With dieting’s emphasis on low-fat, low-carb, and low-calorie, one essential ingredient for weight loss is often left out of the mix: protein. Numerous studies, including one recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association have shown that skipping high-protein foods may lead to overeating and is often one of the biggest causes of excess weight gain. And as any devoted exerciser knows, protein is essential for the growth and repair of muscle and organs, especially after a hard workout.
When planning your healthy meals, keep in mind that 10 to 35 percent of your daily food intake should be lean protein. For women, that’s 46 grams a day; for men, 56 grams. If you make the right choices throughout the day, you can easily hit your protein targets. To get started, try these high-protein choices for healthy snacking.
For years, eggs have been getting a bad rap for their cholesterol content. But now, even the American Heart Association has come around and acknowledged that the benefits of eggs might outweigh the cholesterol risks when eaten in moderation (less than six whole eggs per week). After all, one large egg contains 6 grams of protein and only 70 calories. If you’re concerned about cholesterol, many egg substitutes on the market offer lower-cholesterol alternatives that still pack a protein punch.
One of the best ways to eat eggs is hard-boiled. Keep a bowl of them in your home fridge for an instant healthy snack or addition to a larger meal.
Whether you go for cashews, walnuts, pistachios, or any of the other varieties, whole, raw nuts are a healthy high-protein snack choice. If you're concerned about calories, limit your nut intake to a handful or two, and remember that though nuts are high in fat, it's healthy monounsaturated fat, which doesn't clog arteries and is an essential part of a healthy diet. Plus, nuts are high in fiber, which when paired with their protein content, keeps you feeling full longer.
It doesn't matter which nut you go nuts for — they all have health benefits — but research consistently indicates that almonds might be the best of the bunch. Numerous studies have found that almonds can help lower levels of harmful LDL cholesterol. They are also extremely high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and have been shown to help manage weight.
Not so long ago, Greek yogurt took up only a tiny portion of the supermarket dairy section. But in just a few years, it has earned its place among supermarket superfood staples. Greek yogurt, which is strained to remove whey, is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt, making it a healthful stand-alone snack, a great mixer for fresh fruit, cereal, or nuts, and a healthy swap for fattier dairy products such as sour cream or cream cheese. The yogurt’s power comes from its protein — Greek yogurt contains 15 to 20 grams of protein in a 6-ounce serving versus 9 grams in regular yogurt.
When you’re going for lean protein, nothing beats low-calorie turkey — 3 ounces of turkey provides a whopping 25 grams of protein for only 140 calories. Deli slices might be the fastest form of turkey to grab for a snack, but they can be high in sodium. Skip the excess sodium by roasting a small bird for dinner and using the leftover slices as nutritious snacks.
Homemade protein shakes can be a delicious way to add protein to your diet. Melissa Dobbins, RD, a dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends adding whey protein to your blender because it’s a high-quality, complete protein. This means it contains all of the essential amino acids your body needs to build and maintain muscle, and it provides a feeling of fullness, she adds. Simply combine whey protein with nonfat milk, frozen fruit, all-natural nut butter, or whatever other healthful ingredients sound good to you, and you have a healthy meal replacement or snack. Because you control the ingredients, homemade shakes let you skip the added sugar that often comes with store-bought protein bars and shakes.
High-Protein Snack 6: Cottage Cheese
Diet staple cottage cheese is an excellent protein source, with a half-cup of low-fat cottage cheese providing 14 grams of protein for only 81 calories. Paired with fruit or plain, it makes a terrific snack when you want to stay full between meals or can even be a satisfying meal all on its own.
As vegans and vegetarians know, lentils pack a powerful punch of protein, fiber, and minerals while containing comparatively few calories and almost no fat. A cup of cooked lentils offers 22 grams of protein, about 300 calories, and less than 1 gram of fat. Lentils are also relatively quick to prepare for a meal or snack, and because they soak up the flavors of whatever they’re cooked with, they can make a tasty base for many dishes.
Tofu or soy bean curd is another excellent high-protein meal base and source of healthy fats and nutrients. Because it absorbs flavors so well and can be cut into cubes, strips, or chunks, it can be prepared in a variety of ways. Plus, some research has shown that soy consumption can reduce risk of breast or prostate cancer, thanks to its high levels of phytoestrogens, though that link is still being studied.
Chances are, you loved peanut butter as a kid, but you may have shied away from this traditional treat as an adult because of concerns about fat. Well, it’s time to head back to the jar for healthy snacking — with moderation, of course. Peanut, almond, cashew, and other nut butters are high-protein foods, with about two tablespoons providing 7 grams of protein. And though nut butter does contain fat and saturated fat, it can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in small amounts. Just remember not to slather it on crackers — instead, spread it on carrot or celery sticks for healthy snacking.
High-Protein Snack 10: Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkins are full of fiber, vitamins, and body-boosting carotenoids, but it turns out tiny pumpkin seeds might pack even more of a nutritional punch. With 8 grams of protein in just one ounce, pumpkin seeds or pepitas are also very rich in minerals, including potassium, manganese, and iron. Just take heed: Pumpkin seeds are calorie-dense, so do your healthy snacking in moderation.