The first step to losing weight is rethinking your diet.
“Weight loss comes down to energy balance—meaning you have to consistently burn more calories than you eat. High-protein foods help out with both sides of the energy balance equation,” says Kim Yawitz, a registered dietitian and gym owner in St. Louis, MO.
“First, high-protein foods can help boost your metabolism, both short- and long-term,” Yawitz says, adding that eating a protein-heavy meal temporarily increases calorie burn, simply because your body has to work harder to digest and metabolize protein compared to fats and carbs. “Over time, incorporating more high-protein foods can also help protect against muscle loss while in a calorie deficit, allowing you to eat more calories while still losing weight.”
As a bonus, high-protein foods are also highly satiating, says Yawitz, especially when pitted against high-carb foods (bread, pasta, rice, etc.). “In this way, eating more protein at meals and snacks can help you to eat fewer calories overall when you’re trying to lose weight.”
To preserve muscle mass, Yawitz typically recommends starting with 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day on a weight loss diet. For instance, if you weigh 150 pounds, that amounts to 120 grams to 150 grams per day. “Keep in mind that eating too many calories overall will make you gain weight, even if those calories come from high-quality proteins,” says Yawitz. “You may need to reduce your carb and fat intake, especially if you’re eating a lot more protein than normal.”
Another thing that’s important to keep in mind as you increase your protein intake is to drink more water. “In one small study, athletes on high-protein diets were more likely to be dehydrated than those who ate less protein. In this study, the athletes didn’t feel especially thirsty even when their urine showed markers of dehydration,” she says, noting that drinking water throughout the day can help you feel and function your best even if you don’t feel parched, plus “It may even help with your weight loss efforts.”
Ahead, 16 such high-protein foods that can help with weight loss.
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“I stock my freezer with tilapia, which provides 30 grams of protein per four-ounce serving, and is also low in calories,” says Yawitz. Whether you opt for tuna, tilapia, sardines, anchovies, or something else, “fish is very filling, making it a great choice when you’re cutting calories,” says Yawitz.
“This is one of my favorite proteins because it not only boasts 19 grams of high-quality protein per 3 ounces cooked, it also boasts EPA and DHA omega-3s,” says Amy Gorin, RDN, an inclusive plant-based dietitian in Stamford , CT. “These healthy fats help keep you fuller for longer (in addition to helping with heart health),” she says.
“I love to make my own salmon bacon,” says Gorin. Check out Gorin’s recipe for homemade salmon bacon here.
Here’s another fish worth singling out when it comes to being high in protein and a good option for those trying to lose weight. “Mackerel is low in mercury and packs a ton of protein; it has 33 grams per filet,” says Kylie Ivanir MS, RD “Protein increases cholecystokinin (CKK), a hormone related to satiation,” she says.
These are one of Gorin’s favorite plant-based foods to load up on “because they are a complete protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that your body is unable to make on its own.” She also likes that pistachios are one of the highest protein nuts, “with a quarter-cup serving providing six grams of protein,” adding that since pistachios contain a trifecta of “protein, fiber, and better-for-you fats, they help keep you fuller for longer which can help with weight management.”
“Just ½ cup of low-fat cottage cheese contains 14 grams of belly-filling protein,” says Yawitz. “You can stick to a ½ cup if you need a small snack, or top a double portion with fruits or raw veggies for an easy meal.”
There’s good reason egg whites have a good reputation as a protein-rich food that helps with weight management. “By opting to eat egg whites rather than both the white and the yolk you cut down on a significant amount of calories without losing much protein,” says Trista K. Best, MPH, RD, at Balance One Supplements.
“The calories in eggs goes from around 70 to less than 20 when you cut out the yolk and only lose two grams of protein. This continues to be a protein-rich food that can aid in weight loss by both keeping you full and cutting down on calories,” says Best.
“Almond butter, in particular, packs a significant amount of nutrients including monounsaturated fat, vitamin E, fiber and protein. A quality almond butter will have less than two grams of sugar,” Best says. “Protein is also a valuable nutrient when choosing an almond butter. An adequate amount of protein in a serving of almond butter is around six-to-seven grams.”
“It’s not always easy to follow a high-protein diet, especially if you’re always on the go. I keep whey protein powder and a shaker bottle on hand for days when I struggle to hit my protein goals,” says Yawitz. “Look for a brand that’s third-party tested, and that has at least 25 grams of protein per scoop and not a lot of added ingredients.” Need a good recommendation? These are the best whey protein powders to buy right now.
Mackenzie Burgess, registered dietitian nutritionist and recipe developer at Cheerful Choices, recommends choosing grass-fed beef thanks to its higher amounts of nutrients like omega-3s and antioxidants. “Plus, it packs in substantial protein, which helps us feel fuller longer and may help reduce the overall calorie intake for the day,” Burgess says.
Yes, tofu is the new king of protein. “Tofu is a favorite plant protein because it’s so versatile. It picks up the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with, and baked tofu is so delicious,” says Gorin. “Plus, tofu is a complete vegan protein that provides protein and fiber—a combination that helps to keep you fuller for longer. Half a cup of firm tofu provides 22 grams of protein.”
Soy foods in general are another group of grub to keep in mind if you’re trying to load up on protein and drop weight. “Soy is a high protein food that is beneficial for a weight loss diet because it also contains fiber,” says Banna. “Fiber is important to help you stay full and avoid overeating.” Along with tofu, try edamame, miso, and tempeh (more on tempeh below).
As Burgess puts it, don’t knock it till you try it. At 31 grams of protein per cup, “tempeh has a firm texture and surprisingly nutty taste. It’s made from fermented soy beans, making it a versatile, protein-packed choice for a meatless meal,” she says. Try sautéing tempeh cubes in a veggie stir-fry or grilling as kabobs, Burgess suggests.
“Pea protein powder contains the magical combination for weight loss of both protein and fiber which keep you satisfied, while maintaining energy levels and keeping blood sugar levels stable,” say Lyssie Lakatos, RDN and Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, The Nutrition Twins.
“No more energy crashes and blood sugar dips that result in sugar and salt cravings and unwanted calories from unplanned snacks. Plus, pea protein can aid in weight loss even when calories aren’t restricted, and it also has been found to be more effective than whey protein at fighting against hunger.” Check out our guide to pea protein powders here.
“Black lentils pack in 18 grams of protein per cup and the protein aids in weight loss,” says Ivanir. The fiber in black lentils also “slows digestion, keeping us full and reducing cravings throughout the day.”
“The fiber in beans will keep consumers satisfied long after a meal which can prevent overeating,” says Best. If you can, pair beans with rice: “Beans are also rich in protein and eating them along with rice is the best way to get in all nine essential amino acids. Taking in all essential amino acids is necessary for a healthy life and combining rice and beans provides the right combination of amino acids to achieve this.”
“Pumpkin seeds are high in protein, containing 12 grams per cup,” says Ivanir. “The protein content will keep blood sugar levels in check, aiding in weight loss,” she continues, elaborating that the seeds are rich in fiber, which feeds beneficial microbes in the gut.
New to this probiotic drink? It’s time to add it to your routine regularly. “Just one glass of kefir contains nine grams of protein! Protein decreases neuropeptide Y (NPY), the ‘I’m craving carbs hormone.’ Carbs derail weight loss efforts by spiking blood sugar,” says Ivanir. Look for brands that have no added sugar, she says.
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