The Best Protein Diet Foods for Weight Loss
Protein helps you build and maintain lean muscle—plus, it keeps you feeling full longer. Here are the top food choices for a protein diet to help maximize your weight-loss success.
Canned tuna has 22 grams of protein and just under 100 calories per 3-ounce serving. That makes tuna 94 percent protein, with the remaining 6 percent of calories coming from fat—namely heart-healthy omega-3s, which have been associated with weight loss. Choosing “light” tuna means you’re getting the lower mercury option because it’s skipjack tuna, which is a smaller fish than the albacore tuna in canned “white” tuna. In addition to being one of the healthiest high-protein foods, tuna is rich in vitamins and minerals like niacin, selenium, and vitamin B12.
Canned tuna is also versatile—mix it with a little Greek yogurt, avocado, or hummus with fresh herbs, then spoon it into a whole wheat pita or lettuce boats with plenty of fresh veggies to round out your meal with flavor and filling fiber. Or for a low carb option, try this quick and easy Tuna and Green Bean Salad with Artichoke Hearts.
Chicken breast is a top entry for a protein-rich diet. It’s about 90 percent protein, providing 20 grams of protein and only 1 gram of fat per 3-ounce serving. Bumping up the lean protein in your diet has been linked to long-term weight loss since it keeps you full and satisfied without packing on calories. In fact, a 2015 review in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests higher protein diets may help people manage their weight. Keep a couple of seasoning blends on hand to keep your chicken breasts from getting boring—like chili powder and cumin for a Mexican-inspired meal, or rosemary and garlic for an Italian take.
A 3-ounce serving of wild Atlantic salmon provides about 17 grams of filling protein, alongside plenty of anti-inflammatory omega-3s. People who eat plenty of protein and omega-3s tend to have a lower body fat percentage; plus, protein is essential for helping you maintain lean muscle mass while losing weight. Salmon is also high in selenium, a mineral that acts as an antioxidant and helps boost immunity. Buy canned salmon or cook it from fresh and serve it on top of a salad with colorful veggies for a filling meal full of protein and healthy fats.
Turkey breast is one of the best high protein low-fat foods, with 95 percent of calories coming from protein. Researchers have found that when dieters boost their protein by eating more lean meat like turkey, they tend to lose more weight and keep it off, they have lower levels of harmful blood fats, and higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Don’t wait for Thanksgiving: Roast your own turkey breast or look for low-sodium, nitrate-free deli slices to put on sandwiches, or you can wrap them around cucumber pieces for a high-protein snack.
One large egg delivers about 6 grams of protein, and it’s split between the egg white and the yolk. Make sure you eat that yolk, by the way: It’s packed with vitamins A, D, E, and K, and choline, which is essential for a healthy metabolism. Research suggests that eating eggs for breakfast can help with your weight loss because they’re filling and they’re high in protein. Scramble a few eggs up for breakfast, and add some veggies or a piece of fruit on the side for some filling fiber. Or keep hardboiled eggs in the fridge for a grab-and-go snack. Go beyond breakfast and enjoy eggs for lunch and dinner, too.
A cup of lentils has 18 grams of protein and a whopping 16 grams of fiber, keeping you feeling full and satisfied. An excellent plant-based source of protein, lentils also pack in nearly 40 percent of your daily iron needs. People who eat plenty of legumes like lentils lose more weight on average than people who avoid legumes, according to research; they also have healthier hearts. Toss lentils with greens, veggies, and vinaigrette dressing for a filling and protein-packed meatless lunch.
You can get 12 grams of protein and just 130 calories from one cup of these soybeans. Edamame is a great vegetarian source of protein and an excellent source of fiber, and a serving of edamame gives you an entire day’s worth of folate, a vitamin that’s essential for heart health.
Worried that vegetarian protein won’t keep you as full as meat? One study found that men who ate soy-based protein foods lost a similar amount of weight and felt just as satisfied as those who ate meat. Steamed edamame pods make a great snack on their own since they’re low in fat but packed with filling protein and fiber. If you’re allergic or sensitive to soy, stick with pulses – non-soy members of the legume family that include beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas. These are not common allergens.
Bison or buffalo meat has gained popularity recently as a lean alternative to beef. It has a rich, gamey flavor, and it’s packed with protein. A 4-ounce serving of lean bison has 24 grams of protein and just 2.5 grams of fat. It’s also full of iron, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and zinc. Swap lean ground bison for ground beef to lighten up a burger patty without missing red meat, or cook ground bison meatballs into tomato sauce.
Cottage cheese is great as a snack or can easily be worked into your meals. A half cup serving of cottage cheese has 14 grams of protein and plenty of calcium to boot. Top it with berries and nuts for a satisfying breakfast, or layer it with zucchini noodles and meat sauce for a protein-packed lasagna. If you have a dairy allergy or intolerance, opt for white beans for protein and calcium.
Greek yogurt is thicker than regular yogurt—and it also has about double the protein. A 1-cup serving of Greek yogurt has 23 grams of protein and provides about a quarter of your daily calcium needs. When dieters get more protein from dairy sources, they end up with more muscle and less fat. Since Greek yogurt has a similar texture and flavor to sour cream, it’s a great substitute in dips or as a topping to help you enjoy more high protein meals. I also love using it instead of mayonnaise to make my Healthier Egg Salad. Greek yogurt is also great blended into smoothies or as a base for fruit and nuts at breakfast! Look for grass-fed and organic. yogurt for the “cleanest” highest-nutrient option. You can also look for plant options made with pea protein.
A ½ cup serving of tofu has 10 grams of protein and just 90 calories. Tofu is also rich in vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, manganese, selenium, and phosphorus. Since tofu is a soy product, it contains all essential amino acids, making it a great source of vegan protein. Silken tofu easily blends into smoothies to increase protein without adding dairy products, while firm tofu is great cubed and stir-fried with veggies over brown rice or quinoa. Organic tofu is a good choice to avoid GMOs and pesticide residues. If you don’t eat soy, go for pureed pulses like chickpeas or white beans.
Tempeh is made from fermented whole soybeans, meaning it’s high in protein and fiber. A 3-ounce serving of tempeh has 16 grams of protein and a meaty texture that makes it ideal for hearty vegan meals. When crumbled, it has a similar texture to ground meat and can easily replace ground turkey or ground beef in tomato sauce or chili.
This great plant-based source of protein delivers 8 grams in a half-cup serving along with the same amount of fiber and good helpings of iron, folate, and magnesium. Studies suggest that diets high in legumes like chickpeas and beans can help reduce inflammation and improve metabolic markers like cholesterol and blood pressure while aiding weight loss. Make a filling lunch by combining beans, chopped veggies, greens, nuts, and vinaigrette dressing, or add a can of beans to your next soup recipe to bump up the protein.
People don’t realize that a little tin of sardines packs a boatload (so to speak) of health benefits. A 3.75 ounce can of sardines has 23 grams of protein, more than 100 percent of your daily recommendation for vitamin B12, 60 percent of your daily recommendation for vitamin D, and several days’ worth of omega-3s. While the protein in sardines helps keep you full, the omega-3s can reduce inflammation and improve cardiovascular health. Use a fork to flake the sardines and treat them like canned tuna, or toss them in a salad with chickpeas, tomatoes, and herbs for a southern Italian-inspired dinner. If you find them unappealing right out of the tin, roast them in the oven.
Shrimp is 85 percent protein, packing in 17 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving. While shrimp is fairly high in cholesterol, research has made it abundantly clear that dietary cholesterol won’t raise your blood cholesterol. Shrimp cooks quickly, making it the perfect protein to add to weeknight meals. Just saute for a couple minutes with lots of veggies in flavored vegetable broth for a fast, filling, high-protein meal. This shellfish also happens to be one of the top superfoods.
Pork often gets a bad rap as a high-fat protein, but pork tenderloin is an exception. A 3-ounce serving of pork tenderloin has 22 grams of protein, just 3 grams of fat, and 120 calories. Pork is also high in thiamin, which will help keep your metabolism, heart, and nervous system healthy. Serve pork tenderloin with vegetables and a whole grain on the side for a well-rounded meal that’s full of protein, fiber, and nutrients. Try this Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Pineapple Salsa for a refreshing meal featuring one of the top high protein low-fat foods.
Don’t miss these 35 ways to sneak more protein into your diet.
- New England Journal of Medicine: "Diets with High or Low Protein Content and Glycemic Index for Weight-Loss Maintenance."
- Obesity Reviews: "Anti-obesity effects of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids."
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance."
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Increased Protein Intake Reduces Lean Body Mass Loss during Weight Loss in Athletes."
- The Journal of Nutrition: "A Moderate-Protein Diet Produces Sustained Weight Loss and Long-Term Changes in Body Composition and Blood Lipids in Obese Adults.
- International Journal of Obesity: "Egg Breakfast Enhances Weight Loss."
- Journal of Medicinal Food: Legume-, Fish-, or High-Protein-Based Hypocaloric Diets: Effects on Weight Loss and Mitochondrial Oxidation in Obese Men"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Appetite control and biomarkers of satiety with vegetarian (soy) and meat-based high protein diets for weight loss in obese men: a randomized crossover trial."
- The Journal of Nutrition: "Increased Consumption of Dairy Foods and Protein during Diet- and Exercise-Induced Weight Loss Promotes Fat Mass Loss and Lean Mass Gain in Overweight and Obese Premenopausal Women"
- European Journal of Nutrition: "A legume-based hypocaloric diet reduces proinflammatory status and improves metabolic features in overweight/obese subjects"
- PLOS One: "Fatty Fish Intake Decreases Lipids Related to Inflammation and Insulin Signaling—A Lipodemics Approach."
- Current Science: Shrimps—a nutritional perspective."