If you are focused on feeling satisfied after eating a meal, supporting your muscle growth, helping your body have strong bones and powering your immune health, then protein needs to be a part of your plate. Sure, carbohydrates and healthy fats play important roles in supporting our overall health and wellness. But protein plays so many key roles in the human body that eating enough should be a priority.
In fact, a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Endocrinology showed that higher-protein diets are linked to a slew of benefits, like promoting weight management, helping manage blood sugars and increasing the body’s ability to absorb calcium, ultimately supporting bone health.
In a nutshell, getting enough protein in your diet is critical when it comes to supporting your overall health and wellness.
What Is Protein?
If you have ever been on a diet or spoken to somebody about nutrition, then you have surely heard the word protein before. While many people know that protein is important, they may not know what it actually is.
The proteins that we eat are made up of different amino acids—the building blocks of protein. These amino acids are what the body uses for various functions, from forming certain hormones to building specific proteins within the body. So, when the body digests the whole protein that we get from our juicy hamburger or from a hearty lentil soup, the amino acids that make up that protein are absorbed and used by cells for a multitude of functions.
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are 20 amino acids that make up proteins, and each one is categorized as essential, nonessential or conditional:
- Nonessential amino acids are the ones our body can make. It is not essential that they are included in the diet.
- Essential amino acids are the ones our body can’t make. Therefore, they need to be obtained via the diet.
- Conditional amino acids are considered to be essential in times of illness and stress. So their classification of being essential is conditional.
Regardless of whether you are a carnivore or follow a vegan eating plan (or somewhere in between), it is possible to get all of the essential amino acids that the body needs, as long as you choose to eat high-protein foods throughout the day.
What Can Protein Do for You?
When people think of protein, thoughts of bodybuilders who are trying to sculpt the perfect muscles may come to mind. But protein is so much more than a weightlifter’s BFF. Protein, or rather the amino acids that make up protein, plays many essential roles in the body, including:
How Much Protein Do You Need?
While protein is such an important nutrient to eat, that doesn’t mean that you should be eating loads and loads of it every single day. The amount of protein you need depends on a few factors, including your weight, age, sex and health status.
Generally speaking, most healthy adults require 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. This translates to 55 g per day for a sedentary man of average weight and 45 g per day for a sedentary woman of average weight. You may need to up your protein consumption if you are extremely physically active, pregnant or lactating, if you are recovering from certain injuries or surgeries or if you are older. According to a 2020 Advances in Nutrition study, experts say that older people need more protein to maintain and make muscle.
8 Best High-Protein Foods
Protein is found in many foods you are likely already enjoying. While this macronutrient can be found in smaller quantities in foods like vegetables and rice, there are other foods with high protein that are better at nourishing your body when included in an overall healthy diet.
To help narrow things down, here are eight of the best protein-containing foods for you to enjoy.
1. Lean Beef
Including beef in your diet not only provides your body with high-quality protein but also fuels your body with key nutrients like zinc (which plays a role in immunity) and iron (which shuttles oxygen through your body). For a satisfying dish that contains beef, try a Skillet Steak with Mushroom Sauce or a cozy Slow-Cooker Beef Stew.
As a versatile dinner staple that is in many people’s rotation, chicken packs a punch in the protein department. A simple Baked Lemon-Pepper Chicken or Creamy Parmesan Garlic Mushroom Chicken recipe can be an easy weeknight dinner that includes this important nutrient in a delicious way.
Salmon may be known for its healthy fats that support heart health, but this food contains a hefty portion of protein too. Eating fish at least twice a week also adds variety to your weekly protein rotation. Salmon recipes like our Honey-Garlic Salmon or Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon are a must-try.
Eating eggs is a convenient way to sneak in some high-quality protein. You can enjoy them scrambled or hard-boiled or include them in recipes like a Spinach Omelet and Egg Salad. Check out our egg recipes for more egg-spiration!
5. Peanut Butter
For a plant-based protein source that is loved by many, natural peanut butter is the way to go. You can enjoy it in a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, use it as an ingredient in a Peanut Dressing, or whip up some Peanut Butter Energy Balls for a quick nosh while on the go. Not a fan of peanuts or looking for other options? Other nut butters and seed butters also provide comparable amounts of protein.
Pasta is often considered a carb source, but a 2-ounce uncooked serving of classic semolina pasta provides almost as much protein as one large egg! Top your pasta with some Quick Meat Sauce or enjoy a bowl of One-Pot Italian Sausage & Kale Pasta for even more protein per bite. Looking for meatless pairings to go along with your pasta? Our recommendations for plant-based protein toppings for pasta will not disappoint.
7. Low-Fat Cottage Cheese
Creamy cottage cheese is a natural source of protein that is easy to include in a balanced diet. And using it in recipes like Creamy Spinach Dip and Florentine Lasagna Roll-Ups helps keep the protein content high without the need to add any meat.
For the ultimate plant-based protein, turn to hearty lentils. Not only are they loaded with this key macro, but they are packed with antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. From a cozy Vegan Lentil Soup to a Lentil Bowl with Fried Eggs & Greens, enjoying lentils can be a delicious way to get protein into your diet.