduce the fat content. Steamed non-oily fish has similar nutritional properties.
Egg white: Each egg white contains 3.6g of protein and only 17 calories, with negligible fat and carbs. Losing the yolk means you take in only a quarter of the calories and miss out on five grams of fat.
Low fat cottage cheese: At 1% fat and 14g of protein per half-cup serve, low fat cottage cheese has one of the highest levels of protein per calorie of any food. On top of this it is versatile – cottage cheese can go savoury or sweet.
Protein Rich Foods for Muscle Building
To lay down more muscle, the body needs large amounts of protein, and it needs large amounts of energy. The best way to bulk up cleanly without adding a gut is to consume a balanced diet of healthy proteins, carbs and fats.
Fish: Most types of fish are great options. A tuna steak is high in protein and low in fat, and oily fish, like sardines, salmon and mackerel are particularly good, because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for your heart and mood, and are anti-inflammatory, which can aid recovery.
Eggs: Whole raw eggs were what bodybuilders drank before delicious protein powders existed! We mentioned the white of the egg previously, but keeping the yolk doubles the protein per egg, not to mention the yolk contains almost every vitamin the human body could want.
Nuts: Part of building muscle is maintaining a positive nitrogen balance, making sure your body has the amino acids it needs at all times. Having healthy snacks on hand to curb cravings and keep protein levels up can help achieve these goals faster. Nuts are the ideal snack. High in protein, healthy fats and fibre, many nuts are also high in vitamins and minerals.
Protein Rich Foods for Vegetarians
While non-vegetarians are able to obtain sufficient protein from a small serving of meat, vegetarians wishing to consume a high protein diet must find substitutes. The good news is that there are a lot of great vegetarian options out there for a varied and interesting protein-rich diet.
Soy Products: Some men falsely believe that soy will turn them into a woman. Thankfully, science has spoken out and declared that soy has absolutely no effect on hormone levels, which is a relief, as it is a complete, high quality and versatile source of protein (4). Soybeans, soy milk, tofu and tempeh are all rich sources of this vegetarian protein.
Quinoa: Recently elevated to "superfood" status, this is a great tasting protein-rich alternative to other grains, packing double the protein of brown rice. It will easily substitute for other carbs in a lot of meals - you'll be eating more protein without even trying.
Pulses: Yep, lentils and beans are a vegetarian cliché, but that's because they're high in protein and fibre, low in fat, and great for your heart. Just try not to pair them with dreadlocks, and take a shower once in a while.
Protein Rich Foods for Breakfast
By the time breakfast rolls around, most people haven't eaten for about twelve hours. A protein rich breakfast has been shown to promote weight loss, and breaking the drought with a big serve of protein is a must for a bodybuilder – the body must maintain a positive nitrogen balance to build lean muscle (5).
Luckily, there are a lot of great, high protein breakfast options.
Eggs: Yes, we've mentioned them before, but we can't mention them enough. Eggs are one of the best breakfast foods around and they can be prepared in so many ways, with or without the yolk. An egg white omelette made with low fat cheese is close to unbeatable for protein content, fat and carbs, not to mention taste.
Smoothies: The number of variations on the humble smoothie are a testament to its popularity. A great option is to blend low calorie dairy, like skim milk and unsweetened yoghurt, with ice, honey, and berries, which have the added bonus of being rich in antioxidants. It's easy to throw in a scoop of protein powder, like a blended whey, to send the protein content even higher.
Beans on toast: Another breakfast classic, baked beans are a quick, easy, filling, high protein meal. Up the protein with wholewheat or sprouted rye toast. This meal is also full of long-acting carbs, which will give you lasting energy through the morning.
(1) Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Lemmens SG, Westerterp KR. Dietary protein - its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health. Br J Nutr. 2012 Aug;108 Suppl 2:S105-12.
(2) Brehm BJ, D'Alessio DA. Benefits of high-protein weight loss diets: enough evidence for practice? Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2008 Oct;15(5):416-21.
(3) Bueno NB, de Melo IS, de Oliveira SL, da Rocha Ataide T. Very-low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet v. low-fat diet for long-term weight loss: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.Br J Nutr. 2013 Oct;110(7):1178-87.
(4)Hamilton-Reeves et al (2010), Clinical studies show no effects of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men: results of a meta-analysis. Fertility and Sterility, 94: 997-1007
(5) Jakubowicz D, Froy O, Wainstein J, Boaz M. Meal timing and composition influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults. Steroids. 2012 Mar 10;77(4):323-31.