Taking in enough protein through food is important to the proper functioning of many body systems. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which the body can make on its own, but others that can only be gotten through food.
In particular, children, adolescents, and pregnant people need protein for growth. It’s recommended that people get protein from a variety of plant and animal sources, including lean meat and poultry, eggs, seafood, beans, nuts, and soy products.
Complete List of High Protein Foods
Protein can come from both animal and plant sources. In general, foods such as beans, lentils, eggs, meats, poultry, nuts, seeds, seafood, soy products, dairy products, and whole grains are protein sources.
Registered dietitian Brittany Rogers advises that consuming a protein source with each meal can help meet daily requirements. She notes, “Protein-containing foods can also help you feel more full.”
Here are the grams (g) of protein in these high-protein foods per portion size of 100 g (about one-fifth of a pound, or 3.5 ounces):
- Chicken breast (skinless, cooked): 32 g
- Turkey breast (skinless, roasted): 30 g
- Beef roast (roasted): 28 g
- Pork roast (roasted): 27 g
- Ground beef (fat content not specified, cooked): 26 g
- Salmon (baked or broiled): 25 g
- Halibut (cooked, dry heat): 23 g
- Tilapia (cooked, dry heat): 26 g
- Cod (cooked): 20 g
- Pollock (cooked): 19 g
- Canned tuna (light, in water): 19 g
- Shrimp (baked or broiled): 17 g
- Whole wheat flour (unenriched): 15 g
- Eggs (no oil or fat added): 12 g
- Cottage cheese (low fat, low sodium): 12 g
- Edamame (cooked): 12 g
- Greek yogurt (whole milk, plain, about one-third cup): 9 g
- Lentils (dried): 9 g
- Chickpeas (canned, no fat): 8 g
- Tofu (soybean curd): 7 g
Something to keep in mind is how much protein is in each portion. Some foods, such as nuts and seeds, have high protein levels but also have more calories per serving size. They are often eaten in smaller portion sizes. They might make good snacks on their own or when paired with other foods.
Here are some high-protein foods with smaller serving sizes:
- Trail mix (one-third cup): 7 g
- Mixed nuts (1 package of about 50 g): 10 g
- Hemp seeds (3 tablespoons): 9 g
- Pumpkin seeds, unsalted (1 ounce): 8 g
- Peanuts, roasted, unsalted (1 ounce): 8 g
- Almonds, unroasted (1 ounce): 6 g
- Peanut butter (1 tablespoon): 4 g
- Wheat crackers (1 cup): 4 g
- Almond butter (1 tablespoon): 3 g
- Sunflower seeds, plain, unsalted (1 ounce): 3 g
Vegetarian and Vegan Protein Sources
A vegetarian eating pattern doesn’t contain any meat, poultry, or seafood. It includes more beans and peas (legumes), nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy (such as tofu). Some vegetarian eating patterns may also contain eggs or dairy. Vegan diets do not include any animal products (meat, dairy, or eggs).
Protein needs for people following vegetarian and vegan eating patterns are based on the needs by age and life stage, as with any other type of eating pattern.
Limiting Protein Sources Higher in Saturated Fat
It’s recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that the amount of saturated fat in the diet be less than 10% of daily calories.
For those who need to lower their cholesterol levels, the American Heart Association recommends that saturated fat be less than 6% of total calories. This is a maximum of 11 to 13 g of saturated fat on a 2,000-calorie-a-day eating plan. To stay within these limits, choosing protein sources that are lower in saturated fat is important.
Proteins that are higher in saturated fat include:
- Fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb
- Ground beef that’s 75% to 85% lean
- Processed meats, such as sausages, hot dogs, and bacon
- Lunch meats, including bologna and salami
- Fatty poultry such as duck and cuts with skin still on
How to Get More Good Protein
Most people do not have trouble getting enough total protein through their diet. However, a group that may be falling short of their protein needs is adults (especially women) over age 70.
Varying protein sources can provide other needed nutrients. Up to 90% of Americans don’t get enough of their protein intake from seafood sources, which are recommended due to being sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Many don’t get enough of their protein intake from nuts, seeds, and soy, which provide fiber.
Proteins that are often mixed with other foods higher in sodium and saturated fat are another concern. Replacing processed meats and meat having higher fat contents with seafood may help in making a shift toward adding more variety to protein intake.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends these food and snack choices to get more protein in your diet:
- Broiled beef cuts such as sirloin, top round, or flank steak added to salads or sandwiches
- Canned tuna, crab, or salmon
- Chicken, poultry, chickpeas, or black beans added to salad
- Chilis or stews with kidney or pinto beans
- Hard-boiled eggs with pepper
- Lentils as a side dish
- Peanut butter or nut butters as spread for fruit, vegetables, or whole-grain crackers
- Split-pea soup
- Trail mix, including nuts or sunflower seeds
Protein Needs of Athletes
Athletes have an increased protein need that’s up to or even more than twice the recommended amount for their age and gender. A protein intake of 100 g a day is sometimes recommended for athletes. That would be about three servings of beef or poultry, four to five servings of fish or seafood, or eight eggs.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that 1.4 to 2.0 g of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight may be enough for most people who exercise. For elite athletes or bodybuilders, 2.3 to 3.1 g of protein per kg of body weight may be needed.
Grocery Store Inspiration: High-Protein Foods and Snacks
The sheer number of choices of foods available at the grocery store can lead to overwhelm. Rogers offers these tips to help focus when heading out to food shop:
- Choose lean poultry, such as 95% or 99% fat-free, and season to add more flavor.
- Choose whole food meats, such as fresh, shaved turkey breast, grilled chicken, or tuna fish (instead of processed meats such as deli meat).
- Choose plain nonfat and lactose-free Greek yogurt as a snack or meal and add in flavor with cinnamon, smooth nut butters, or fruits.
- Choose firm tofu and find a simple recipe to prepare it.
Learning about protein sources and getting creative in the kitchen are also important. Substitutions or adding protein to a favorite food, for example, could add protein from varied sources.
“I like making a tofu scramble as an alternative to an egg scramble, or blending tofu into a tasty soup, such as butternut squash, to add in more protein,” Rogers says.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The amount of recommended protein needed each day is different based on age, sex, activity level, and life stage.
Protein in grams per age group per day, as recommended by the USDA, is:
- Children under age 4: 13 g
- Children 4 to 8 years: 19 g
- Children 9 to 13 years: 34 g
- Females over the age of 14: 46 g
- Males 14 to 18 years: 52 g
- Males over the age of 19: 56 g
(Note that terms for sex or gender from the cited source are used.)
Pregnant People and Protein
People who are pregnant have greater protein needs. It’s recommended that pregnant people increase their protein intake to about 60 g a day. This comes out to about 20% to 25% of the calories eaten in a day.
Too Much Protein?
A higher protein intake may pose risks to people with certain health conditions. If interested in a high-protein diet, check with a healthcare provider first. For instance, high protein levels could worsen existing kidney disease. “Ask your healthcare provider whether you have any specific protein restrictions,” Rogers advises.
Most people are getting enough protein in their diet. However, protein sources should be varied and many people are not getting enough protein from seafood sources. Adding a protein source to every meal and snack can help in consuming enough protein and in feeling more full after a meal.
Pregnant people and athletes may need more protein, and people over the age of 70 will want to pay attention to ensure they are getting enough.
Tessari P, Lante A, Mosca G. Essential amino acids: master regulators of nutrition and environmental footprint? Sci Rep. 2016;6:26074. doi:10.1038/srep26074.
Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020.
The American Heart Association. The Skinny on Fats. 2023.
Department of Agriculture. Consumers missing out on seafood benefits.
Department of Agriculture. Vary your protein routine.
Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
University of California San Francisco. Eating right before and during pregnancy.
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