Most people know that meat and eggs are high-protein foods because it is ingrained from a very young age.
“You need to eat your meat and veggies before you can have dessert.”
Sounds familiar, huh?
While we all know the benefits of protein, not all sources are equal. Strap in, we’re going to dive down the rabbit hole.
Top 10 High-Protein Foods
#1 Wild-Caught Seafood
Seafood tops this list because it is a high-protein food that is low in fat. It also offers numerous micronutrients, such as omega-3s, vitamin D, potassium, B12, and iodine. It’s hard to find another high-protein food offering all this.
Wild-caught seafood offers the lowest potential for antibiotic exposure, which is common in farmed fish. It also promotes the sustainability of species.
We’re not just talking about fish, get creative, and try everything the sea has to offer – crab, lobster, shrimp, oysters, and scallops.
#2 Wild-Caught Fish
When it comes to protein intake, most people only think about one thing: How many grams did I eat today?
While that is certainly important, consider the impact of the high-protein foods you consume.
For example, wild-caught fish is often high(er) in omega-3, which is a fatty acid that helps reduce systemic inflammation. Most cultures over-consume omega-6, which is found in vegetable and corn oils, because it is cheap and readily available. Omega-6 fatty acids are considered pro-inflammatory.
Wild-caught fish may cost more than other protein sources, but it offers omega-3, which neither chicken nor beef has.
#3 Pasture-Raised Whole Eggs
The incredible, edible egg is fascinating. It’s the richest source of dietary choline, while also boasting a high density of B vitamins and selenium.
Eggs also have an impressive biological value (BV) of 100. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, BV is a measure of how readily the body absorbs the digested protein. In other words, it’s a marker for how easily the protein’s amino acids can be absorbed and transported into individual cells for growth and repair. If you need a refresher course on understanding protein, read our post, Protein 101: How Much Do Lifters Really Need?
Eggs are literally nature’s perfect food. While some eggs are exceptionally cheap, it may be worthwhile to consider what your chicken eats when it’s producing that egg. Pasture-raised birds have 108 square feet per hen and can graze on bugs, worms, and plants. Most commercially raised birds are fed a diet of either corn or soy and never see the sun. Because of the differences in nutrition and lifestyle, pasture-raised eggs often have higher levels of fat-soluble vitamins (aka A, E, and D) and omega-3s.
#4 Grass-Fed Wild Game
If you’re an avid hunter, then you’re likely already well-stocked with fresh grass-fed game. When it comes to high-protein foods, most people only think about chicken or beef and forget about other animals.
Bison, duck, lamb, veal, venison, rabbit, quail – the list is nearly endless. But don’t just rely on your local Whole Foods. Get to know someone who hunts or consider picking up the hobby yourself.
Grass-fed animals raised in nature will always have higher levels of micronutrients (vitamins/minerals). They will also have a better fatty acid profile and less inflammation because of their natural diet.
#5 Free-Range Chicken
When you talk to most chicken eaters, you’ll likely find that they’re pretty conventional in their approach. They eat chicken breasts year-round with an occasional bucket of wings if they’re in the mood for something different.
However, most people forget about chicken thighs. They are also pretty lean and offer great flavor due to their dark meat and slight fat content. Not only that, dark meats have an entirely different micronutrient array. So, it can be beneficial to eat both light and dark meats to ensure you have plenty of diversity.
#6 Free-Range Turkey
Turkey is the other white meat that no one talks about. Most people stick to chicken and only eat turkey for Thanksgiving.
Turkey hosts an excellent protein-to-fat ratio and is also incredibly versatile. It can be ground, shredded, or roasted and easily complements any starchy carb.
#7 Whey Concentrate/Isolate
I touched on whey in another piece, Protein: Everything You Wanted to Know, But Never Asked. But realize that the subject is not as cut and dry as some would like it to be.
While both its forms – concentrate and isolate – offer different benefits, whey is a solid addition to any diet. It’s a portable, low-fat source of protein that can be used for hundreds of different recipes. Turn it into a Super Shake, smoothie, peanut butter (yes, you read that correctly, peanut butter!), icing, ice cream, and the list goes on and on.*
#8 Kefir/Greek Yogurt
If you’re not familiar with kefir, it’s a fermented dairy product that contains a wide array of live and active cultures similar to yogurt.
The main difference is kefir contains 2-3x as many strains and almost 5x as many colony-forming units (CFUs) when compared to yogurt. CFUs = the strength of live bacteria in probiotic preparations.
Not only that, a single cup of kefir contains 11-12 grams of muscle-building protein with an exceptionally high biological value (BV) of 90. Refer to the discussion above on BV if you’re still confused about that term).
Greek yogurt may contain a slightly lower amount of live and active cultures, but it usually has almost double the amount of protein as a cup of kefir because it’s more concentrated. If you’ve never had it before, consider adding granola and berries to make a parfait. You can also use it as a sour cream replacement in any recipe!
When drinking a plain kefir beverage, it may have a somewhat sour taste due to the fermentation. I strongly suggest using it as the base for a smoothie with fruit, or you may have a tough time getting past the taste.
#9 Cottage Cheese
Cottage cheese is one of the strongest high-protein foods from the dairy family. You see … dairy has a unique blend of both whey and casein proteins. Whey digests rather quickly, while casein remains in the stomach for hours as it’s slowly digested.
So, cottage cheese can make an excellent snack later in the evening before bed. There’s data indicating that there might be a metabolic advantage to consuming casein protein before bedtime. Usually when you’re fasting overnight during sleep, you “run out” of amino acids in the bloodstream. But with cottage cheese, you “supplement” with additional amino acids because the casein protein takes a long time to digest.
While the data isn’t unanimous on this yet, bodybuilders have been using this for decades with great results. So, consider adding it to your diet (provided you like cottage cheese) for 2-3 months and see if you notice a difference in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) on the days after training.
#10 Collagen Protein
While it’s certainly not the best option and the reason why it’s #10, collagen protein is a great option for both vegan and dairy-sensitive individuals who are looking for a way to increase their protein intake.
There is some preliminary data on different types of collagen suggesting that oral consumption may boost internal synthesis (aka production), but this is highly dependent on the collagen type and quality.
Given the hype surrounding this product and the current body of research, there are many collagen products on the market. But many of them have poor quality, so do your homework before investing in a new supplement.
Aren’t these high-quality protein foods expensive?
Given the differences in cost of living and groceries across the country, the price of good-quality, high-protein foods is quite valid. However, I’ve found that this isn’t as large of a concern as people might think, if they know how to shop smart.
Here are a few ideas to keep the cost low and food quality high:
Opt for frozen over fresh seafood: Sure, it may not be as good, but I’ve seen savings as large as $2-$3/pound for frozen versus fresh.
Buy in bulk: Shop at Sam’s Club, Costco, or BJs.
Buy extra when something is on sale: If it’s close to the ‘sell-by date,’ many grocers discount the cost. Buy and freeze it.
Opt for local sources: Most online meat suppliers charge extra for shipping and temperature control during transit. Thus, it’s usually cheaper to find someone local.
Support a farmer: If they sell whole or half cows, this is the cheapest way to get a lot of grass-fed beef for next to nothing. The same goes for eggs. Most farmers don’t know what to do with all the eggs they have. Research online or ask people at your local farmers market because they’ll know where to get the best eggs.
Buying High-Protein Foods: Putting It Into Action
As the saying goes, “You are what you eat.” In actuality, the saying should be, “You are what your food eats.” The process that your food goes through before ending up on your plate is vitally important. It’s important for people to know where their food comes from, so take the time to understand who and what you’re supporting every time you go to the grocery store. Make your opinion known with your dollars.
Throughout this article, I stressed quality and sustainability. Now, don’t get me wrong. At the end of the day, what’s more important – eating farmed salmon because it’s all you can afford or skipping wild-caught salmon and buying chicken instead because it’s too expensive?
I’m sure we both know the answer to that question. Buy the farm-raised salmon. Better yet, consider investing in a high-quality fish oil supplement, which is often cheaper than fresh seafood and a more potent source of omega-3s.
*For more recipe ideas, see another article I wrote.