There are plenty of topics and viewpoints in the sports nutrition space to keep strength athletes occupied. But one thing that strength enthusiasts often join forces over is protein — whether it’s a vegan pea protein shake or a classic chicken breast, strength athletes tend to love their protein.
And with good reason. A high protein diet fuels muscle repair and growth, keeps you feeling fuller for longer, and helps muscle preservation as you age. A high-protein diet may even positively affect your mood when compared to a lower intake. (1)
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You may be preparing for a competition or just generally want to adjust your body composition. In those cases, you may also be interested in getting your protein while keeping your calorie count low. When you’re looking for high-protein, low-calorie foods, look no further than these 20 options.
What Is Protein?
Protein may seem like the mystical gains-maker. But you can break it down like this — protein is an organic compound. It’s made up of one or more amino acids, otherwise known as the “building blocks” of your body.
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Amino acids are the basis for creating, repairing, and maintaining tissues, such as muscle, organs, hair, and nails.
There are twenty different amino acids you needs to form proteins, but there are nine that you must get from your diet. These are typically referred to as essential amino acids (EAAs).
Why Do Strength Athletes Need Protein?
You can train as hard as you want, but you can’t make something out of nothing. Without the proper fuel to help your muscles along, your muscles simply won’t be able to experience maintenance or hypertrophy. No matter how hard you train, you’re just not going to get bigger if you don’t have the protein you need to fuel the process.
By eating enough protein, you can elevate protein synthesis, which is the process by which your cells make proteins. This is important for maintaining your daily functions, but it’s especially critical for strength athletes looking to pack on muscle mass.
Other Benefits of Protein
Besides being essential for the repair and growth of muscle mass and other bodily tissues, protein offers a few unique benefits.
Protein is more thermogenic than carbohydrates and fats. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the number of calories burned during digestion. During that process, 20 to 30 percent of the calories you consume from protein are “spent” on digestion. In contrast, the TEF of carbohydrates and fats is just five to 10 percent and zero to three percent, respectively. (2)
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If, on a given day, you were to replace 500 calories’ worth of dietary fat with protein, you may burn up to an additional 150 calories. Of course, there are other variables in play — how processed a food is can also affect TEF, for instance. (2) It’s important to get enough of each macronutrient in your diet, but this example shows just how significant a higher protein intake can be.
Stay Fuller, Longer
Plain and simple, protein is more filling than the other macronutrients. According to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating a high-protein, low-fat diet helped subjects feel fuller for longer than subjects who had a maintenance level of protein and higher level of fat. (3)
Some athletes may be looking to adjust their nutritional habits to help maintain or build muscle while losing body fat. In that case, increasing your satiety after meals can help with emotional and psychological satisfaction surrounding your food.
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Even if you’re not interested in losing weight, the sensation of being full can help you develop a more mindful relationship with your food and your body. This can be quite a significant benefit for athletes looking to last longer during training sessions — especially if their digestive systems don’t do well with mid-workout snacks.
Eating adequate protein bolsters your immunity. Amino acids support the main components of your immune system, such as B cells and T cells. (4) This in turn helps your immune system identify harmful cells within your body. (4)
High-Protein, Low-Calorie Foods
When deciding which protein-rich foods to eat, it’s smart to focus on foods which are:
Rich in essential amino acids, so you’re getting the highest quality protein in each serving.
Mostly protein with minimal carbs and fats.
Something you enjoy eating regularly in order to help compliance.
You may find a few of the items on this list are already staples of yours. That’s great news. But to avoid “palate fatigue” — getting sick of eating the same foods and flavors — you’ll want to select a few different options. Variety and enjoyment are essential for sound nutrition. That way, you’ll always have rotations on hand.
Now, let’s look at your options and choose some high-quality protein sources.
High-Protein, Low-Calorie Foods
Low-Fat Greek Yogurt
Whey Protein Powder
Casein Protein Powder
Vegan Protein Powder
Note: The protein and calorie levels of a 100-gram serving of the following foods are based on the information provided by the FoodData Central feature on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website.
Chicken is incredibly versatile. If you’re someone who eats meat, you can grill it, pan-fry it, slow-cook it, or bake it. Your initial options are plentiful, too, as you can purchase chicken breasts, wings, thighs, or even as a low-fat mince. Each of these have a slightly different protein-to-fat ratio.
23.9 grams of protein
27.1 grams of protein
Though whole eggs are a powerhouse of nutrition, the egg white is a lean and dense source of protein. With the yolk removed, egg whites boast a high amount of protein, few calories, and no carbohydrates or fat.
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They’re surprisingly filling and diverse, too. They can be mixed into a range of recipes: omelets, oatmeal dishes, breakfast muffins, and even homemade baked goods.
10.7 grams of protein
Despite being a little higher in fat, salmon is a rich and nutritious source of protein without an overload of calories. The fish also contains vitamin B12, iron, potassium, omega three fatty acids, and vitamin D.
19.9 grams of protein
Though not as rich in micronutrients and essential fats as other seafood options, shrimp make up for this with how lean and protein dense they are. A single serving of shrimp can provide two scoops’ worth of protein powder in terms of protein, but relatively few calories.
24 grams of protein
Like shrimp, tuna is a fantastic source of protein with few tag-along nutrients. One thing to be mindful of, however, is tuna’s mercury content. As a general rule, adults may want to eat tuna steak no more than twice per week.
19 grams of protein
Though low in omega-3s, cod offers many of the same benefits as fattier cuts of fish: it’s a high-quality source of protein, rich in vitamin B6, and contains a meaningful amount of vitamin D. It’s also a voluminous cut of fish, boasting relatively few calories. This makes for an excellent protein source while cutting weight.
20.4 grams of protein
Like chicken, beef is a fantastic source of inexpensive and versatile protein. It comes in various cuts of leanness, can be prepared in countless ways, and works in a range of dishes: curries, tacos, and tortillas, to mention a few.
27.7 grams of protein
While it’s a little more expensive than beef, lamb makes for an excellent substitute since it’s also high in iron and cobalamin. It also has a similar protein-to-fat ratio while having relatively low calories for how much protein you’re getting.
With a mild and slightly sweet flavor, lamb adds an interesting twist to staples like stews, roasts, and casseroles.
22.6 grams of protein
There are few convenient wholefood protein sources, but meat jerky is at the top of that list.
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Most commonly available in beef, chicken, and turkey, meat jerkies have the same nutritional profile as their hydrated counterparts. But since most of the moisture has been removed, jerky is much easier to have on the go. One thing to be mindful of is that — for the same reason — dehydrated meat is much less voluminous or satiating.
Protein levels match the hydrated components
Calorie levels match the hydrated components
Though it’s a little higher in fat than many cuts of meat, pork is still an excellent source of essential amino acid-rich protein. Pork is also high in vitamin B6 and vitamin D, making it a useful source of micronutrients, as well.
19.1 grams of protein
After meat, fish, and poultry, Greek yogurt is a serious contender for one of the best sources of protein. Besides also containing lots of B vitamins, low-fat Greek yogurt also offers respectable amounts of calcium, vitamin A, zinc, and vitamin C.
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It’s surprisingly versatile, too. This yogurt can be used as a base for overnight oats, parfaits, and various frozen treats. Plus, with how rich in protein it is, it makes “healthy” desserts that much easier to prepare.
8.64 grams of protein
Like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein. It’s flexible enough to pack for work, use in various recipes, and requires minimal preparation. It has a well-rounded micronutrient profile, too, containing vitamin B12, selenium, phosphorus, and calcium.
11.6 grams of protein
Especially you follow a plant-based diet and thus avoid all animal products, tempeh is a fantastic protein to use as a base for your lunch and dinner. Like a lot of meat and poultry recipes, tempeh works well with a lot of staple meals, such as stir-fry recipes and pasta dishes.
And with its high iron and calcium content, it works as a wonderful replacement for animal-based proteins.
20.3 grams of protein
Much like tempeh, tofu is a great staple for plant-based dieters looking to work around animal produce while keeping protein high.
It offers some unique benefits, too: it contains a good amount of fiber, is rich in iron and calcium, and has a slightly longer “shelf life” than meat and poultry. Tofu can last up to a week after opening, rendering it both convenient and nutritious.
10.9 grams of protein
Another excellent source of plant-based protein, edamame truly is a nutritional powerhouse. Besides containing a high amount of protein and a low calorie count, edamame also offers a solid amount of fiber, a lot of vitamin K1, and an entire day’s worth of folate.
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Edamame works wonderfully as both a snack and ingredient within a main meal, making it easy to incorporate into your diet.
11.9 grams of protein
As far as protein supplements go, whey protein is at the top of the list. It’s dense with essential amino acids, contains few tag-along calories, carbs, and fats, and is relatively cost effective. And like many of the dairy-based protein sources, whey protein can be a great way to modify recipes for an extra kick of protein.
Since it’s relatively low in micronutrients, though, you won’t want to rely on this supplement for all of your protein needs.
58.1 grams of protein
Like whey, casein is abundant in essential amino acids, though it comes with a twist: it’s far slower to digest.
As a result, casein has a few unique perks. It works well before a period of fasting, such as before bed, since it can be particularly satiating over longer periods. Casein acts as a great alternative to whey, if you prefer the taste and mouth-feel of casein powders.
That being said, when you need fast-acting protein, such as pre- or post-workout, whey protein is more ideal.
72.7 grams of protein
If you’re lactose intolerant or follow a plant-based diet, a vegan protein powder will substitute nicely for whey or casein. When looking for a vegan protein powder, be sure to seek a combination of rice and pea protein. This blend is easily digested and absorbed yet provides a great blend of essential amino acids.
75 grams of protein
If you’re not a fan of shakes, but need an easy and accessible way of adding protein to your diet, a protein bar may be the perfect solution for you. But finding a good high-protein, low-calorie bar can be difficult.
Some are an excellent and convenient source of protein, whereas others are mostly carbs, fats, and a load of calories with a sprinkling of protein. Fortunately, BarBend has an up-to-date guide on the best protein bars for your goals and preferences.
Protein levels depends on brand
Calorie levels depends on brand
How Much Protein Should You Eat?
Since everyone’s goals, activity levels, and bodies are different, it stands to reason that there isn’t just one standard protein intake amount to always aim for.
If you’re cutting weight, a higher protein intake of one to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight can be beneficial. This higher intake supports lean tissue retention during a cut, further increases satiety while calories are restricted, and supports healthy stress levels. (5)
When your goal is to maintain weight, there’s a slightly reduced need for protein. That’s because you’re not in a calorie deficit and so minimizing the risk of tissue loss. Thus, one gram of protein per pound of body weight is often considered sufficient.
And if you’re gaining weight, 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight may be adequate. (6) Again, there simply isn’t the same risk of muscle protein breakdown in a surplus as there is in an energy deficit. Plus, once your baseline protein needs are met, strength gains and muscle growth will be fueled by additional carbohydrates, not protein.
To help you figure all of this out in a more accessible way, try out BarBend’s protein intake calculator here.
Protein Intake Calculator
Do you know your body fat percentage?
Total Calories: 1699 Per Day
Exercise: 15-30 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.
Intense exercise: 45-120 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.
Very intense exercise: 2+ hours of elevated heart rate activity.
All you have to do is plug in your relevant information, and get going.
How to Get Enough Protein
Of the three main macronutrients — protein, carbohydrate, and fat — protein tends to be the hardest to consume enough of. Typically, foods rich in protein are the most expensive, require more preparation, and are the least engineered for taste and texture.
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Practically, then, how can you work around this?
First and foremost, when planning your daily meals, consider building each meal around a protein source. Let’s say you like to eat four meals per day, you’re aiming for 160 grams of protein daily, and you want to consume your protein fairly evenly throughout those meals.
Before adding any carbohydrates or fats, your protein plan may look like this:
Breakfast: 40 grams of whey protein
Lunch: 200 grams of chicken breast
Afternoon Snack: 250 grams of low-fat Greek yogurt
Dinner: 150 grams of lean ground beef
You’ll also want to maintain focus on your preferences and routine. If you know you can prepare your lunch and dinners ahead of time, give priority to cooked options like eggs, red meat, poultry, and tofu. Similarly, if you know that breakfast is always a rush, prepare some overnight oats with protein powder or a protein smoothie ahead of time. Make your meal prep work for you, not against you.
Myths About Protein
Myth: You Can Only Eat So Much at Once
Until recently, many assumed you could only eat so much protein in one sitting. If you eat more than around thirty grams of protein at once, they’d say, you’re wasting your time.
However, it seems to be that the more protein you eat in a single meal, the longer it’ll take to digest and absorb. This seems especially true when you’re consuming slow-digesting protein sources combined with other macronutrients. (7)
Still, while you needn’t worry if one meal contains a lot more protein than another, it is still a wise decision to spread your protein evenly throughout the day. It’s likely that you’ll feel satiated more often, find it easier to hit your daily needs, and sustain elevated protein synthesis rates. (7)
Myth: Eating Too Much Protein Will Damage Your Kidneys
Nutrition and health scares make for shocking headlines. But in reality, the idea that too much protein will damage your kidneys has been extended from a half-truth.
Those with existing kidney disease may need to limit their protein intake. According to the National Kidney Foundation, people with existing kidney struggles may want to steer clear of excess protein because their kidneys may have trouble removing extra waste from their blood.
However, research suggests that there isn’t necessarily a cause-and-effect link between eating a high-protein diet and developing kidney disease. (8) Eating too little protein is problematic, regardless of whether one has kidney disease, because of how essential it is for proper tissue repair and immune function.
Eat Your Protein
Whether you’re cutting or bulking, eating enough protein is crucial to good results. It fuels muscle repair and growth, maintains healthy stress level, and improves the overall satiety of your meals.
Take the time to decide on your favorite sources, understand how you can best incorporate them into your routine, and include enough variety to keep your diet enjoyable and complete. You’ll never miss out on protein’s rich array of benefits again.
Helms, E. R., Zinn, C., Rowlands, D. S., Naidoo, R., & Cronin, J. (2015). High-protein, low-fat, short-term diet results in less stress and fatigue than moderate-protein, moderate-fat diet during weight loss in male weightlifters: A pilot study. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 25(2), 163-170.
Reed, G. W., & Hill, J. O. (1996). Measuring the thermic effect of food. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 63(2), 164-169.
Moran, L. J., Luscombe-Marsh, N. D., Noakes, M., Wittert, G. A., Keogh, J. B., & Clifton, P. M. (2005). The satiating effect of dietary protein is unrelated to postprandial ghrelin secretion. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 90(9), 5205-5211.
Daly, J. M., Reynolds, J., Sigal, R. K., Shou, J. I. A. N., & Liberman, M. D. (1990). Effect of dietary protein and amino acids on immune function. Critical care medicine, 18(2 Suppl), S86-93.
Helms, E. R., Zinn, C., Rowlands, D. S., & Brown, S. R. (2014). A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 24(2).
Phillips, S. M., & Van Loon, L. J. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of sports sciences, 29(sup1), S29-S38.
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 10.
Martin, W. F., Armstrong, L. E., & Rodriguez, N. R. (2005). Dietary protein intake and renal function. Nutrition & metabolism, 2(1), 1-9.
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