Think of protein as one of your body's most efficient sources of power — premium gas, if you will. And just like you need to visit the gas station frequently to stay on the road, you need to fuel your body with protein to keep every cell humming as it should.
"About 20 percent of our bodies is protein," explains Samantha Previte, RD, a dietitian with Dietitians of Palm Valley in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. "Because our bodies don't store protein, it's important that we consume enough daily. Protein in the food we eat is made up of amino acids, and these amino acids are used for all metabolic processes in the body."
And when you eat enough of those amino acids, you might just add a spark to your metabolism, according to Michelle Hyman, RD, CDN, a dietitian at Simple Solutions Weight Loss. For reference, you should get 1 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day, per a March 2016 study in the journal Food & Function. So a 150-pound person should get between 68 and 109 grams of protein daily depending on his or her activity level.
"Eating protein as part of a balanced diet — one that incorporates both complex carbohydrates and unsaturated fats — is the best way to support a working metabolism."
"The thermic effect of food (TEF), meaning how many calories you burn digesting your food, appears to vary based on macronutrient content. Protein seems to have the highest percent, ranging from 15 to 30 percent of the calories burned via digestion. The TEF of carbohydrates is lower at about 5 to 10 percent, while it's lowest for fat at 0 to 3 percent," she says. "If you want to try to take advantage of TEF for weight loss, it may be wise to incorporate more high-protein foods."
Are You Getting Enough Protein?
Just don't go too protein crazy, as you can overfill that gas tank. Chronic overconsumption of protein may tax the kidneys and cause weight gain.
"Eating protein as part of a balanced diet — one that incorporates both complex carbohydrates and unsaturated fats — is the best way to support a working metabolism," says Rachel Fine, RD and owner of the nutrition counseling firm To The Pointe Nutrition. "All three macronutrients — protein, fat and carbohydrates — should be considered as key players towards an optimal working metabolism. Each includes essential nutrients that play roles in energy production, such as B vitamins, which are found in whole grains."
So make the most of every gram without breaking the bank with these high-protein, low-price picks.
Available canned (for speed) or dried (for affordability), beans, peas and lentils are incredibly cost-effective and are unique because they're technically a protein and a carbohydrate, Hyman says.
Hungry — like, really hungry? The one-two punch of protein and fiber make lentils a satisfying dinner addition. They also add resistant starch to your menu, which may help with weight loss thanks to its filling properties, she says.
Cost per serving: $0.69
Protein per half-cup, cooked: 9 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $6.99 for a 2.5-pound bag
2. Low-Fat Cottage Cheese
Pegged as one of the best bedtime snacks for metabolism in a November 2019 British Journal of Nutrition study, this mild-flavored dairy product can pack in 10 to 16 grams of protein per half-cup serving, depending on the brand.
Try it solo as a snack, blend into pancake batter, layer in lasagnas or spread onto whole-grain crackers and top with tomatoes. One thing to keep in mind: Since cottage cheese can be a higher-sodium ingredient, "I don't recommend this for those with uncontrolled hypertension," Hyman says.
Cost per serving: $1.17
Protein per half-cup: 14 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $4.69 per 16-ounce tub
3. Greek Yogurt
Ideal for a grab-and-go breakfast or speedy snack, this dairy is a "do" for both Hyman and Fine. It's portable, rich in bone-building calcium and vitamin D, a good source of gut health-improving probiotics and a stellar base for other nutritious items such as fresh berries, chopped nuts or whole-grain cereal.
Before you start shopping, check out the six best yogurts to buy, plus four to avoid.
Cost per serving: $0.67
Protein per half-cup: 11 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $5.99 per 35.3-ounce tub
4. Shelled Edamame
Say yes to edamame, aka immature soybeans, for a budget-friendly, low-sodium and high-fiber nosh.
"Edamame is an excellent source of iron and calcium and makes for a great between-meal snack or pre-dinner appetizer," Fine says. Or try it in soups, stir-fries, poke bowls or pasta tosses. When you can, try to buy soy and soy products organic since soy is one of the top pesticide-sprayed crops.
Cost per serving: $0.62
Protein per half-cup: 9 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $2.49 for 12 ounces
Just like with lentils, dried chickpeas will be the most affordable, but canned can still fit your budget. (Psst... Here's how to cook chickpeas straight out of the can.)
Cost per serving: $0.27
Protein per half-cup, cooked: 7 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $0.99 per 15.5-ounce can
Read more: Are Chickpeas Good for Weight Loss?
Like lentils, edamame and beans of all kinds, ancient grains like farro provide a hefty dose of both fiber and protein.
"Farro is a great source of B vitamins, minerals and antioxidants," Fine says, including about 10 percent of your daily value of iron per serving.
Cost per serving: $0.78
Protein per half-cup, cooked: 7 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $20.20 for two 24-ounce bags
Improve your heart health and speed up weight loss all at once — you can do just that on a low-calorie, almond-supplemented diet, according to a study in the May 2014 Journal of Research in Medicinal Sciences.
"Almonds are also high in vitamin E, copper and magnesium," Fine says. Snack on a handful for a speedy, satisfying way to refuel — or stir slivers into oatmeal or blend them into the topping for cobblers or crisps.
Cost per serving: $0.39
Protein per 1 ounce (23 nuts): 6 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $9.73 per 25-ounce bag
"Eggs have gotten a bad reputation in the past, but they are a great healthy source of protein," Hyman says. Plus, they're oh-so affordable when you stock up by the dozen.
"Boil a bunch of them ahead of time, and store in the fridge for a quick snack or part of breakfast," Hyman says. "Or if you're willing to spend a bit more money and need to save time, buy eggs pre-cooked and peeled at the grocery store."
Cost per serving: $0.21
Protein per egg: 6 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $2.48 for a dozen
9. Canned Light Tuna
High in protein, just three ounces of light tuna contains enough protein for a meal. Plus, canned tuna is deemed a "best choice" on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch's sustainability list. However, if you're choosing albacore tuna (aka white tuna) over light tuna, know that it contains more mercury, so you'll want to avoid eating albacore more than once a week, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Try it mixed in White Bean Tuna Salad for a five-minute lunch or fold the fish into scrambled eggs for a protein boost at breakfast.
Cost per serving: $0.48
Protein per 3-ounce serving: 22.5 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $6.28 for eight 5-ounce cans
Right behind hemp and pumpkin seeds, peanuts rank right near the top of the list of highest-protein nuts and seeds, according to the USDA. Bonus: Peanuts are much cheaper than the higher-protein foods on the list. They're dense in protein and in calories — since nuts are high in fat — so stick to a serving of 28 nuts to keep your overall menu metabolism-minded.
Scoop up a spoonful for a mid-morning snack or stir peanuts into Rocky Road Dessert Hummus, a totally crave-worthy treat.
Cost per serving: $0.15
Protein per 1 ounce (28 nuts): 8 grams
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $5.34 for 35 ounces
Read more: How to Meal Plan for Every Diet and Budget
- Food & Function: “Dietary Protein and Human Health”
- British Journal of Nutrition: “Pre-sleep protein in casein supplement or whole-food form has no impact on resting energy expenditure or hunger in women.”
- Journal of Research in Medicinal Sciences: “The effect of almonds on anthropometric measurements and lipid profile in overweight and obese females in a weight reduction program: A randomized controlled clinical trial.”
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How Many Eggs Can I Safely Eat?"
- Journal of the American College of Nutrition: "The Thermic Effect of Food: A Review"
- My Food Data: "Lentils"
- My Food Data: "Low-Fat Cottage Cheese (1%)"
- My Food Data: "Lowfat Greek Yogurt"
- My Food Data: "Edamame"
- My Food Data: "Chickpeas/Garbanzo Beans (Cooked)"
- My Food Data: "Organic Farro"
- My Food Data: "Eggs"
- My Food Data: "Almonds"
- My Food Data: "Canned Light Tuna in Water"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Fish: Friend or Foe?"
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch: "Tuna Recommendations"
- My Food Data: "16 Nuts and Seeds High in Protein"
- My Food Data: "Peanuts Spanish Oil-roasted With Salt"