High-protein, low-calorie foods are a great way to pack your diet full of the nutrients you need. They are a perfect option for those trying to lose weight and preserve lean mass. On top of that, they taste amazing and can be used in lots of different recipes.
Benefits of a Low-Calorie Diet
Low-calorie diets are commonly used for weight loss, and that's because they have tangible results. Eating less than the recommended calories from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans makes it easier to achieve a healthy weight.
Calorie restriction is effective for weight loss, according to a review published in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Research in Medicine Sciences. Furthermore, a diet rich in high-protein foods can help you stay full longer, as reported in a small study from the August 2015 issue of the journal Obesity. And that's great, because reducing your calorie intake can leave you feeling hungry, making dieting difficult.
Fill up on foods that are high in protein and micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Opt for low-calorie protein sources to stay full longer while restricting calories. The goal is to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to thrive and function optimally.
Protein and Weight Loss
When deciding how much you want to restrict your calories, consider your activity level and health needs. You can look at the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for recommendations.
Women in their 20s with a moderate activity level, for instance, are advised to consume 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day. But if you're a highly active person, you need to increase that number to ensure your body gets the energy it needs.
Eating a high-protein diet is a great way to ensure you're getting the nutrients you need for your daily activities. The most important thing is to make healthy choices. A study from the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism noted that 1,200-calorie diets were the most common recommendation for weight loss, but it may not be enough to sustain your energy levels.
As reported in the August 2015 Obesity study, high-protein breakfast foods may curb hunger later in the day. Reducing your hunger overall will help you maintain a lower calorie intake.
If your goal is to cut calories, then consuming the foods with the highest levels of protein and the lowest number of calories will make it easier to get leaner without feeling hungry or deprived.
High-Protein, Low-Calorie Foods
When picking high-protein, low-calorie foods, try to keep your diet diversified. While meat may seem like the best option, don't forget that you still need vegetables and grains.
Meatless high-protein foods include:
- Cooked black beans have 8.8 grams of protein and 132 calories of protein per 100-gram serving (approximately 3.5 ounces).
- Raw oat bran contains 17.3 grams of protein and 246 calories per 100-gram serving.
- Tempeh is one of the best low-calorie, nonmeat protein sources, with over 20 grams of protein and 192 calories per 100-gram serving.
If your diet includes animal products, fill up on:
- Cooked tuna boasts 29.21 grams of protein and 184 calories per 100-gram serving.
- Chicken breast has 24 grams of protein and 143 calories per 100-gram serving.
- Eggs provide 12.5 grams of protein and 143 calories per 100-gram serving.
- Raw salmon delivers 19.84 grams of protein and 142 calories per 100-gram serving.
Low-Fat Protein Sources
If you're on a diet that requires low-calorie, high-protein foods, you may be concerned about your fat intake. Since fat contains 9 calories per gram, protein-rich foods with high-fat content will have more calories.
Meat-free foods that are high in protein and low in fat include:
- Plain, low-fat Greek yogurt has less than 1.9 grams of fat, 9.95 grams of protein and 73 calories per 100-gram serving.
- Cottage cheese boasts 2.21 grams of fat, 10.62 grams of protein and 80 calories per 100-gram serving.
- Low-fat milk will only give you 3.3 grams of protein and 42 calories, but it also supplies only 1.04 grams of fat per 100-milliliter serving (approximately 3.4 fluid ounces).
- Tofu has 2.35 grams of fat, 10.5 grams of protein and 82 calories per 100-gram serving.
Some meat options that are rich in protein and low in fat include:
All Protein Sources Have Calories
You may think of calories as the same thing as the contents of a food item, like protein, carbs or fat. But calories are a type of energy measurement. They determine how much energy food will give you to use or how much energy you burn through exercise and other activities. You can think of calories as how much energy you have available after consuming food or how much food you need to eat to be able to perform an activity.
One gram of protein contains 4 calories, which means you can't increase your protein intake without increasing calories. The goal is to limit your calories while consuming large amounts of protein.
But calories aren't the only dietary consideration that should be of concern, though. Food quality and variety matter too. A balanced diet should be based on whole and minimally processed foods that meet your nutritional needs. If you only eat meat, fish and other high-protein foods, you won't get enough fiber, vitamins and certain antioxidants that are only found in plant-based foods.
What About Protein Powder?
Protein powder may seem like the perfect option for low-calorie dieters. Depending on the powder and how you're using it, it can be.
Whey protein is considered a low-calorie protein powder. It's effective at supplying the body with essential amino acids, calcium, protein, carbs, and some brands are fortified with potassium and iron.
While additional studies are needed, currently there are little adverse side effects associated with whey protein. Some brands contain ingredients that may interact with certain drugs, so be sure to confirm with your doctor that none of your meds are contraindicated.
One of the things you should be wary of when looking for protein powders to supplement your intake is over-relying on them, according to a study in the May 2018 issue of the Journal of Dietary Supplements. It's all too common for these products to be used more than necessary because of their convenience.
Just remember, protein powders are processed foods that may lack essential nutrients found in whole foods. Although they may fill a gap in your diet, they may lead to nutrient deficiencies when consumed in excess or as a replacement for real food.
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020"
- Journal of Research in Medical Sciences: “Weight Loss Maintenance: A Review on Dietary Related Strategies”
- Obesity: "A High‐Protein Breakfast Prevents Body Fat Gain, Through Reductions in Daily Intake and Hunger, in 'Breakfast Skipping' Adolescents"
- USDA: “Beans, Black, Mature Seeds, Cooked, Boiled, Without Salt”
- USDA: “Fish, Salmon, Atlantic, Wild, Raw”
- USDA: “Broccoli, Raw”
- UDSA: “Egg, Whole, Cooked, Poached”
- UDSA: “Oat Bran, Raw”
- USDA: “Fish, Tuna, Fresh, Bluefin, Cooked, Dry Heat”
- USDA: “Tempeh”
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: “Measuring Outcomes in Adult Weight Loss Studies That Include Diet and Physical Activity: A Systematic Review”
- Better Health Channel: “Energy in Food (Kilojoules and Calories)”
- USDA: “How Many Calories Are in One Gram of Fat, Carbohydrate, or Protein?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Whey Protein”
- Journal of Dietary Supplements: “Protein Supplements: Pros and Cons.”
- USDA: “Fish, Halibut, Atlantic and Pacific, Cooked, Dry Heat”
- USDA: “Yogurt, Greek, Plain, Lowfat”
- USDA: “Tofu”
- USDA: “Low Fat Milk”
- USDA: “Raw Shrimp”
- USDA: "Cottage Cheese"
- USDA: "Chicken Breast"