Could you benefit from adding a bit more protein to your day? As I wrote last time, eating more than just your minimum requirement (without going overboard of course) can have two key benefits: (1) helping you maintain and even regain strength and muscle as they decline after age 30 (!), and keeping you full and satisfied, thus helping you resist cravings and unneeded snacking.
So what are some of the easiest, healthiest and most economical ways to do this? I’ve been working on this for the past two years, starting with my $10-a-day healthy eating challenge, and my current experiment since December 2020 aiming for 30% of my calories as protein.
First two of my general principles, then my 12 “protein’s greatest hits”.
Note: I’m mentioning what I believe are “healthy” foods, based on general nutritional principles — however, I know we are all different and some of these foods may not be right for you, due to allergies, intolerances, local availability, and your personal preferences and concerns, including ethical concerns. I’ve included a broad range of examples, so even if some of them are off the table (literally), I hope you will find some new and useful ideas!
General principle #1: Nature is smarter than we are. I remember when we thought trans fats were better than butter, and ChemLawn was a good name for a company ?. In my protein quest and otherwise, I (try to) avoid factory-farmed animal products, chemical additives, artificial sweeteners and highly processed foods in general — that is, foods with ingredients I couldn’t make in my own kitchen.
General principle #2: Look at the whole calorie package. Many natural protein sources occur together with fats (like meat, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and dairy products), or with carbohydrates (beans, legumes, vegetables). Oddly, nature rarely packages fats and carbohydrates together, that’s mainly a human invention, and it might possibly bypass our natural sensors leading to overconsumption. The foods listed above are highly nutritious, but when we’re trying to boost protein without increasing overall calories, it’s important to look at the relationship between protein and calories.
Example: if you want to cover your minimum protein requirement (46 grams for women) with cheese, nuts, and beans, here’s what might happen:
Monterey Jack cheese (Cabot Creamery), 3 ounces (3 1-inch cubes): 330 calories, 18 grams of protein. Nuts: 2 ounces Planters mixed nuts (2 open handfuls): 344 calories, 12 grams of protein. Beans: 1 cup Goya black beans: 260 calories, 16 grams of protein. Total: 46 grams of protein, 934 calories. Oops, that is just the minimum level of protein, and it doesn’t leave much room for your 5+ fruits and vegetables; healthy fats like olive oil; whole grains; and discretionary calories.
Here’s another way to cover your daily protein minimum:
0% Greek yogurt (Fage) 1 container (170 g): 90 calories, 18 grams of protein. Cooked salad shrimp (Sea Best), 3 ounces (about a handful): 50 calories, 12 grams of protein. Teriyaki baked tofu (Plantspired),1 piece (about the size of a deck of cards), 140 calories, 14 grams of protein. Total: 44 grams of protein, 280 calories. Wow!
My personal strategy for identifying a high-protein food is: the number of grams of protein should be 10% or more of the calorie count. With the tofu example above, 14 grams and 140 calories are exactly at the 10% line. The shrimp is extremely protein-dense, with 12 grams and only 50 calories.
So here we go — My 12 Protein’s Greatest Hits. They’re not in any order — pick and choose the ones that work best for you!
- Canned fish. Canned tuna in water is a weekly go-to for me. I just open the can, drain, and put on a salad or eat as-is with some seasoning. 110 calories, 24 grams of protein, nice! Canned salmon or sardines packed in water are affordable, high-protein nutritional powerhouses that give us essential Omega-3 fats — I wish I liked them more but I include them weekly just because they’re so healthy. I usually mix them in with tuna, onions, olive oil and mustard to counteract any fishy taste.
- Frozen fish and shrimp. Individually packed frozen fish fillets are super-easy: thaw them in the refrigerator for a day, then bake at 400 degrees with a little olive oil, herbs and spices. Or cut up white fish and add to a soup or curry. I often throw frozen cooked and peeled “salad” shrimp into scrambled eggs, soup, curry, or a salad (as mentioned above, just 50 calories for 12 grams of protein, nice!).
- Eggs are a breakfast food because they’re so fast to prepare. I cook hard-boiled eggs every week in advance (in my Instant Pot), and they’re great on the go (with a jar of a fun Penzey’s spice mix). An egg has 77 calories and about 6 grams of protein. Or if you eat three eggs but discard one yolk, that’s 170 calories, 18 grams of protein. The yolks are very nutrient-rich, but an egg white is a pure protein blast: 4 grams of protein for only 16 calories!
- Nuts and seeds are calorie-dense, so portion control is important (1 ounce, or about what you can hold in an open cupped hand, is a serving). But there is abundant evidence that they are great for us, so add a serving or two to your daily plan if they work for you. Add nuts or seeds like pumpkin, sunflower or chia to salads, yogurt or oatmeal. Quinoa is also actually a seed.
- Beans and legumes: Just open a can of beans or chick peas and add to soups, stews, salads, curries, eggs and more. Especially in their dried form, beans and legumes like lentils have an extremely low cost per gram of protein. “Good” gut bacteria love them, but if you suddenly eat a lot more, you might feel some repercussions as your gut adjusts — increase your consumption gradually.
- Cooked turkey breast or chicken (hopefully humanely raised). I eat it right out of the package or cut it up to add to salads, soups, etc.
- Frozen spinach and other greens: yes, these are a good protein source — that’s where powerful animals like bison get their protein! 1 cup of frozen spinach has 3 grams of protein and only 25 calories. Of course you’d have to eat more than 15 cups to cover your minimum daily protein needs, don’t do that. Washed fresh greens are similar, and there are many ways to eat your greens besides in a pile on your plate: add them to smoothies, soups, stews, chili, eggs, and more.
- Icelandic skyr and other low-fat fermented dairy: Low-fat or nonfat Greek yogurt, kefir or Icelandic skyr provide a fermented food bonus (we should eat fermented foods regularly to benefit our gut bacteria). And now I know why nutritionists talk so much about “low-fat dairy”: without the full-fat calories, it’s a protein powerhouse. Skyr is milder than yogurt, and even fruit or vanilla flavored skyr is moderate in calories. Enjoy it as an easy snack; add fruit, nuts, and/or raw old-fashioned oats; or use plain skyr or Greek yogurt like sour cream. I’ve also rediscovered my mom’s trusty “diet” food: low-fat cottage cheese, which I enjoy with fruit or with a seasoning blend like zatar.
- Pre-prepared tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Check out your grocery store’s vegan section for these high-protein foods made out of soybeans or wheat. Some are sold already cooked and flavored (read the label to avoid too many processed ingredients and too much sodium if that’s an issue for you). I regularly buy baked tofu, seitan crumbles and organic three-grain tempeh. No need to drain or fry; just cut them up right out of the package and warm them up with soups, stews, eggs, vegetarian chili, curries, and more.
- Pasta made out of beans/legumes (black bean, red lentil, chick pea): OK, it’s not a whole natural food, and it’s not the same as original Italian pasta, but a serving of Organic Black Bean Spaghetti from Explore Cuisine has 180 calories and 25 grams of protein (and 11 grams of fiber!). I don’t eat this every week, but I’ll sometimes cook up a batch and keep it in the fridge as a basis for easy meals and snacks — I add olive oil, my favorite garlic-hot-pepper sauce, previously roasted vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms, zucchini), maybe a little fresh Parmesan, and perhaps a natural pasta sauce like Rao’s.
- High-quality protein powders. Powdered proteins are clearly not a whole food, so they’re not the whole “package” that nature intended. But I have to admit that I often resort to protein shakes for convenience. I stay away from varieties with mysterious ingredients (like the ones often sold in gyms), and I prefer single-ingredient protein powders like grass-fed whey protein and organic pea protein, which can be blended into a smoothie or stirred into oatmeal. To make these plain-flavored powders into a tasty smoothie, I add easy ingredients like a banana, frozen berries, cocoa powder, maca root powder, canned pumpkin, powdered peanut butter, flaxseed meal, and cinnamon. Sometimes when I need something really easy, I use premixed protein shakes with ingredients I recognize, for example from Arbonne or Orgain (check out the peanut butter flavor!).
- Nutritional yeast. Yes, yeast! This excellent protein source is well-known among vegans, because it’s also a source of the essential vitamin B-12, not found in plants, as well as other B vitamins. It looks like a powder or flakes, and it tastes a bit like Parmesan cheese. It’s easy to use wherever you might consider adding Parmesan cheese: vegetables, soups, stews, and even salads. Two tablespoons give you 5 grams of protein for only 40 calories, plus many other nutrients (note: some companies add extra vitamins).
So those are my top 12! I eat most of them every day, because variety is another key principle for good nutrition. I hope you’ve gained some useful ideas — let me know what you try (or what you’re already doing) and how you like it! Thanks for reading!