20 Protein-Packed Foods That Slim

Drop pounds without dieting by upping your protein intake

August 1, 2012
salmon milk eggs
Weight Loss Boosters

It looks like Dr. Atkins was on to something: According to a recent study, if you want to lose weight and keep it off, you've got to pile your plate with protein.

For the trial, Harvard researchers put pre-obese people (they had just lost 10-15 percent of their body weight) on three different diets—a low-fat, high-carb diet; a low-glycemic diet with fewer carbs; and a high-protein, high-fat, Atkins-style diet. Each participant ate the same number of calories on each diet, yet at the end of the study, they found that people burned the most calories at rest while on the Atkins diet. The low-fat, high-carb diet produced the worst effects, triggering changes "that would predict weight gain," noted the authors.

More: 15 Foods That Help You Lose Weight

The finding that diet quality can trump quantity is great news until you consider that many calorie-cutters fail to get the recommended daily intake for protein (46 g a day for women; 56 for men)—recommendation that some experts say is already too low. "It appears that there is a 30 gram protein threshold per meal," says metabolism research Donald Layman, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. That means if you eat less, your body won't get enough amino acids to build muscle. It also may not be enough to control hunger. Bottom line: "Eating higher protein and fewer carbohydrates will improve body composition, satiety, calorie burning, and insulin control," says Layman.

Here, 20 of the best ways to incorporate more protein into every meal:

salmon seasoning

Serving size: 4-6 oz
Protein per 4-oz serving: 29 g

Besides being packed with protein, salmon is one of the best natural sources of omega-3 fats, and one of the best fish you should eat. "Omega-3s may help aid in weight loss by improving glucose sensitivity, reducing insulin resistance, reducing markers of inflammation, and speeding up fat oxidation," says Tanya Zuckerbrot, RD, author of The F-Factor Diet.

Buying tips: Pick wild salmon over farm raised for 20 percent more protein and less fat, suggests Zuckerbrot, and ensure that you're not falling victim to a serious fish fraud.

Meal ideas: Bake, steam, or grill salmon and toss it on your salad for a healthy, satisfying lunch or dinner that's easy to make, says Zuckerbrot. Or, cut it into cubes for salmon and vegetable kabobs.

carved turkey

Serving size: 4-6 oz
Protein per 4-oz serving: 19 oz

"Turkey is a good source of the amino acid leucine, which plays a role in blood sugar levels and insulin function," says Zuckerbrot. "By keeping your sugars steady, you are less likely to binge on other foods in attempt to feel better."

Buying tips: Choose the leanest white meat to maximize protein and minimize fat. "Boneless and skinless options contain the fewest grams of fat and are low in calories," says Zuckerbrot. "If choosing deli turkey meat, choose lower sodium options. Deli meats tend to be high in sodium, which can lead to water retention and bloating."

Meal ideas: For a belly-filling protein-fiber, make a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato on whole wheat bread for lunch, or dice up the turkey and add it to soups with high-fiber vegetables like onions, carrots, celery, and turnips, suggests Zuckerbrot, or shoot for a turkey bone broth recipe with any leftovers.

cottage cheese
Cottage Cheese

Serving size: ½ cup
Protein per serving: 14 g

One serving of cottage cheese also contains 69 mg of calcium. "Calcium helps maintain muscle mass, which maintains metabolism, helping you burn calories more efficiently throughout the day," says Zuckerbrot, noting that its one of the best dairy products for improved health.

Buying tips: Stick with zero percent or one percent fat cottage cheese and stay away from cottage cheese with the fruit already added. "These pre-mixed combinations tend to have extra sugar added," says Zuckerbrot.

Meal ideas: For a mid-day weight-loss friendly snack, combine ½ cup of cottage cheese with high-fiber blueberries or raspberries, or top high-fiber crackers with ½ cup of cottage cheese, tomato slices, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, suggests Zuckerbrot.

canned tuna
Canned Tuna

Serving size: 2 oz
Protein per serving: 13 g

One can of tuna contains just 60 calories, making it one of the easiest food swaps that'll save you calories. Plus, tuna is also a good source of vitamin D, which aids in calcium absorption.

Buying tips: Go for the tuna canned in water instead of oil. "When you drain canned tuna in oil, some of the omega-3s can go down the drain," says Zuckerbrot. "Also, oil can turn an otherwise healthy lean source of protein into a protein loaded with fat and calories."

Meal ideas: For a quick and easy meal Zuckerbrot recommends mixing drained canned tuna (check out our list of the healthiest canned tunas for suggestions) with Greek yogurt (instead of mayo), and putting that into a whole wheat or multigrain wrap with veggies.

greek yogurt
Greek Yogurt

Serving size: 6 oz
Protein per serving: 18 g

Greek yogurt is an excellent source of metabolism-boosting calcium (around 200-300 mg per six ounce container). It also contains little lactose, making it easier to digest for those who don't tolerate dairy products well, says Zuckerbrot.

Buying tips: Again, aim for the lowest percentage of fat and skip the varieties with fruit, nuts, and sugars already added in.

Meal ideas: There are countless unexpected ways to use Greek yogurt. Use it in smoothies with ice and fruit or combine a pouch of French onion soup mix with a container of nonfat Greek yogurt for a lightened up French onion dip, says Zuckerbrot.

glass of milk

Serving size: 1 cup or 8 oz
Protein per serving: 9 g

Besides protein, this American staple is also a good source of calcium and vitamin D—both of which are essential to bone health, which can become an issue among women cutting calories, says Elisa Zied, RD, founder and president of New York City-based Zied Health Communications.

Buying tips: Non- and low-fat varieties of milk are best. If you guzzle flavored milk, just know you're getting some added sugars, says Zied.

Meal ideas: Stir milk into one of the healthiest breakfast cereals, smoothies, or scrambled eggs. According to multiple studies, chocolate milk also makes an ideal post-workout recovery snack

bowl of eggs
Eggs and Egg Whites

Serving size: 1 egg or 1.5 egg whites
Protein per serving: 6 g

One large egg gives you a quick shot of vitamin D (41 IU), as well as 113 mg of the B vitamin choline and is one of the top foods that'll make you smarter and give you a mental edge.

Buying tips: If you're concerned about herbicides, pesticides, or antibiotics, select organic eggs, says Zied. Some brands, such as Eggland's Best, also boast added nutrients like leutin, vitamin E, and vitamin B12.

Meal ideas: Have a hardboiled egg to eat as a snack, serve poached over asparagus and toast, or chop it up and sprinkle over a salad, recommends Zied. Fresh eggs are great for making whole-wheat French toast.


Serving size: ¼ cup
Protein per serving: 4 g

A quarter cup of these little legumes provides 4 g of fiber, which increases satiety and steadies blood sugar. Lentils are also an excellent source of folate, says Zied, which may play a role in preventing depression, insomnia, and muscular fatigue, and are one of the top vegan sources of protein for even those who avoid any animal byproducts. 

Buying tips: Lentils come in a variety of colors, but they all pack a nutritional punch. Buy them in bulk to save money and just make sure they're firm, smooth, dry, and uniform in color. When buying canned lentils, choose brands without extra salt or additives, making sure to not eat any of these secretly salty foods.

Meal ideas: In Zied's house, she likes to make lentil burritos by filling a whole-wheat flour tortilla with lentils and shredded cheddar cheese.

tofu cubes

Serving size: ¼ cup
Protein per serving: 10 g

Studies on tofu and weight loss are mixed, says Zied. But if you consume low-fat (or even regular) tofu in place of fattier sources of protein, it will be easier to achieve the calorie deficient needed for weight loss.

Buying tips: Firm tofu tends to contain the most calcium. You may also want to choose light or low-fat brands that are organic and do not contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. 

Meal ideas: "Baked tofu can be used as a substitute for fish, beef, or poultry in stir fries," says Zied. "You can even make a lasagna with it!"

quinoa salad

Serving size: 1/2 cup
Protein per serving: 4 g

Quinoa is one of the few vegetarian sources that are a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. It's also a rich source of fiber, magnesium, folate, copper, thiamin and vitamin B6, says Susan Irby, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide Quinoa Cookbook.

Buying tips: Many stores have bulk bins where you can purchase quinoa by the pound, or it's usually available in one-pound boxes, says Irby. You'll probably see red, white, and black varieties. "White quinoa has the mildest flavor; red and black quinoa have a more earthy flavor, but are still very tasty," says Irby.

Meal ideas: Quinoa can be substituted anywhere you would normally use rice, says Irby. 
"Cook quinoa and toss it with arugula greens [one of the best spring superfoods], tomatoes, fresh red and yellow bell peppers, or use quinoa in stuffed bell peppers or stuffed tomatoes." To get quinoa into your kid's diet, you can also use it as a binder for burgers, meatballs, and meatloaf instead of breadcrumbs, says Irby. If you don't like its nutty, earthy flavor, add spices and herbs, such as cayenne pepper, lemon zest, cilantro, basil, Italian parsley, cumin or cinnamon.

peanut butter
Peanut Butter

Serving size: 1 Tbsp
Protein per serving: 5 g

One serving of this tastey spread contains 5 g of monounsatured fatty acids, which research shows can help keep belly fat at bay, and can help aid in your weight loss efforts

Buying tips: Look for natural peanut butters that don't list salt or other additives in the ingredients list.

Meal ideas: When making sauces for your noodles, use peanut butter instead of regular butter, suggests Koff. You can also add a dollop to oatmeal, smoothies, and bananas.

split peas
Split Peas

Serving size: ½ cup
Protein per serving: 8 g

Split peas are definitely a waist-friendly veggie. Not only are they a surprising source of protein, but they're also super low in fat (less than a ½ g per serving) and high in fiber (8g).

Buying tips: Look for dried split peas that are green or yellow in appearance.

Meal ideas: You can't go wrong with a split pea soup, but these nutritional powerhouses also taste great in curries, salads, and veggie burgers. Or, for a healthy snack with a little crunch, cook them over medium-high heat in a skillet with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.

soybeans edamame

Serving size: ½ cup
Protein per serving: 11 g

Soybeans are another plant source of protein that provide a healthy dose of fiber (5 g per serving), as well as folate, manganese (found in the best foods for runners) and vitamin K.

Buying tips: You may want to stick to organic soybeans. In addition to concerns about GMO's link to allergies and infertility, recent research suggests they may also contribute to weight gain, says Ashley Koff, RD, co-author of Mom Energy.

Meal ideas: Sprinkle a little sea salt on edamame and eat it as a snack, or turn them into bean spread to put on veggies.

grilled chicken

Serving size: 4-6 oz
Protein per 4 oz serving: 32

Skinless chicken breast is one of the most popular foods among people trying to lose weight, and for good reason. It's rich in protein, low in fat, and versatile in the kitchen. It's also a good source of the heart-healthy vitamin B6.

Buying tips: To avoid unnecessary fat and calories, choose skinless chicken that is creamy white to deep yellow in appearance.

Meal ideas: Make chicken soup with organic chicken and spices, but no salt, suggests Koff. Or, replace pepperoni or meatballs in recipes with cubed chicken sausage.

ricotta cheese
Ricotta Cheese

Serving size: 1 oz
Protein per serving: 3 g

Made from whey, ricotta cheese is also low in calories (only 39 per serving) and fat (2g).

Buying tips: Look for part-skim ricotta to keep saturated fat in check.

Meal ideas: Turn ricotta into a dessert by pairing it with a baked apple or frozen berries, says Koff. Surprisingly, it also tastes great in fruit smoothies.


swiss cheese
Swiss Cheese

Serving size: 1 oz
Protein per serving: 8 g

Besides calcium and protein, Swiss cheese is also a good source of vitamin B12, which helps your body stay strong and energetic, making it one of the healthiest cheese varieties to eat.

Buying tips: Pick low-fat, low-sodium Swiss. If you don't need it pre-sliced, hard Swiss tends to be higher in nutrients, such as phosphorus.

Meal ideas: Turn your tuna and tomato sandwich into a melt by adding a slice of Swiss or grate it into an omelet.

steak on fork

Serving size: 3-4 oz
Protein per 4-oz serving: 33 g

A lean 3.5 ounce cut of meat (which is the size of a deck of cards, and is one of the best libido-boosting foods) contains less than 10 g of total fat, less than 4.5 g saturated fat and less than 95 mg of cholesterol. Plus, it's rich in energy-boosting iron.

Buying advice: "With 29 cuts meeting USDA's standard of 'lean' or 'extra lean,' top choices are eye of round roast, sirloin tip side steak, top round roast, bottom round roast and top sirloin steak," says Marni Sumbal, RD, owner of Tri Marni Coaching & Nutrition. "Cuts of meat should be choice or select, whereas prime may taste the best but usually contains the most fat." When available, choose grass-fed beef. It may have more nutrients, such as omega-3s, and vitamins A and E.

Meal ideas: "To keep your meal nutritious, flavor your meat with salt-free herbs and spices and sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt," says Sumbal. "As your meat is cooking, stir-fry a skillet of veggies and chop meat into bite-size pieces and toss together with brown rice for a filling, protein rich stir-fry."

bison burger

Serving size: 3 oz
Protein per serving: 22 g

"Although not as popular as staples like chicken or turkey, bison is a dense source of protein that's lower in fat than many red meats," says Sumbal. It also contains zinc, potassium, choline, and magnesium to support metabolism and overall health.

Buying advice: Keep in mind that because of the low fat content, properly cooked bison will shrink very little, so plan accordingly with your portion/serving size, says Sumbal. For buffalo burgers or steaks, meat should be cooked at a temperature lower than beef--around 275 degrees--and turned frequently to prevent drying. Buy grass-fed, if available. 

Meal ideas: Toss bison burgers on the grill and then top with grilled mushrooms, onions and pineapple.

halibut fish

Serving size: 3 oz
Protein per serving: 16 g

Halibut contains a significant amount of magnesium, B12, niacin, B3, B6, phosphorus, and potassium, says Sumbal. "Most importantly, the beneficial omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fish, like halibut, are essential to cardiovascular health." 

Buying advice: Sniff your fish; it should have a fresh seawater smell. "If it smells 'off,' put it back," says Sumbal. "Fresh, whole halibut should be buried in ice behind the display case whereas fillets will be on top of the ice." Avoid any fish with signs of browning.

Meal ideas: Create a Mexican-inspired fish taco by broiling halibut and placing it in a whole grain tortilla with avocado, corn, cilantro, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, and onions.


Serving size: 3 oz
Protein per serving: 22 g

For about 130 calories a serving and only 55 mg cholesterol, clams provide your body with nearly 22 grams of protein, and also help you get your day's worth of vitamin B12 and iron, over half of your day's worth of selenium, and 30 percent of your daily dose of vitamin C. 

Buying advice: Choose soft-shells for raw clams or for steaming and hard-shells for stews and chowders. 

Meal ideas: To help with shucking, freeze clams for up to 20 minutes, say Sumbal. Then, let them sit for a few minutes before opening the shells with your knife. It's recommended to cook them at a low setting. Add clams to whole-wheat pasta or make corn and clam fritters.

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