Protein is present in every cell, and it plays an important role in the body's ability to grow, stay healthy and repair itself. It's also the most satiating macronutrient, which makes it an especially important part of a diet when you're trying to lose weight. While protein deficiencies are rare in the U.S., according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), your protein intake can easily fall by the wayside if you eat a restrictive or carbohydrate-heavy diet. For optimum wellness, the DGA recommends that adults' diets consist of 10 to 35 percent protein from nutritious sources. When you think of protein sources, chicken, eggs, meat and protein shakes may come to mind. But there are other ways to incorporate protein in your diet too. Read on to learn about some other foods that can help you meet your protein needs.
Seeds provide healthy fats, carbohydrates, protein and antioxidants, making them a nutritious, well-balanced snack or meal addition. Chia seeds, for example, are a great plant source of omega-3 fatty acids -- a healthy fat many Americans are lacking. They are also rich in fiber (two tablespoons have 10 grams), which helps with digestion and appetite control. In addition, they contain minerals such as zinc, calcium, magnesium and iron. Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, recommends adding chia seeds to your morning oatmeal for a protein boost. Or mix a third of a cup of sunflower seeds into your cereal or trail mix for about eight added grams of protein. For protein plus omega-3s, stir flaxseeds into whole-grain muffins or shakes.
Read more: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds
Eggs aren't the only protein source you can scramble. "A tofu scramble is a delicious plant-based protein alternative to scrambled eggs, and just as quick," says Dina Aronson, a registered dietitian in Montclair, New Jersey. Two slices of soft tofu (about 3 ounces each), also called soybean curd, provide more than eight grams of protein. "Tofu scrambles are also an excellent way to use leftover veggies," Aronson adds. She suggests sautéing a cup or two of cooked or raw chopped vegetables in a bit of olive oil and then adding a block of tofu. Mash the tofu as you stir-fry the veggies, adding spices such as turmeric, cumin and thyme, plus salt and pepper. More than 90 percent of the soy in the U.S. is genetically modified, so you may want to look for organic or non-GMO labels when shopping.
Pastas aren't typically known for their protein content, but 100-percent whole-grain varieties contain valuable amounts of protein and other nutrients like fiber and B vitamins. If you don't eat or desire meat, Dina Aronson, RD, recommends choosing a pasta with the highest protein content. You can also add cooked black beans or lentils to pasta for additional flavor, texture and protein. Examples of hearty whole-grain pastas include whole-wheat spaghetti, which provides about seven grams of protein per cup, as well as quinoa rotini and spelt lasagna.
Read more: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs
Quinoa is a South American grain that cooks faster and contains more protein than other grains. "I love preparing quinoa in multiple ways," says Vandana Sheth, RD, naming quinoa as a top-recommended protein source. "Cook it in flavored soy milk with a splash of vanilla and nutritious toppings," Sheth suggests, "such as cinnamon, chia seeds, chopped nuts and fruit for a tasty, protein-rich treat." You can also substitute quinoa for rice in your favorite recipes or add it to soups, stews and casseroles instead of noodles. For a high-protein egg dish, add quinoa to scrambled eggs and sautéed veggies. One cup of cooked quinoa provides more than eight grams of protein, plus valuable amounts of phosphorus, potassium and magnesium.
Nuts may be dense in fat and calories, but research published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in 2011 showed that snacking on moderate amounts daily can improve overall diet quality without contributing to weight gain. "Nuts are also high in protein and are delicious in pasta," says Dina Aronson, RD. "Try toasting them first for the best flavor." A quarter-cup of almonds supplies nearly eight grams of protein; the same amount of pistachios has about six grams. Keep single-serving packets of nuts in your car, office or purse for satisfying snacks on the go. Nuts can also serve as a flavorful, protein-rich topping for low-protein dishes like as vegetable salads.
Nuts aren't the only way to add protein to salads. Emphasizing protein-rich ingredients rather than fruits and veggies alone can turn a simple side salad into a hearty meal. "My favorite is fresh bean salad -- not the briny one you might be thinking of," says Dina Aronson, RD. While the chilled three-bean picnic favorite isn't a bad choice, Aronson prefers to combine cooked or canned and drained garbanzo beans with chopped parsley, scallions, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. "You can dress it up with any fresh veggies you like," Aronson adds. Another tasty combination is black beans, cilantro and lime juice. "It's a perfect balance of protein, fat and fiber," Aronson says, "and it's packed with antioxidants and other micronutrients."
Read more: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs
7. Milk Powder
If your body needs protein more than your appetite desires, powdered milk provides a simple way to increase your intake without eating additional foods. Vandana Sheth, RD, recommends adding nonfat milk powder to creamy soups and casseroles for added protein and calcium. You can also add milk powder to mashed potatoes, hot cereal, hot cocoa, scrambled eggs and smoothies. A quarter-cup of nonfat dried milk powder contains about 11 grams of protein and 375 milligrams of calcium.
Replacing processed salty snacks, such as potato chips and pretzels, with steamed edamame can add protein and a variety of other nutrients to your diet. Edamame are fresh soybeans harvested before the seeds harden. Soybeans are unique in that they're considered a "complete protein" -- as are eggs and dairy. Enjoy edamame plain, with desired seasoning or as nutritious additions for salads and sandwiches. You can also puree edamame alone or with seasoning and additional vegetables for a healthy, protein-rich dip. One cup of prepared edamame provides nearly 17 grams of protein and more than eight grams of heart-healthy fiber.
Tips to Meet Your Protein Needs: Snack on Protein
"Protein may not be the first thing to pop into your mind when you reach for snacks, but adding protein between meals is an invaluable way to meet your daily needs," says registered dietitian Vandana Sheth. "Have whole-grain toast with almond or peanut butter instead of regular butter," Sheth suggests, "or pair an apple with string cheese instead of eating it plain. Balanced snacks like these help keep your blood sugar levels stable," Sheth adds, "keeping you satiated and energized until you sit down to lunch or dinner."
Tips to Meet Your Protein Needs: Swap Breakfast Pastries for Burritos
Muffins, doughnuts and croissants are popular breakfast options with relatively little protein. Breakfast burritos provide a healthier option, says Dina Aronson, RD, particularly for a breakfast on the road. "Store-bought or homemade breakfast burritos containing a crumbled veggie burger and plant-based or organic cheese are a valuable choice," Aronson says, "as are Tex-Mex-style burritos made with black beans or scrambled tofu." For another option with meat, fill a whole-grain tortilla with scrambled eggs, veggies and lean, grilled turkey sausage. For a lighter variation, serve breakfast-burrito filling in large lettuce leaves, such as romaine. A frozen bean burrito provides about nine grams of protein and 4.5 grams of satiating fiber.
What Do YOU Think?
Are you tracking your protein consumption? Are you trying to make sure you get a certain amount of protein each day? How many grams are you aiming for? Do you include any of these unconventional protein sources in your diet? What tip or recipe would you try? Let us know in the comments -- we love to hear from you!
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- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Linus Pauling Institute: Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Seeds, Sunflower Seed Kernels, Dry Roasted, Without Salt
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: MORI-NU, Tofu, Silken, Soft
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Sauce, Peanut, Made From Peanut Butter, Water, Soy Sauce
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: What is Quinoa?
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Quinoa, Cooked
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Nuts, Almonds
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Nuts, Pistachios
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: LOUIS RICH, Turkey Breast and White Turkey (oven roasted)
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Beans: Pantry Staples, Nutrition Stars
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Tortillas, Whole Wheat
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Milk, Dried, Nonfat