When you think of protein-rich foods, there's a good chance animal meat comes to mind. If you're vegetarian, you likely think of meat stand-ins, such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan. "We tend to have our comfort zones when it comes to proteins," says Ashley Koff, RD, a dietitian in Washington, D.C. "And while that's OK—opting for the same foods can help you avoid feeling confused by all of your options and making a poor choice as a result—it's important to diversify your diet," says Koff. "I have a lot of clients whose go-to sources of protein are eggs, chicken, and Greek yogurt, but I like to encourage them to add other healthy sources of protein for more variety."
How much protein do you need? Mitzi Dulan, RD, author of The Pinterest Diet: How to Pin Your Way Thin, says it depends on your weight. In general, Dulan says healthy adults need about 0.75 grams of protein per pound body weight. So for example, if you weigh 140 pounds, you need about 105 grams of protein per day. While the recent popularity of high-protein diets has led some to overdo it on their protein intake, Dulan says she frequently sees clients who aren't getting enough protein, which presents other problems. "One of the biggest challenges with getting too little protein is that you are missing out on the vital role protein plays in satiety," she says. "Often, my clients are eating too many carbs and sugar-filled foods, which can lead to a vicious cycle of overeating and make it harder to reach your weight-loss goals." Add more protein-rich foods to your diet and you'll feel fuller longer, says Dulan, which can help you keep unhealthy cravings in check.
Here, Koff and Dulan share some of the high-protein foods they urge their clients to incorporate into their weekly meals—and which they eat themselves, too!
Before you turn your nose up at these little fish and assume (or insist!) you don't like them, Koff says they're worth another try because they are that good for you. "One can of sardines has between 20 and 28 g of protein," she says. "Plus, they're also loaded with omega-3s," says Koff, which have been shown to lower inflammation in the body (a common, chronic condition that has been linked to a number of diseases). Dulan says sardines are one of her top high-protein picks as well, adding that unlike some other sources of protein, sardines pack a big nutritional punch while also being low in calories.
Another one of Koff's favorites, hemp seeds are actually a complete protein—which means they contain an adequate proportion of all 9 of the essential amino acids necessary for our dietary needs. (One 3 Tbsp serving provides about 11 g of protein.) "Most of my clients don't realize that hemp seeds are also an excellent source of fiber, and they're loaded with omega-3 essential fatty acids," says Koff, which promote heart health, proper brain function, and more.
Whether you blend these beans into a tasty hummus, mix them into homemade chili, or sprinkle some on top of a salad (or even use them in a tasty dessert!), chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are an excellent source of protein and fiber, says Koff, which means they are a staple in her pantry. In addition to protein and fiber, chickpeas are also loaded with manganese, folate, copper, iron, and zinc—vitamins and minerals that many Americans don't eat enough of, she says.
"This is one of my all-time favorite protein recommendations," says Dulan, "because it has a whopping 14 g of protein in just ½ cup." Don't love the taste? Try making it sweet by adding a serving of fruit and a dash of cinnamon on top.
This plant-based protein is one of the few grains that qualifies as a complete protein, packing 8 g into just one cup. It's also one of the most versatile grains, says Dulan: You can serve quinoa as a side (it's great hot or cold), as a breakfast cereal (cook it as you would oatmeal and top with cubed apples and cinnamon), or even as a delicious, protein-packed add-in to salads, soups, and more.
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