It’s difficult to lose weight in a healthy, sustainable way without getting adequate levels of protein in your daily diet. For one, protein helps you feel satiated for longer periods of time and reduces your hunger hormones. Protein also has a higher TEF (thermic effect of food) than fat or carbohydrates, meaning your body burns more calories when you eat it. And on top of that, protein can help you build muscle mass.
Even though eating enough protein is crucial for healthy weight loss, the quality of your protein matters a lot as well, especially because there are plenty of low-quality, nutrient-scarce proteins out there.
Even though we know that eating a high-protein diet is key when it comes to feeling satisfied with your meals and maintaining a weight loss effort, it seems that many of us have gotten into a rut, relying on just a few primary sources of protein. Not only can this cause taste bud fatigue, but it can also deny your body health-boosting nutrients found in protein-rich foods you’re overlooking.
What makes certain foods a good source of protein for weight loss?
While, yes, protein—in general—can aid weight loss, there are some foods high in protein that are better than others when it comes to dieting. These foods meet certain criteria:
- Low fat: Protein foods that are low in fat are inherently lower in calories. Because you’ll lose weight when you consume fewer calories than you burn, eating low-fat protein foods can aid weight loss.
- Low-calorie: Low-calorie protein foods are basically the same as low-fat protein foods. Most of the time, protein foods are low in calories because they’re low in fat. Another way protein foods can be low calorie is if they’re low-carb, as carbohydrates are another calorie-dense macronutrient.
- High-protein: Of course, if you want to follow a high-protein diet for weight loss, you’d expect these protein foods to actually be high in, you know, protein.
What exactly is high protein? As defined by the FDA, it depends on the percentage of protein based on the recommended daily intake (RDI) of protein, which is 50 grams:
- Good sources of protein contain between 10 and 19 percent of your RDI, or 5 to 9.5 grams of protein.
- Excellent source of protein contain 20 percent or more of your RDI, or over 10 grams of protein.
The best sources of protein are either going to be “good” or “excellent” sources of protein.
Our high-protein foods list for weight loss
Whether you’re a fan of fish, can’t deny your love of dairy, or stick to a meat-free meal plan, we’ve got the best options for your waistline.
Read on to get in the know and be sure to pick a few of our suggestions up next time you head to the grocery store, and for more, don’t miss 34 High-Protein Breakfasts That Keep You Full.
You can eat them hard-boiled, scrambled, sunny-side up, or soft-boiled in your favorite bowl of ramen, but however you choose to eat eggs, they’re guaranteed to give you a lean protein boost every time.
“At just about 70 calories each, eggs are packed with 6 grams of appetite-controlling protein that will keep you satisfied, helping you to avoid bingeing later in the day. In fact, research shows that eating eggs for breakfast reduces calorie intake over the next 24 hours,” say Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT, and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, also known as The Nutrition Twins. “Plus, eggs are also a good source of vitamin D, and insufficient levels of vitamin D have been linked to higher levels of belly fat.”
The Nutrition Twins add that if you’re in a hurry, “another bonus is that eggs can be a portable source of protein. Hard-boil your eggs on the weekend, so you can eat them on the go with a piece of fruit.”
Beans are an extremely healthy high-protein food because they are dense in fiber on top of containing plenty of protein. “This protein and fiber combination makes beans ultra-satisfying, so they help to curb your intake (and calories) at mealtime and even prevent overeating at snack-time and your next meal,” say The Nutrition Twins. “In fact, a study published in Food and Nutrition Research found that people who ate a meal in which beans were the source of protein consumed 12% fewer calories at their next meal, thanks to the satiety created by the bean.”
“Of course, anything that helps you to snack less on junk food is good news for your waistline,” add the Twins. “And the fact that they’re versatile, tasty, affordable, and sustainable means they are easily one of the best sources of protein for weight loss.”
According to Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, weight loss dietitian at Lainey Younkin Nutrition, “Greek yogurt is one of the best high-protein foods for weight loss, especially as a breakfast or snack.”
“While many people think eggs are the best high-protein breakfast option, one egg only has 6 grams of protein” compared to “one serving of Greek yogurt, which packs in 15-17 grams of protein,” says Younkin. To choose the healthiest Greek yogurt option, go for a “2% or low-fat version,” she adds. “This will provide a little bit of fat, which together with protein, will keep you full longer. Mix with berries for fiber and natural sweetness.”
The words “pea protein” may not sound all too appetizing, but this plant-based protein supplement is a great choice for vegans or those who are looking to consume less dairy. “Pea protein is an overlooked yet ideal source of plant protein and is a superstar when it comes to weight loss,” say The Nutrition Twins. They add that “Research has even found it to be more effective than whey protein at fighting against hunger.”
For an idea of how to use pea protein, The Nutrition Twins say to throw some into your fruit smoothie. “The combination of protein and fiber from the fruit and the pea protein will help keep energy and blood sugar levels balanced, thwarting the cravings and overeating that comes with them, as well as possible weight gain.”
One of the most versatile and leanest protein options to help with weight loss is a simple chicken breast. Baked, grilled, tossed into a salad, thrown on top of pasta—the options for chicken are endless.
“Boneless, skinless chicken breast is a great high-protein option because it’s lean, low in fat, and rich in quality protein,” says Carrie Gabriel, MS, RDN. In a 4-ounce portion you’ll get about 26 grams of protein, “plus essential amino acids needed for muscle growth, repair, and overall body function,” adds Gabriel.
Greek yogurt makes our list of healthy high-protein foods for weight loss, but all types of dairy yogurt “can provide high-quality protein containing all of the essential amino acids,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND award-winning nutrition expert and ambassador with National Dairy Council.
“Whether seeking satiety or preserving muscle during weight loss, yogurt packs a protein punch,” says Amidor. “In addition, including yogurt as part of a meal can help folks feel fuller longer between meals and snacks. A 2023 published systematic review found that a higher dairy intake, no matter what fat content of the dairy foods, showed no detrimental effects on anthropometric outcomes (like weight and BMI), blood fat levels (like LDL), and blood pressure. Plus, yogurt was found to improve waist circumference.”
Canned tuna is one of the easiest ways to get a large boost of protein. You can make a tuna sandwich, you can throw it on a salad, eat it with some crackers, or just enjoy it straight out of the can. Either way, you’ll be treating your body to almost 25 grams of complete protein per serving, plus a hefty dose of healthy fats.
Quinoa’s 8 grams of protein per cup may not seem like a lot at first, but this grain is one of the few plant-based protein sources to be considered a complete protein—meaning it has all of the essential amino acids your body needs for the synthesis of proteins. This can be a fantastic, protein-dense replacement for white rice, and it goes perfectly with a tasty chicken breast or a heaping serving of black beans.
Another plant-based protein option that is great for weight loss or general health goals is tofu, which is also considered a complete protein source. This is a versatile option that can be cut up and fried, thrown in a sauté, or even blended into your favorite smoothie. Because it only has a little over 3 grams of fat per serving, this food is also great when you’re wanting a lean option for your eating plan.
If you’re a fan of seafood, you may want to consider adding more fatty fish like salmon to your weight loss plan.
“A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help promote satiety among certain populations, and salmon is one of the best sources of this healthy fat,” says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, author of The First Time Mom’s Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility. “Data shows that the inclusion of fish, like salmon, as part of an energy-restricted diet resulted in weight loss after 4 weeks vs. a similar diet without seafood, highlighting that the addition of seafood to a nutritionally balanced energy-restricted diet may boost weight loss.”
Because lentils are technically grain legumes (also known as pulses), people may not think of them as a high-protein food. But lentils are a good source of protein and other helpful vitamins and nutrients.
“Eating lentils can give the body a boost of fiber, antioxidants, and important micronutrients, and data shows that eating lentils can help people lose weight, even when diets are not calorie restricted,” says Manaker. “Subbing out lentils for fatty meat choices can be an approachable way to support weight loss.”
“Increasing daily consumption of nuts is associated with less long-term weight gain and a lower risk of obesity in adults, so replacing 0.5 servings a day of less healthful foods with nuts may help prevent long-term weight gain and obesity,” says Manaker.
When it comes to nuts, walnuts are known as being some of the best to help aid in weight loss efforts. “Consuming walnuts has been linked to increased satiety, which may help people lose weight in the long run,” says Manaker, “and walnuts are the only tree nut that is an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acid.”
If you’re looking for a healthy protein powder to throw into a delicious shake, you may want to try whey protein.
“Whey protein can boost fullness quickly, as it contains all the essential amino acids and is absorbed quickly in the body,” says Courtney D’Angelo, MS, RD, author at Go Wellness. “There have been numerous studies conducted with whey protein and weight loss, with most studies concluding that whey protein reduces fat and increases lean muscle mass. It has also been found that whey protein helps you stay full longer and reduces food cravings throughout the day.”
The main difference between whey protein and many other types of protein powder is that whey protein has dairy, so you can try a plant-based powder if you’re dairy-free.
Another popular type of protein powder is casein protein, which D’Angelo says is also great for helping you with your weight loss goals.
“Casein protein is very similar to whey protein in that it’s also milk-based and contains all the essential amino acids, but the major difference is that casein protein is absorbed slowly in the body,” says D’Angelo. “This means that you’ll be feeling fuller for a longer period of time compared to whey protein, and while casein protein is not as good for increasing muscle mass, it is more effective than many other protein sources.”
You may not think of cottage cheese as a protein-heavy food, but choosing the right type of cottage cheese can give you a huge protein boost with very little fat and sugar.
In a standard cup of 2% cottage cheese, you’ll get over 24 grams of protein, with 5 grams of fat and 9 grams of sugar from the lactose. If you want to add some natural flavors to it, you can add your favorite fruit or a drizzle of honey.
Worst Proteins for Weight Loss
Although protein foods can support weight loss, some are better than others. The following protein foods may not be the best foods to add to your diet if you’re looking to be healthier and lose weight.
“Many varieties of sausages can be loaded with saturated fat and can be highly caloric, factors that don’t help in the weight loss department,” says Manaker. In fact, “data also shows that consumption of ultra-processed foods, like many sausages, is linked to weight gain.”
If you’re looking for a healthier alternative to red meat sausage, you can try a chicken or turkey sausage, or a plant-based sausage option. However, it’s still important to look at the nutrition label because even these products can be loaded with sodium, fat, and weird preservatives.
Worst: Sugary protein bars
Just because something is labeled as a protein bar doesn’t mean it’s a nutritious choice. Many popular protein bars on the market are just loaded with added sugar, sodium, and fat. So yes, you’re getting a protein boost, but there are healthier protein options to snack on.
For example, a PowerBar Protein Plus Chocolate Brownie Bar is packed with 9 grams of fat, 330 calories, and 21 grams of sugar! So you’ll get 30 grams of protein with this bar, but at what cost?
Worst: Rice protein powder
One of the lesser-known protein powder varieties is rice protein. While some people on a plant-based diet may opt for this one, D’Angelo argues that it may not give you the best weight loss results.
“Rice protein may not be the best for weight loss because this plant-based protein is considered incomplete due to its low levels of the essential amino acid lysine,” says D’Angelo, “and most studies on rice protein have seen little to no muscle mass difference and very little weight loss results if any.”
A previous version of this story was published on August 17, 2022. It has been updated to include additional copy and proofreading revisions, additional research, and updated contextual links.