The thought of chowing down on protein might conjure images of grunting muscleheads and buckets of chalky powder, but there's so much more to know about this vital macronutrient. Protein is essential for everything from healthy hair and nails to, yes, encouraging muscle growth. Role of dietary protein in post-exercise muscle reconditioning. van Loon LJ. Nestle Nutrition Institute workshop series, 2013, Apr.;75():1664-2155. Plus, it helps you feel fuller longer because it takes more time to digest than carbs. Not a bad deal!
So how much protein should you aim to eat each day? It depends on your size and how active you are, says Tina Gowin, R.D., C.D.N. The general guideline is that 15 percent of your daily calories should be comprised of protein, or about 75 grams (based on a 2,000-calorie diet) for the average adult. The Mayo Clinic more or less agrees and recommends that about 20 percent of daily calories come from protein.
But there's not one perfect amount for everyone, so you might want to tinker around to find what works best for you. (You can use a online calculator if you’d like to see how these numbers translate to portions on your plate.) If you’re working out long and/or hard—say, training for a marathon—your protein needs will be slightly higher, which could mean increasing your intake by about 5 percent per day. If that seems like a lot of protein, don’t fret, Gowin says. From nuts and yogurt to vegetables, beans, and grains, many foods have a least a bit of protein, and these different sources can really add up throughout the day.
You've probably heard that meat and eggs are good sources of protein (and they are), but there are alternatives (including plenty of vegetarian options!). Test out your culinary skills with our top choices and recipes for high-protein foods that are often overlooked.
Protein: 15 grams per cup, cooked
Go-to recipe: No-Bake Black Bean Brownie Bites
They don't taste anything like beans, we promise. These black bean brownies are just as fudgy and delicious as your favorite dessert, but they pack some serious protein. We wouldn't recommend eating a whole batch for dinner, but one or two would make a perfect midnight snack.
Protein: 8 grams per cup
Go-to recipe: Green Pea Guacamole
These little green guys are nothing to sniff at. Not only are they a great protein source, but they’re also inexpensive and taste just as good frozen as fresh. Swapping out some of the expensive avocado in this guac makes it more budget friendly but still delicious.
Protein: 4 grams per 2 tablespoons
Go-to recipe: Blueberry Almond Chia Pudding
Who thought the day would come when we’d be eating something from an infomercial? First made famous by their Chia Pet alter egos, these seeds will keep you full and help with digestion. You can sprinkle them on virtually any food, but we like them best in pudding. This recipe throws in Greek yogurt and almonds for extra protein.
Protein: 26 grams per cup
Go-to recipe: Cottage Cheese Baked Mac and Cheese
Cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein, but it's kind of boring on its own. In this lightened-up version of one of our favorite comfort foods, low-fat cottage cheese makes the dish feel decadent but keeps it nutritious. Skim milk and whole-wheat pasta round out the meal to make it—dare we say—healthyish.
Protein: 15 to 20 grams per 6-ounce container
Go-to recipe: Creamy Avocado Yogurt Dip
Greek yogurt is stripped of its liquid whey, which results in a more concentrated, thicker yogurt with a super-creamy texture and double the amount of protein as regular yogurt. Here it combines with heart-healthy avocado for a simple, fresh dip perfect for dunking carrots or as a guacamole alternative (but we won’t judge if you eat it solo!).
Protein: 18 grams per cup, cooked
Go-to recipe: Balsamic-Glazed Pork With Lentils
Because lentils don’t need to be soaked before cooking, they’re quicker to prepare than other beans. Try these easy-on-the-wallet legumes in this salad with apples, celery, and lemon juice served alongside roasted pork in an entrée worthy of a dinner party.
Protein: 7 to 8 grams per serving (often 2 tablespoons)
Go-to recipe: Almond Butter Tofu Stir-Fry
Peanut and almond butters are great alternatives to eating plain nuts—but look for brands that have only one or two ingredients. Mix things up even more with this almond buttery, veggie-packed tofu stir-fry—it's perfect for a Meatless Monday dinner and has just the right amount of kick to get your taste buds going.
Protein: 8 grams per cup, cooked
Go-to recipe: Mocha Latte Breakfast Quinoa
Get an early-morning protein blast with this warm breakfast. It has only five simple ingredients (including chocolate and coffee!) and is completely dairy-free and vegan. Whip it up on mornings when you need a little extra caffeine to get you going.
Protein: 20 grams per serving
Go-to recipe: Homemade Seitan
Seitan, which is made from wheat gluten, takes on the chewy characteristics of meat in this Asian-inspired stir-fry, and the peppers and onions will make the kitchen smell delicious while cooking. Serve with brown rice or mashed potatoes for a complete(ly delicious) dinner.
Protein: 15 grams per serving
Go-to recipe: One-Pan Tempeh Butternut Squash Bake
Popular among vegetarians and vegans, this minimally processed fermented soybean product provides a whopping 15 grams of protein per serving. Take tempeh back to its Asian roots with this super-simple dish that requires just one pan and packs in a ton of protein. The butternut squash does such a good job of balancing out tamari's saltiness, you won't need any added sweeteners.
Unless otherwise noted, all nutritional information was taken from the Self nutrition database.