Protein is one of the three important macronutrients that provide us with calories (the other two being carbohydrates and fat.) It’s used in many bodily functions including cell maintenance and repair, blood clotting and the production of antibodies. It’s the primary component of many body tissues such as skin, hair and muscle. Protein is also digested more slowly than carbohydrates, which helps increase feelings of satiety — aka satisfying your hunger.
Protein can be found in a variety of foods including fish, poultry, meats, legumes, soy, nuts, seeds and dairy. Lesser amounts of protein can also be found in whole grains and vegetables. If you are following a low-carb diet, but looking to up your protein intake to build muscle, recover from an injury or aid in weight loss, there are many options to choose from. Below is a list of some of my favorite high-protein, low-carb choices.
This lean protein is a go-to protein source for good reason. A 4-ounce serving of chicken will give you 26 grams of protein for a minimal 120 calories (and no carbs!). Chicken is also versatile and goes with almost any type of cuisine.
In an age when enthusiasm for cultured dairy is pretty high, cottage cheese is making a comeback. A 1/2-cup serving of cottage cheese contains about 100 calories, 12 grams of protein and 5 grams of carbs. It is also a versatile ingredient that can be used as the base for a sweet or savory meal, and makes a great dip for veggies.
Who doesn’t love eggs? They’re an easy, nutrient dense and wallet friendly way to pack in protein, as well as a dose of satiating fat, with trace amounts of carbohydrates. With 6 grams of protein per egg, you can easily get a hefty dose through a simple, super healthy two-egg breakfast with sautéed greens.
A 4-ounce serving of grass-fed beef has 22 grams of protein and no carbohydrates. Grass-fed and free-range means that the meat comes from cows that graze freely on grass for their entire lives. This kind of beef is the best choice, thanks to a healthier fat profile and more antioxidants. The meat from cattle that eat only grass contains two to three times the amount of conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) compared to grain-finished beef. CLAs are healthy fats associated with reduced cancer risk, reduced cardiovascular disease risk, and better cholesterol levels.
Three tablespoons of hemp seeds contain about 160 calories, 10 grams of protein and just 2 gram of carbs. You’ll also get 240 milligrams of potassium and 15-20% of your daily iron needs (depending on the brand). It’s hard to find that much nutrient density in a single food. Hemp has a beautiful ratio of the common omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but it is also loaded with the less commonly found stearidonic acid (SDA) and gamma linoleic acid (GLA). You need these fatty acids to fight inflammation and protect your heart and immune system. They are a simple and nutritious addition to your morning smoothie or oatmeal.
I never met a nut butter I didn’t love. Whether you’re a peanut butter lover, an almond butter addict or a cashew connoisseur, opt for natural nut butters made from just one ingredient: nuts! One, 2-tablespoon serving puts about 8 grams of protein on your plate with 6 grams of carbs.
Pumpkin seeds are a nutrient-packed ingredient to use all year long — not just after you carve a pumpkin! These small, but mighty, seeds pack in 9 grams of protein in a 1-ounce serving and also contain important minerals such as zinc, magnesium and iron. They are also are a good source of healthy fats and add a nice crunch to just about any dish for only 4 grams of carbs per shelled serving.
This fish is a delicious source of omega-3’s (important for metabolism!) and protein, with about 17 grams per 3-ounce serving and no carbohydrates. When purchasing salmon, make sure you opt for the wild-caught variety. It’s sustainable and can actually provide more nutritional benefit than farm-raised options. Salmon is also a protein source that can be quick and easy to get on the table on a hectic weeknight with a recipe like this parchment-baked salmon.
This green algae is popular with wellness advocates — and for good reason. Gram-for-gram, spirulina may be the single most nutritious food on the planet. The quality of the protein in spirulina is considered excellent; comparable to eggs. It contains all the essential amino acids that you need: You’ll find 4 grams in a tablespoon of dried spirulina (and less than 2 grams of carbs). It has a strong flavor, so mask it in a smoothie — it also adds a fun blue hue!
Not only is tempeh a source of gut-friendly probiotics, but it’s also packed with plant-based protein. Try experimenting with new meal options, like a tempeh breakfast hash, tempeh bacon or tempeh stir-fry. Not familiar with the ingredient? Check out this guide to tempeh. You’ll get about 15 grams of protein and 13 grams of carbs in a 4-ounce serving.
Looking to switch up your usual egg scramble? Try tofu. I love sautéing crumbled tofu with colorful veggies such as bell peppers, onions and spinach for a high-protein, egg-free breakfast. Don’t forget to add flavor your tofu with spices such as turmeric, black pepper, cumin and garlic. Tofu contains about 20 grams of protein and less than 4 grams of carbs in a 1/2-cup serving.
All yogurt serves up protein, but strained options like Greek yogurt or Icelandic skyr are the highest in protein. Opt for an unsweetened version to avoid added sugars, then incorporate your own natural sweeteners, like fresh fruit and cinnamon. You’ll get more than 15 grams of protein and 5 grams of carbs per ¾-cup serving, depending on the brand.
Beans contain more carbohydrates, but they are a great way to get in plant protein and fiber. A ½-cup serving contains 7.5 grams of protein and 7.5 grams of fiber and 20 grams of carbs. They’re also jam-packed with phytonutrients including anthocyanins and quercetin, both of which act as antioxidants. Black beans do contain more carbohydrates than other forms of protein but that comes with all that fiber and additional nutrients. Definitely worth adding to your plate!
Similar to black beans, this legume is higher in carbs than other protein options, but it’s also packed with protein, fiber and antioxidants. These little legumes are a great addition to soups and salads, especially if you’re trying to reduce your intake of animal protein. They contain about 7–9 grams of protein per ½-cup serving and 20 grams of carbs.
Lentils are a no-brainer for those looking to up their plant-protein consumption (which really should be all of us). Unlike animal proteins that deliver saturated fat — the type of fat that can raise our bad LDL cholesterol — plant-based proteins like lentils are free of saturated fat. Again, this option is higher in carbohydrates but also dietary fiber, which is critical for stabilizing blood-sugar levels as well as (you guessed it!) helping to lower bad LDL cholesterol levels. A 1-cup serving of cooked lentils will provide 18 grams of protein with 40 grams of carbs.