High Protein Low Calorie Foods

The role of protein in a balanced diet, particularly for vegetarians has been strongly debated. Similarly there has been a lot of debate about whether high protein diets help build muscle mass and can help people trying to lose weight. Many diet programs promote high protein low calorie foods for weight loss. What are the facts? How much protein do we need? What is a high protein intake and can it achieved eating normal foods or are supplements required?

There is a range of excellent information about protein and diets for athletes which helps provide the answers to these questions. This article provides are review of high protein low calories foods and their role in healthy diets for various purposes.

The low carb - high protein diet plan
The low carb - high protein diet plan. Source: Public Domain

Protein requirements for humans have been well researched particularly for athletes. Protein is a vital nutrient in our diets for building and repairing body proteins that have many roles in metabolism. Structural proteins are needed to maintain muscle cells, connective tissue and cell membranes. Proteins also act as enzymes and support transport functions throughout the body. 

Proteins are made up of strings of about 20 different amino acids, 8 of which the body can not synthesize itself and must be continually supplied in the diet. This creates particular problems for vegetarians, especially vegans who have to ensure they are getting enough protein in their diet and sufficient supplies of the essential amino acids. So eating protein regularly is very important for everyone with the richest sources in meat, eggs and milk.

How Much Protein Do We Need?

The general recommendation for normal adults is that protein should contribute from10% - 35% of total calories in food. This means that an average male on a 1,800 calorie diet, could safely consume from 45 grams (about 10% of calories) to 218 grams (about 35%) of protein per day. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams a day for men. Most people in the West have no difficulty getting this much protein, but may struggle getting the maximum amount. For weight loss programs, various experts advise eating about 120 grams of protein a day, which is midway between the maximum and minimum. They also recommend increasing your protein consumption slowly over the course of a week or more.

High-Protein Diet for Weight Loss

High-protein diets have become popular for dieting because protein appears to satisfy for longer reducing the hunger pangs when dieting. Protein keeps you feeling fuller for longer periods after a meal than either carbohydrates or fats .

Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that when protein was increased to 30% fat of the total calories in the diets of subjects they reported less hunger, greater satisfaction, and better weight loss. Fats in the diet were reduced to 20% and the remainder was carbohydrates (50%). The subjects calorie intake fell by 441 calories a day when they followed the high-protein diet.

Another study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, reported that a high-protein diet when combined with exercise led to faster weight and fat loss and reduced blood fat levels. 
Diets rich in protein, low in fat and with moderate carbohydrate, when combined with of regular exercise help reduce blood fat levels, maintain lean body shapes and helping many people lose weight. However the American Dietetic Association suggests that more research is needed before recommendations are made for people to boost the amount of protein in their diets.

The most famous low-calorie diet is the Atkins Diet. This article does not discuss the pros and cons of this diet in detail, but here is a summary on this topic:

The diet plan outlined in the book "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution" involves and extremely low carb diet:

=> Phase 1 - involves reducing carbohydrate intake to 20 g of dietary carbohydrate during a two-week induction phase for the diet.

=> Phase 2 - after the initial induction phase, the plan calls for carbohydrate intakes to be incrementally increased by 5 g a week.

=> Phase 3 - carbohydrate intake levels can be slowly increased by 1O g a week, provided weight loss stays on track.

=> Phase 4 - One the the goal weight is reached, after weight loss over a period of time, a critical carbohydrate level for maintaining that new reduced weight dictates the amount of daily carbohydrate intake.

How the Atkins Diet Works

The Atkins diet plan is designed to deplete glycogen stores and shift the body's metabolism into ketosis, so that ketone bodies from the break down of fat are used for fuel in place of glucose.

Dieters are advised to eat 3 meals a day, drink 8 glasses of water, take vitamin supplements, and to exercise regularly.

Lipolysis testing strips are used to monitor fat-burning metabolism and to adjust the amount of carbohydrate in the diet to keep the weight loss on track.

Restrictive diets, such as the Atkins Diet that exclude a group of foods can obviously restrict not only calories but also nutrients because of drastic changes in eating patterns. Although low-carbohydrate diets can be successful, eating very low amounts of carbohydrate means eliminating a variety of fruits and vegetables from the diet which are major sources of vitamins and other essential nutrients. This diet method can also drastically reduce the amount of fiber in the diet and possibly, electrolyte disturbance and imbalances in key minerals ingested in food.

A moderate carbohydrate intake, including a wider range of foods and types provides not only a broader and more wide ranging nutrient intake but is also more interesting and avoids the boredom of highly restrictive diets.

Weight loss programs using Atkins' diet can produce rapid loss of weight and can improve lipid profiles, glycemic control, and blood pressure. However, as with many diets the challenge is weight management in the longer term - 'keeping the weight off'. Successful maintenance of the lower weight is poorly conceived in the Atkins' diet, as is the diet plan and eating restrictions designed to achieve it.

There are major concerns that the Atkins' diet does not work in the long term. There are also major health concerns about the diet as a long term strategy to maintain lower bodt weights.

Do athletes require more protein?

Over the last 20 years, detailed research has monitored protein metabolic processed during various types of exercise and recovery, and studied the protein balance in athletes and their protein needs. Endurance athletes when training heavily need extra protein to cover protein used a fuel, late in running events when glycogen is depleted. They also need extra protein to help repair and build muscles during the recovery periods after exercise. Weight lifters and strength athletes, require extra protein to build muscle size and enhance strength. However, the protein requirements of fully-trained athletes in training are only slightly greater than those of on-athletes. The table below shows the protein requirements for various types of athletes undertaking various activities.

Estimated protein needs of athletes

Protein intake (g/kg/day)
Sedentary men and women
Elite male endurance athletes
Moderate-intensity endurance athletes
Recreational endurance athletes
Football, power sports
Resistance athletes (early training)
Resistance athletes (steady state)
Female athletes
~15% lower than male athletes

Do athletes need to eat more protein-rich foods?

Generally, athletes have far greater energy requirements and consume more food than most people including larger amounts of protein. Weight-lifters and other strength athlete regularly consume in excess of 2.0 g of protein per kg body mass per day, which is more than twice the protein requirement of the average person. However, despite there is little justification for special supplements and high protein eating plans for sport. The table below shows that high protein intakes can be achieved with a standard diet.

Quantity of food required to provide needs for a 70 kg athlete and high protein intake without supplements
Amount of protein (g)
2 cups cereal
300 ml milk
2 slices toast
2 tablespoons jam
1 cup juice
2 bread rolls each with 50 g chicken + salad
1 banana
1 fruit bun
250 ml flavoured low fat milk
Stir-fry with 2 cups pasta + 100 g meat + 1 cup vegetables
1 cup jelly + 1 cup custard
750 ml sports drink
1 carton yoghurt
1 piece fruit
1 cereal bar
Total Protein in daily diet
166 g
(2.3 g/kg)

Which are the best foods to provide protein?

The following table shows examples of the variety of foods that provide 10g of protein per serve. Most people look towards fish, poultry, meat and dairy products as the only sources of protein. However, as shown in the table, many plant foods such as pasta, rice, bread, legumes, lentils, breakfast cereal and nuts also contain moderate amounts of protein. A mixed range of sources is required because some of the plant sources of protein lack some of the essential amino acids.

Each of the following foods provides approximately 10 g of protein

Animal Foods
Plant Foods
2 small eggs
4 slices (120 g) wholemeal bread
30 g (1.5 slices) reduced fat cheese
3 cups (90 g) wholegrain cereal
70 g cottage cheese
2 cups (330 g) cooked pasta
1 cup (250 ml) low-fat milk
3 cups (400 g) cooked rice
35 g lean beef, lamb or pork (cooked weight)
3/4 cup (150 g) lentils or kidney beans
40 g lean chicken (cooked weight)
200 g baked beans
50 g grilled fish
120 g tofu
50 g canned tuna or salmon
60 g nuts or seeds
200 g reduced fat yoghurt
300 ml soy milk
150 g light fromage frais
100 g soy meat

Are protein supplements useful?

Generally, most athletes can get all the protein they need from a good and balanced mixed diet. Many protein supplements have unknown and risky ingredients and are very expensive.

They are unnecessary for most athletes.

Some excellent alternatives to protein supplements include liquid meal supplements such as Protein Plus powder in homemade fruit smoothies, and 20 g skim milk powder added to regular milk.

Source of high protein foods with little or no carbohydrate
Source of high protein foods with little or no carbohydrate. Source: Public Domain
High-Protein Vegan Foods - rice, grains, legumes, and beans
High-Protein Vegan Foods - rice, grains, legumes, and beans. Source: Public Domain
Protein levels in various high protein foods
Protein levels in various high protein foods. Source: Public Domain
Some grains and pulses have relatively high protein levels
Some grains and pulses have relatively high protein levels. Source: Public Domain
Meat is a rich source of protein
Meat is a rich source of protein. Source: Public Domain
Meat and fish with green vegetables is a good high protein - low carbohydrate meal which includes color and texture variety
Meat and fish with green vegetables is a good high protein - low carbohydrate meal which includes color and texture variety. Source: Public Domain