Training is one of the best ways to stimulate muscle growth and increase your strength; however, there’s an entire other side of the coin to consider. Nutrition and training work hand-in-hand to produce the best results for your goals. Like training itself, nutrition starts simple but gets more complex the deeper you dive.
Protein is, without a doubt, a highly sought-after nutrient for your diet. It provides the building blocks for new muscle and facilitates overall recovery. Carbohydrates are also important, but aren’t nearly as difficult to locate and scarf down when the need arises.
Matching your protein and carbohydrate intake to your fitness goals is an ongoing battle. Finding the right foods that complement your needs at a moment’s notice goes a long way in optimizing your gains. Here are the best high-protein, low carbohydrate foods to troubleshoot your nutritional needs.
9 Best High-Protein, Low Carbohydrate Foods
Note: All nutritional information is sourced from the USDA’s FoodData Central resource, and is rounded to the nearest whole number.
Greek yogurt is a higher protein version of standard yogurt. It typically contains less sugar than its standard counterpart as well — particularly when you consume plain flavors. Regardless of this macronutrient difference, Greek yogurt is still a good source of calcium. One seven-ounce serving of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt contains:
- 20g protein
- 8g carbohydrate
- 146 calories
Cottage cheese is another milk product that is easy to leverage for a burst of protein with just a smidge of carbohydrates. The cheese curd is the focal point of cottage cheese, and with it is a convenient package of high-protein goodness.
Each four-ounce serving contains:
- 12g protein
- 5.5g carbohydrate
- 92 calories
Eggs are a major staple for nearly every household, let alone every single training enthusiast. Eggs pack a huge punch of protein with a very small calorie count — largely because carbohydrates are almost entirely absent from eggs. One whole extra-large egg provides:
- 7g protein
- 0.5g carbohydrate
- 80 calories
Tofu provides a high-protein, low carbohydrate alternative for non-meat eaters or just tofu aficionados in general. Tofu is also made from soy, which is a rare complete protein source from a non-animal product. Most beans and legumes are incomplete proteins, which means they don’t provide all the amino acids you need to build muscle — but tofu does! One half-cup of raw tofu contains:
- 22g protein
- 3.5g carbohydrate
- 181 calories
Nut butters are a high-protein, low carbohydrate staple, although they are often closer to equal in their protein-to-carbohydrate ratio. Also, you should be wary of the higher fat content. Fat is an important macronutrient in its own right, but fat has over double the calories per gram as protein or carbohydrates. This makes options such as almond butter a great burst of flavor, but also higher on the total calorie count. One tablespoon of almond butter contains:
- 3g protein
- 3g carbohydrate
- 98 calories
Edamame is a more rare plant-based addition to the high-protein, low carbohydrate list. Plants are often lower quality sources of protein but pack high nutritional value from vitamins or phytochemicals. Edamame is a potent source of nearly all macronutrients given its small size. But even better, edamame actually has all the amino acids you’d find from an animal product.
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One cup of edamame offers:
- 13g protein
- 9g carbohydrate
- 129 calories
Shrimp is a severely underrated protein source — and given that it’s seafood, it’s also naturally low in carbohydrate. While other animal products such as beef or chicken often dominate the shopping list of muscle-bound meal-preppers, shrimp packs a major punch of protein in its small size. One three-ounce portion of shrimp brings:
- 20g protein
- 0g carbohydrate
- 84 calories
Scallops are another unsung hero of high-protein, low carbohydrate dietary options. While they aren’t a staple on the meal-prep production line, scallops are an extremely dense source of protein nonetheless. If you’re bored of tilapia or shrimp, try scallops instead. A three-ounce serving of scallops provides:
- 10g protein
- 3g carbohydrate
- 58 calories
Protein powders are a bit of a “gimmie” for a high-protein, low carbohydrate list. However, when you’re looking to eat strategically and hit nutrition goals, knowing all of your options is a good way to navigate some dicey last-minute meals.
While whole foods should dominate most of your meals for the best overall health and performance outcomes, protein powders come in the clutch. For example, one scoop of Optimum Nutrition brand whey protein powder contains:
- 24g protein
- 3g carbohydrate
- 120 calories
What Are Protein and Carbohydrates?
Protein and carbohydrates are two of your major macronutrients (the third being fat). Both provide you with essential calories to perform exercise and daily tasks, but protein is a bit more unique. Protein provides building blocks for growth and repair of many tissues within your body — most importantly, muscle.
Carbohydrates provide a super efficient source of energy for you to consume during exercise. They also act as a calorie reservoir (along with the other macronutrients) for maintaining a caloric surplus when you’re trying to grow. You should also aim for a substantial amount of carbohydrates per day as they prevent you from burning protein as an energy source. (1)
Protein is one of the most sought-after macronutrients to help you get the most from your training. Specifically, the amino acids you absorb by eating them are the building blocks of new muscle. Animal products are particularly good sources as they provide you with all the amino acids you need.
In order to maximize your results, aim for a daily protein intake around 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day. (2)
Benefits of High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Foods
Each macronutrient has its own distinct place in your diet. The combination of high-protein and low carbohydrate foods help provide a ton of satiety, build lean muscle, and are super calorically efficient.
Satiety is the feeling of fullness you get after a large meal — or one high in protein. When you’re building muscle on a higher calorie diet, it’s helpful to have many meals spread throughout the day.
On the other hand, dieting down requires you to significantly cut back on your total daily calories in order to enter a calorie deficit. In either scenario, pumping up your high-protein, low carbohydrate foods helps to tide you over between meals is a wise choice.
Building muscle requires a solid amount of protein in your diet. Your goal is to maximize protein synthesis on a continuous basis, which means stuffing as much protein into each day as possible is priority number one.
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Maintaining consistently high protein intake gets tricky, but high-protein low carbohydrate food sources help significantly. They also help reach your protein targets on the day without risking going over your total calorie requirements at the same time. In this way, you’ll have a much easier time growing muscle and staying lean as you go.
Moderate Calorie Content
Protein and carbohydrates provide you with 4 calories per gram each. Fat and alcohol deliver 9 and 7 calories respectively, making protein and carbohydrates lean by comparison. With the combination of high-protein and low carbohydrates, your food choices here are going to pack quite a wallop in terms of benefits and satiety without all the added calories.
How Much Protein To Eat?
The amount of protein you should consume on the daily should be scaled to your goals. Your activity level and amount of strenuous exercise also plays a role in dictating how much protein you should eat per day.
For a sedentary lifestyle, 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is adequate to maintain (2) – but maintenance and a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t sound like your goal.
[Read More: How Much Protein Do You Actually Need Per Day?]
To absolutely maximize your growth and recovery, consuming about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day seems to be the landmark to shoot for. If you find yourself in a calorie deficit (perhaps to cut body fat), pushing a touch higher has been shown to be beneficial as well. (2)
Best Way To Eat Protein
As your training goals progress, you should compliment them with more detailed dietary strategies as well. Accounting for total daily protein is where you should start, but amount per meal, and meal distribution lend additional benefits.
Total Daily Protein
When you’re just starting on your training and dietary journey, the biggest rock you’ll turn over is simply getting enough protein. Looking at your dietary choices and understanding how much protein, carbohydrates, fat, and total calories you’re consuming is a huge step.
You’ll see big progress by simply organizing and ensuring you’re getting adequate protein each and every day.
Once you are consistently consuming your recommended amount of protein per day, there is another nutrition strategy you can test. The maximal rate of protein synthesis (tissue growth and repair) triggered from eating protein is highly individualized.
With that in mind, a safe bet for almost everyone would be a serving size of around 40 grams per meal. If you’re looking to err on the safe side to maximize your growth — aim for this 40 gram benchmark (or more) per meal. (2)
After nailing your total daily intake and setting protein targets set per meal – the time you take between meals is knob to turn. Consuming a high-protein meal elevates your muscle protein synthesis above its normal baseline for a few hours. Your body is always building muscle, but this is an opportunity to spike your protein synthesis rate.
Try spacing your meals about 3 hours apart. This way, each time your protein synthetic rate trickles back down to baseline, you can elevate it throughout the day. While these are subtle tips and tricks, in the long run they add up. (2)
Common Protein Misconceptions
While there is more and more research establishing that high protein consumption is generally safe, (3) there are still plenty of common misconceptions.
Don’t Eat Too Much
Although there are strategies to maximize your potential benefits by spacing your protein consumption into specific sized servings, (2) that doesn’t mean eating in excess is necessarily wasted.
Going beyond these benchmarks doesn’t appear to have negative health effects nor does it counter the total daily benefit for muscle growth. If anything, it simply slows or elongates the digestion process. (4)
Careful on Your Kidneys
Protein consumption is often a point of contention from the standpoint of kidney damage. While there are dietary considerations for anyone currently dealing with kidney disease or dysfunction, apparently healthy individuals don’t need to worry. (5) Furthermore, a prolonged high protein intake (much higher than even the top-end recommendations) doesn’t appear to cause any ill-effects on healthy trained individuals. (3)
There are plenty of training and nutrition lessons to learn while you chase your goals. Learning to analyze your food choices into their macronutrients is an extremely powerful tool.
High-protein, low carbohydrate foods offer you ample strategic ways of reaching your potential. These protein-packed options won’t break your calorie or carbohydrate bank, but will help with meeting your macronutrient goals and optimizing your diet strategies.
- Vazquez, J. A., Kazi, U., & Madani, N. (1995). Protein metabolism during weight reduction with very-low-energy diets: evaluation of the independent effects of protein and carbohydrate on protein sparing. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 62(1), 93–103.
- Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., Hoffman, J. R., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 20.
- Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L., Tamayo, A., Buehn, R., & Peacock, C. A. (2016). A High Protein Diet Has No Harmful Effects: A One-Year Crossover Study in Resistance-Trained Males. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2016, 9104792.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? (2018). Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 10, 2016.
- Martin, W. F., Armstrong, L. E., & Rodriguez, N. R. (2005). Dietary protein intake and renal function. Nutrition & metabolism, 2, 25.
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