Whether you’re an athlete, recreational gym go-er, or simply looking to level up your nutrition, chances are you’ve turned to protein to help you reach your goals. While this is a good strategy, your diet can get monotonous if you only consume lean meat and energy bars as your protein sources. So, to help add more variety to your routine, we’ve asked some Registered Dietitians to weigh in on some of their favorite protein sources. From sardines to kefir, some of their answers may surprise you!
But before we dive into their recommendations, let’s unpack how much protein you need and why you should consider adding more high-protein foods to your diet.
How much protein do you need a day?
How much protein you need per day varies with age and can increase significantly with physical activity, injury, and illness. The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein for adults is as follows:
Sedentary men and women:
0.8 g protein/kg of body weight/day [1
Athletes and highly active men and women:
1.2-2.0 g/kg of body weight/day, depending on training needs and goals [2
Over 65 years old:
1 to 1.2 g protein/kg of body weight/day [5
These numbers will vary depending on your activity level, age, and other needs, so talk with a dietitian or healthcare provider to see what is right for you.
Reasons to eat more protein
While protein is an essential macronutrient, it does more for your health than just boosting muscle mass. Here are some reasons science says you may want to add more protein to your diet.
Improves satiety levels.
Studies show that protein’s satiating effects are mostly hormonal, as it can reduce ghrelin (a hunger hormone), boost peptide YY (another hormone that makes you feel full), and stimulate the release of several hormones that activate satiety centers in the brain [6
Better bone health.
Protein has long been associated with stronger bones, a claim that’s been continually backed by science. Research suggests that people who eat a higher protein diet tend to maintain bone mass better as they age and have a much lower risk of osteoporosis and fractures [7
Lowers blood pressure.
Studies indicate that a higher protein intake can lower blood pressure and may reduce risk factors for heart disease [8
Evidence suggests that high protein diets (consisting of 25-30% of your daily caloric intake from foods and supplements) will boost your metabolic rate and aid with weight loss [10
If you’re out to make more gains in the gym, you may want to reach for that extra protein shake. Studies have found that those who consumed additional protein after weight lifting showed increased muscle size and strength compared to those who didn’t [12
Recovery after exercise.
Since protein helps repair and build muscle, adequate consumption helps speed recovery. Research shows that protein supplementation can ease soreness, reduce muscle damage, enhance muscle strength and size, and increase exercise performance [13
Surprising protein sources
If you want to add more protein to your diet, but don’t want to eat the same foods each day, give these dietitian-approved recommendations a try.
Have you dipped your toe into the world of sardines? Even though these fish are small, sardines' nutrition rivals that of many more expensive seafood options and can certainly be considered a superfood.
Sardines offer more nutrition than you might think. Just a 4-ounce serving offers important nutrients like calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin B12, and vitamins A,D, and E. “Sardines are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids and DHA,” says Jessica Dogert
, dietitian and Elo health coach. “These nutrients have been shown to reduce inflammation, boost cognitive function, and benefit heart health, so it’s important to make sure you consume adequate amounts [15
How much protein is in a can of sardines?
Sardines provide an impressive 28 g of protein in a 4-ounce serving, which is higher than other fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or black cod.
You can enjoy canned sardines on toast, crackers, or by themselves.
Believe it or not, a good ol’ peanut butter and jelly sandwich can go a long way in terms of protein. This classic combo uses two slices of bread and one serving of peanut butter to pack a generous 18 g of protein. Plus, it combines carbohydrates and fats to increase satiety and provide more energy.
That’s why Caila Yates
, dietitian and Elo coach, recommends PB&J for athletes and active men and women. “It’s super packable and doesn’t spoil easily - it is easy to bring on a bike or in a backpack on a long trail run for fuel during or after exercise.”
How much protein is in peanut butter?
A 3.5-ounce portion of peanut butter contains 22.5 grams of protein, whereas one serving (2 tablespoons) contains around 8 g of protein. This makes it an excellent plant-based protein source.
The internet has gone crazy over bone broth in recent years, but is there any science to back up the hype?
Research says yes. Bone broth packs a powerful protein punch (9 g in a 1 cup serving) and is also rich in collagen, which can be beneficial for joints, bones, and muscles.
Collagen (the most abundant protein in the human body) has been shown to improve symptoms of osteoarthritis and reduce overall inflammation, joint pain, and stiffness [18
]. As such, bone broth could be beneficial for athletes who are looking to reduce joint pain.
Learn more about the benefits of collagen here
If you’re looking to boost your protein and collagen intake simultaneously, try adding bone broth to your soups, smoothies, mashed potatoes, or desserts. You can even drink it on its own! And since bone broth also contains electrolytes, Dogert says it could be a great post-workout treat for those who want to level up their performance and enhance recovery.
Despite peas getting a bad rap during your childhood, there is mounting evidence that might convince you to put them back on the nice list.
There are nearly 9 g of protein in peas for a one-cup serving, making this an excellent plant-based protein source. Moreover, one serving offers 25% of your daily fiber, thiamine, folate, manganese, and vitamin A, C, and K needs and provides a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, and several other B vitamins [20
]. Some of these nutrients have also been shown to boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, and possibly lower the risk of chronic diseases [29
While anyone can enjoy peas, Alayna Hutchinson
, dietitian and Elo health coach, says that this veggie is an important part of an athlete's diet because “they are also a great source of carbohydrates, which are necessary for intense bouts of exercise.”
If you’re looking to eat more peas, Hutchinson recommends throwing them into a blended smoothie for a protein kick. You can also pair them with almonds for a nutrient-dense snack, include them as a side dish, or toss them into a veggie stir-fry.
You don’t have to just eat solid foods to get enough protein; ready-made liquids like kefir are an excellent option for those looking to boost their protein intake.
What is kefir?
Kefir is a fermented drink that originated in parts of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and is made by adding kefir grains to cow or goat’s milk. As such, it resembles a liquid blend of milk and yogurt.
Health benefits of kefir
If you’ve heard about the health benefits of kefir and have been curious to try it, you may want to consider hopping aboard the train.
Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, creator of Bucket List Tummy
and co-host of the Nail your Nutrition
podcast, says that “a cup of kefir offers 8 grams of protein per cup (which is comparable to dairy or soy milk), as well as vitamin D, about 30% of the daily recommended amount of calcium, and small amounts of other micronutrients, like phosphorus, vitamin B12, and magnesium.”
Kefir has also been shown to improve bone health, aid in digestive problems, protect against certain cancers, improve allergy and asthma symptoms, and boost the immune system [21
]. Furthermore, research shows that kefir may contain up to 61 strains of bacteria and yeasts that can positively affect gut health, which might make it a more potent source of probiotics compared to other fermented dairy products (like yogurt) [25
How to eat kefir
Kefir can be added to smoothies, salad dressings, or baked goods. And while anyone can reap the benefits of this probiotic drink, Schlichter recommends it for athletes, as it is a convenient, packaged product that offers both carbohydrates and protein that are important for post-workout nutrition.
Love eggs? You’re not alone–the average American consumes an estimated 286 eggs each year [26
]. And while we can’t seem to get enough of this breakfast staple, you may be surprised to learn that eggs are a true superfood.
According to Kelley Magill, dietitian and Elo health coach, “eggs are balanced and diverse with nutrients but also contain one of the highest scores of bioavailable protein.”
There are 7 g of high-quality protein in eggs, which may contribute to helping muscles recover and rebuild after a grueling workout. Moreover, eggs are a rich source of leucine and are also considered a complete protein, as they contain all essential amino acids needed for muscle recovery and growth. Magill suggests cooking your eggs and consuming egg white and egg yolk to reap the most protein benefits.
If you’re an athlete, it’s recommended to consume 15-30 g of high-quality protein and 15-90 g of carbohydrate post-workout to accelerate recovery, replenish fuel stores and promote muscle synthesis [27
]. Moreover, research suggests that eating proteins with leucine (such as eggs) after a run is more effective in stimulating muscle protein synthesis [28
Is 2 eggs enough protein after a workout? Get the answer here
From hard-boiled to scrambled, you can enjoy eggs in a variety of ways throughout the day, which is why Magill says that eggs make for a great breakfast or convenient snack when on the road.
Incorporating more protein in your diet has been shown to improve satiety, help with weight loss, improve bone health, and boost recovery. However, things can get monotonous if you only consume lean meat and energy bars as your protein sources. Dietitian-approved foods such as sardines, bone broth, peanut butter, kefir, eggs, and green peas not only provide adequate amounts of protein, but they also offer other nutrients that are important for overall health.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose or replace personalized medical care.