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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
Updated On: May 30, 2023
If you ask ten nutrition experts to outline the ideal diet, you will get ten different answers. The options are nearly endless. There is keto, low fat, paleo, intermittent fasting, vegan, carnivore, and everything in-between.
Nutritionists agree on fewer things than opposing politicians. And as they say, the three things you can't discuss over dinner are religion, politics, and nutrition habits.
But one thing nearly everyone agrees on is protein. Protein is every fitness enthusiast's favorite macronutrient. And for good reason. High protein diets have been used successfully for decades.
We know through experience and research that the best way to gain strength and build an impressive physique is by lifting weights and eating enough protein. Training and nutrition go hand in hand from a muscle-building standpoint.
Adequate protein intake can assist in fat loss, too. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, so naturally, high protein diets fill you up better than low protein diets. This makes sticking to a calorie-restricted meal plan easier to manage.
But, knowing the benefits of a high protein diet is only half the battle. Not all protein sources are created equal. The best protein sources are high quality, high protein, and low fat. These are the foods to build your diet around.
In today's article, we will cover:
Every talk on nutrition starts with calorie intake and energy balance.
Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. We get calories from the food and drink we consume. The macronutrients, which include protein, carbohydrates, and fat, all contain calories. Both protein and carbohydrates contain four calories per gram, while fat contains more than double at nine calories per gram. We use the energy from food to carry out all activities and daily functions. Not only is eating the right food important, but knowing how much protein you need per day also is.
When it comes to building muscle or losing fat, energy balance is critical. Energy balance can be boiled down to calories in vs. calories out.
If the goal is to build muscle, you need to consume a caloric surplus, like in this 7 day meal plan for muscle gain. You need to eat a caloric deficit when the goal is fat loss. Before worrying about anything else, we need to get the energy balance equation in our favor based on our goals.
Total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is the total amount of calories you use daily. Figuring out this number is a two-step process. Step one is calculating basal metabolic rate (BMR), the daily calories your body requires at rest. Step two is accounting for calories burned through all physical activity. This includes everything, such as walking, HIIT, circuit training, and strength training.
Although there are many formulas you can use to find BMR, the one below is simple and effective.
After calculating BMR, use one of these multipliers below to factor in physical activity.
Here is an example of how to use this two-step equation for a 200-pound male.
In this example, if this person consistently ate 3000 calories, theoretically, he would not gain or lose any weight, because this is his maintenance calories. It's important to note that this is just an equation, so it may vary a bit person-to-person. For example, those working to build muscle mass may be able to eat more than someone who does not resistance train. Use this number as a starting point, and monitor your weight to get a more accurate sense of your maintenance.
And then once you know your TDEE, it is easy to adjust your calories based on your goals. To build muscle, take your TDEE and add 10-20%. To lose fat, take your TDEE and subtract 5-10% to start. Monitor and adjust as you go. Remember, you should never fall below 1,200 calories.
Hate doing math? Use Trifecta's TDEE calculator.
There are three macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, which round out your healthy diet. Here's how much you need of each.
When determining protein intake, what is enough? More specifically, how much protein do you need per serving?
The recommended daily allowance for protein is .8g/kg (.36/lb) of body weight to avoid a nutritional deficiency. To thrive, we need a little more.
The standard recommendation of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is pretty accurate. It is easy to remember and is in the range of what the current research supports1. You can go up to as much as 2 grams or protein per pound, and if you're trying to lose weight, you may want to err on the higher side of protein recommendations to maintain muscle mass.
Once you know how many calories and protein you need to consume, the remaining calories go toward carbohydrates and fat.
At this point, it comes down to personal preference. Do you want or need more carbs or fat? (If you're looking for some great carb options to support muscle gain, check out this list of best food for muscles.) As far as body composition goes, if calories and protein are controlled, it doesn't matter. The only caveat is to keep fat at least 20% of overall calories.
If fat intake is too low, you can develop vitamin deficiencies, hormone issues, and other health problems. This meant you do need to incorporate some healthy fats in your diet. Just make sure the fat you do consume isn't too high in unhealthy saturated fat. Aim for foods with unsaturated fat, including fish, nuts, and vegetable oil.
What makes a high-quality protein source? Individual protein sources are evaluated by essential amino acid composition, digestibility, and bioavailability2. In a research setting, the most common assessments are biological value, net protein utilization, protein efficiency ratio, and protein digestibility corrected amino acid score.
If that sounds like a foreign language, don't worry. Digging into protein rating scales is beyond the scope of this article. In the big picture, hitting your daily grams of protein is most important. Beyond that, make sure you get in all essential amino acids, ideally with lean protein sources.
All animal protein sources are complete proteins, which means they contain the full spectrum of all nine essential amino acids. On the other hand, most non-animal and plant protein sources are incomplete, lacking one or two essential amino acids. The good news is that vegan sources can be mixed and matched to hit all essential amino acids.
In addition to amino acid composition, it is a good idea to have a general awareness of the macronutrient profile of your protein sources. Lean protein foods with low carbohydrate and fat totals make hitting your daily calorie and macronutrient targets easier to manage.
Note that the calories and macronutrient values for each food are estimates. Although the values are likely very close, even the most advanced databases are not one hundred percent accurate. However, hitting every nutrient to the nearest gram is unrealistic and unnecessary. The macro information provided is close enough to get the job done.
Serving Size: 5 egg whites = 18g protein, 1g carbohydrate, 0g fat [81 calories]
Egg protein is of the highest quality across all protein rating scales. With a complete amino acid profile and easy digestibility, eggs are nature's protein supplement. They happen to be loaded with vitamins and minerals, too.
So, if eggs are so great, why did we specify egg whites? One large egg has 4.5 grams of fat. All of the fat is in the yolk. By eliminating the yolk, all you are left with is protein. Egg whites are fat-free.
However, it isn't that simple. The egg yolk is loaded with vitamins and minerals. Some research suggests that whole eggs outperform egg whites head to head in improving strength and reducing body fat3.
Mix in a whole egg every two to three egg whites to get the best of both. We love including them in these delicious bulking breakfasts.
Serving Size: 1 scoop (28g) = 22g protein, 3g carbohydrate, 0g fat [100 calories]
There is nothing special about protein powder other than providing a convenient way to help you meet your daily protein requirements.
The good news is that protein supplements have come a long way in recent years. You no longer need to plug your nose and choke down a chalky mixture. Most protein supplements today taste great. In fact, we highly recommend these best protein powders for their good ingredients and exceptional taste.
Whey is also an excellent protein source. There are three forms of whey protein - concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
Whey isolate and hydrolysate are processed to reduce fat and lactose content, leaving mainly protein. Out of the three, whey isolate is the best value. Once you find a delicious tasting one, you may even want to go crazy and make protein coffee.
Serving Size: 1 scoop (34g) = 24g protein, 4g carbohydrate, 1g fat [121 calories]
Milk protein consists of 20% whey and 80% casein. Both are fantastic protein sources.
When comparing casein vs. whey, the big difference between casein and whey comes down to amino acid release. Whey is fast-digesting. Casein is slow digesting and provides amino acids to the body over more extended periods. Casein is a better option when going longer between meals, such as before bed.
You can also get whey and casein blends, which might be the best of both worlds.
Serving Size: 3/4 cup (170g) = 18g protein, 5g carbohydrate, 0g fat [92 calories]
Greek yogurt is higher in protein than regular yogurt. It comes in different varieties with a range of macronutrient profiles. From a macronutrient standpoint, it is best to get low fat Greek yogurt or fat-free.
You can also decide between flavored or plain. It's highly versatile, so you can add almost anything to it, which is why it's one of the foods we recommend when following the clean bulk workout and diet plan.
Serving Size: 3/4 cup (170g) = 18g protein, 9g carbohydrate, 1.5g fat [121.5 calories]
Cottage cheese is a quick and healthy snack that is loaded with protein.
Similar to Greek Yogurt, it comes in a variety of options. To keep fat grams low, opt for low-fat or fat-free.
Many people like to eat it with pineapple, but it tastes great with berries, bananas, and peaches. Additionally, it can be used as a substitute in recipes that call for sour cream or ricotta cheese.
Serving Size: 4 ounces = 28g protein, 0g carbohydrate, 3g fat [139 calories]
If you look up a high protein diet in the dictionary, you will find a picture of a chicken breast. Chicken is the most versatile protein food in the world. There are too many ways to prepare it to count.
This lean meat is high in protein, low in fat, and relatively inexpensive. This is why chicken breast has been a staple in the bodybuilding community since the dawn of time. It's also an ideal protein source for any body recomposition goals you may have. You can't go wrong with a meal of grilled chicken breast paired with brown rice.
Serving Size: 4 ounces = 28g protein, 0g carbohydrate, 2g fat [130 calories]
As wild as this may sound, turkey is an underrated protein source.
You do not have to wait for Thanksgiving to take advantage of the benefits of turkey. Similarly to chicken, turkey breast is a high protein, low fat, and versatile food.
Look for 99% lean ground turkey as it contains minimal fat and fewer calories. You can use this as a replacement for ground beef in tacos, chili, or pasta sauce. If you're trying to lose back fat through diet and exercise, lean ground turkey will help get you there!
Serving Size: 4 ounces = 28g protein, 0g carbohydrate, 1g fat [121 calories]
You can't go wrong with white fish. Tilapia, haddock, cod, snapper, grouper, and flounder are all high in protein and low in fat.
A 2019 research review noted that consuming a lot of lean fish was able to improve insulin sensitivity in adults4. This is an interesting finding because macronutrient profiles were similar in each group. There might be an underlying benefit to lean fish consumption beyond low-fat content.
Each type of white fish has a slightly different flavor, so if you don't like one, try another. Also, seafood can be cooked in many different ways. You just have to play around with it until you find a dish you like. Add some white fish into your metabolic confusion plan, and you'll be well on your way to whatever weight loss goals you have.
Serving Size: 1 can/5 ounces = 26g protein, 0g carbohydrate, 1g fat [113 calories]
If you have ever had to budget your weekly grocery bill while balancing a healthy lifestyle, you are undoubtedly familiar with tuna fish. This healthy protein is a great value and is convenient.
However, since tuna is high in mercury, only consume it once or twice a week. Make sure you get tuna in water, not oil.
Serving Size: 4 ounces = 28g protein, 0g carbohydrate, 2g fat [130 calories]
Most appetizer menus are void of high protein and low-fat food options. In fact, most appetizers are the opposite: low protein and high fat. However, shrimp is one exception.
Shrimp is a nutritional powerhouse. It's a high-protein, low-fat food loaded with vitamins and minerals.
If you are worried about the high cholesterol content, don't be. The current research does not support the notion that dietary cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease in healthy individuals5.
Now pair your shrimp dishes with these tips for speeding up your metabolism, and imagine the possibilities!
Serving Size: 4 ounces = 26g protein, 0g carbohydrates, 4g fat [140 calories]
Overall, beef is a fantastic protein source. It is high in protein and loaded with vitamins and minerals. However, most cuts of beef are high fat.
The key is sticking to lean ground beef (93% or higher), top round, sirloin, or tenderloins. Love lean red meat and preparing to enter a bulk? Give the Vertical Diet a shot! Heavy on lean beef and rice, it's also touted as being a gut-friendly plan.
Serving Size: 4 ounces = 28g protein, 0g carbohydrates, 2.5g fat [134.5 calories]
Generally, bison is a leaner alternative to beef. We specified bison here, but other wild game meat would apply, including venison and elk.
Although it is still not widely accessible, as more people become aware of the health benefits of wild game meats, the demand has grown in recent years.
Serving Size: 1 scoop (32g) = 21g protein, 4g carbohydrate, 3g fat [127 calories]
There was a time when vegan protein powder options were limited to soy-based products. However, in recent years, the vegan supplement space has exploded. Now you have tons of options.
Most plant-based protein powders these days use a blend of pea, rice, and/or hemp. These are great pea protein powder options for those looking for a vegan option.
Serving Size: 1 cup = 15g protein, 41g carbohydrate, 1g fat [ 233 calories]
Beans, beans, the magical fruit, the more you eat, the more you…
Beans are a fantastic food. A good protein source, high in fiber, and nearly fat-free. Black, pinto, lima, and kidney are all good.
Add some beans to your burrito, chili, or rice bowl, and enjoy. Trust us, you'll want to keep the protein coming if muscle hypertrophy is your end goal.
Serving Size: 1 cup = 18g protein, 40g carbohydrate, 1g fat [ 241 calories]
Lentils are high in protein and fiber and loaded with vitamins and minerals. They make an excellent protein source for vegans and meat eaters alike.
Since they contain a decent dose of carbohydrates, be mindful when combining them with other carbohydrate sources in a meal.
Per serving: 35g Protein, 35g Low GI Carbs, 13g fat [400 calories]
Some meal replacement shakes are great options for high-protein, low-fat foods. Instant Knockout Complete is a great example, with a whopping 35g of protein from high-quality sources, resulting in a complete amino acid profile.
By being a complete meal replacement, Instant Knockout Complete provides you with everything you need for a balanced and healthy diet. This includes all 27 essential vitamins and minerals alongside a complete macronutrient profile, including slow-release carbs to keep you at your best for as long as possible.
Instant Knockout Complete was designed by working with professional MMA coaches and fighters to provide a convenient way to lose weight without losing strength to help the athletes reach their weigh-in goals while remaining as competitive as possible.
We recommend replacing one or two meals daily with Instant Knockout Complete to help you simultaneously reach your weight loss and gym goals. You can buy Instant Knockout Complete on their website.
The best thing about high protein low-fat foods is that everyone benefits from eating them. However, people with a high daily protein count who are keeping their fat grams low benefit the most.
The one downside to eating a lot of protein is the calories can add up fast if you are not careful. You don't want to hit the gym hard tackling your 7-day split only to not see any new definition because you're overeating. Many high-protein foods also contain a lot of fat. By focusing on the 16 foods listed above, you won't have to worry about that.
For most people, the amount of protein at the end of the day is most important for lean muscle. Ensure you consistently hit your daily protein requirements before worrying about anything else.
Next up in importance is protein distribution throughout the day. Try to evenly divide your protein throughout three to five meals. For example, if your goal is 200 grams of protein per day, you could have four meals consisting of 50 grams of protein.
Lastly, protein intake around workouts. Although not as critical as daily protein or meal distribution, workout nutrition can still make a difference. Aim to have a protein-rich meal within a few hours pre and post-workout. As far as when to take a protein shake goes, post-workout and protein before bed are both great times.
Although protein intake is only one aspect of a well-constructed diet, it's the most challenging part for many people.
You now have a list of the 16 best high-protein and low-fat protein foods to prioritize in your diet. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, but these options will certainly get you started in your nutrition quest, whether that's to make high protein lunches or meal prep for weight loss.
Please do not feel you need to restrict yourself to only the protein sources listed below. Use the list as a reference, not a prescription.
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February 20, 2024
February 20, 2024
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