20 Low-Calorie, High-Protein Foods To Add to Your Diet – Health.com

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Fueling your body with nutrient-rich foods sets the foundation for health. Eating low-calorie, high-protein foods can help you manage your weight and support muscle growth.

The recommended protein intake typically ranges from 10-35% of total daily calories, with a minimum daily recommendation of 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight to prevent deficiencies. However, studies indicate that consuming 1.2 g of protein per kilogram daily can help reduce age-related muscle and bone loss. Research also suggests that healthy adults can tolerate 2 g of protein daily per kilogram or higher.

Here are 20 low-calorie, high-protein foods, including animal and plant-based options, to meet dietary needs without surpassing calorie limits. Most foods here contain less than 200 calories per serving.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines advise diversifying protein sources, favoring low-fat or lean protein options like lean beef. A 3-ounce (oz) portion of broiled 93% lean ground beef patty offers 162 calories and 22.3 grams (g) of protein. It supplies 50% of the recommended daily intake of immune-supporting zinc and 13% of the daily value for iron, which is crucial for making hemoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen in the bloodstream.

While steak might not be the immediate thought for lean protein sources, there are lean cuts available. Consider broiled beef flank steak with trimmed fat. A 3-oz serving offers 172 calories and 23.5 g of protein. It supplies B vitamins, such as vitamin B3, which provides 40% of the recommended daily value and is important for turning food into energy.

Pork can be a good addition to a low-calorie, high-protein diet, but choose lean cuts to minimize calorie intake. Lean cuts such as pork tenderloin or pork loin chops are excellent options. A 3-oz pan-broiled center loin pork chop provides 138 calories and 25.5 g of protein, along with significant amounts of zinc (13% DV), vitamin B1 (43% DV), and vitamin B12 (22% DV).

Reserve the skin-on and gravy-topped turkey for special occasions, and opt for skinless turkey as a regular protein choice. A 3-oz serving of roasted turkey breast (meat only) delivers 125 calories, and 25.6 g of protein, along with 63% and 40% of the daily values for vitamins B3 and B6, respectively.

Versatile and affordable, skinless chicken breast offers 133 calories and packs 27.3 g of protein in a 3-oz braised boneless portion. Chicken supplies B vitamins plus 49% of the daily value for selenium, a nutrient that can protect the body from oxidative damage and infection.

These days, you can easily find liquid egg whites or egg white powder as dehydrated egg whites. When you remove the nutrient-rich yolk from an egg, you are essentially left with only the protein, but the calories are reduced. One ounce of dried egg whites supplies 107 calories and 22.7 g of protein.

Milk isn’t just for morning cereals. It’s a versatile option for snacks, meals, or blended into a smoothie. A cup of 2% or non-fat milk provides 122 or 84 calories, respectively. Both contain 8 g of protein. Milk is renowned for its calcium and vitamin D content, yet it also delivers essential nutrients such as zinc, vision-supporting vitamin A, and potassium.

Low-fat cottage cheese is an excellent choice for those seeking a low-calorie, high-protein cheese option. One cup offers 180 calories and 24.2 g of protein, as well as 17% of the daily value for calcium and 26% for phosphorus, both vital for bone health.

Part-skim mozzarella is a favorite cheese for those craving a cheesy addition to meals without adding excess calories. An ounce of mozzarella provides 82.6 calories and 6.66 g of protein. It also contains 15% and 12% of the daily values for calcium and phosphorus, respectively.

Greek yogurt is made by straining regular yogurt to remove whey, resulting in a thicker texture and higher protein concentration. Like regular yogurt, Greek yogurt has bacteria cultures to help break down lactose, though it contains less, making it a better option for those who are lactose-sensitive.

A 200-gram (7-oz) portion of plain low-fat Greek yogurt delivers 146 calories and 19.9 g of protein, while a 100-gram serving of non-fat Greek yogurt offers 100 calories and 17.3 g of protein.

White fish like cod, haddock, and flounder generally have a mild flavor and a flaky texture. They’re lower in calories compared to oily fish like salmon. A fillet of flounder or sole (127 grams) cooked in dry heat provides 109 calories and 19.3 g of protein.

Fish, in general, is a good source of omega-3 fats, specifically DHA and EPA, which are vital for brain and heart health.

Shrimp contains only 84 calories in a 3-oz cooked portion, yet provides 20.4 g of protein, making it an excellent low-calorie, high-protein option. Like white fish, shrimp is a low-mercury seafood that provides healthy omega-3 fats.

Canned light tuna offers 16.5 g of protein in a 3-oz serving, while being relatively low in calories, at just 73.1 calories per serving. Similar to white fish and shrimp, canned light tuna is a low-mercury seafood option that offers omega-3 fats, iron, and choline—an essential nutrient vital for brain health.

Beans, peas, and lentils belong to the legume family, consisting of plant foods that develop within pods. Their high protein content makes them a great meat alternative for those seeking plant-based options. Additionally, legumes are rich in fiber and essential nutrients like B vitamins and potassium.

One cup of canned, low-sodium black beans provides 218 calories, 14.5 g of protein, and an impressive 16.6 g of fiber, fulfilling 59% of the daily value for fiber.

Peas offer 134 calories and 8.58 g of protein per one-cup cooked serving, along with 8.8 g of fiber (31% of the daily value), which is important for gut health. Adequate fiber intake can support cholesterol reduction, blood sugar management, and weight control.

Lentils are small, flat-shaped legumes that come in colors like red, brown, and green. A 100-gram serving (3.5 oz) of boiled lentils provides 116 calories, 9.02 g of protein, and 7.9 g of fiber. It provides nutrients like copper and manganese, delivering 28% and 21% of the daily value for these immune-supporting minerals, respectively.

Edamame (young, green soybeans) are relatively higher in protein compared to many other legumes. You can find them in the fresh produce section or frozen vegetables aisle. One cup of edamame prepared from frozen delivers 188 calories, 18.4 g of protein, 8.06 g of fiber, and 20% of the daily value for iron.

Tofu, a plant-based protein derived from soybeans, comes in textures ranging from silken to extra firm, offering versatility in cooking methods. A half-cup of firm tofu prepared with calcium sulfate provides 98.3 calories, 11.4 grams of protein, and 19% of the daily value for calcium.

Tempeh is a fermented food made of soybeans. It’s generally considered a higher protein plant-based option, making it an excellent meat substitute in plant-based dishes. A 100-gram (3.5 oz) serving of cooked tempeh offers 195 calories and 19.9 g of protein. It provides 20% and 56% of the daily values for phosphorus and manganese, respectively, both of which support energy production in the body and bone health.

Quinoa is a well-known high-protein gluten-free grain, offering 222 calories, 8.14 grams of protein, and 5.18 grams of fiber per cooked cup. Additionally, it’s a rich source of nutrients like magnesium, providing 28% of the daily value, essential for numerous functions including nerve and muscle health and regulating blood pressure and blood sugars.

While quinoa may seem to have more calories compared to other foods listed here, its significant fiber content is noteworthy. High-fiber foods contribute to feelings of fullness, aiding in calorie and portion control.

High-protein intake, whether in low or standard-calorie diets, is safe and effective for weight reduction, potentially preventing obesity and related diseases. These diets elevate appetite-regulating hormones while lowering appetite-stimulating hormones, leading to feelings of fullness and reduced calorie intake.

Protein also requires more energy for breakdown or metabolism, which can help you burn more calories. Additionally, protein helps preserve fat-free mass, including skeletal and muscle mass, crucial for slowing down age-related bone and muscle loss.

Individuals seeking weight loss or weight management goals may benefit from a low-calorie and high-protein diet. This diet could benefit older adults seeking to maintain muscle mass and mitigate age-related bone and muscle loss. With age, appetite often decreases, leading to lower calorie intake. Additionally, individuals prone to feeling full quickly may find it advantageous to prioritize high-protein, low-calorie foods to maximize their nutrition intake.

Here are a few balanced meal ideas using some of the foods above:

  • Greek yogurt with mixed berries and a sprinkle of nuts or seeds
  • Scrambled egg whites with spinach and shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • High-protein smoothie made with milk, frozen fruits, and protein powder
  • Quinoa and grilled chicken salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumber, and avocado
  • Black bean and grilled tofu wrap with hummus, lettuce, and shredded carrots
  • Lentil, shrimp, and vegetable soup with whole-grain crackers
  • Turkey meatballs with spaghetti and marinara sauce and a side salad
  • Roasted pork loin chops with potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers
  • Fish tacos with toppings such as shredded cabbage, diced tomatoes, guacamole, and a squeeze of lime juice

Incorporating a variety of the above-mentioned foods into your high-protein, low-calorie diet can keep meals exciting while providing a range of essential nutrients. From plant-based options such as soy products and peas to animal-based choices like meat, seafood, and dairy, there are plenty of delicious and nutritious options to explore.

Whether your goal is weight management, muscle preservation, or chronic disease prevention, a balanced diet that includes these protein sources alongside fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats can contribute to overall health and well-being.

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