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How To Cook Healthy Meals with High Protein

Updated on October 30, 2012
Lots of foods can help you increase your protein intake.
Lots of foods can help you increase your protein intake. | Source

High-protein diets have become a popular weight loss method. Several diet plans, such as Atkins, claim that eating more calories from protein and less from carbs will lead the body to burn more of its own fat - a process called ketosis. Plus, the added protein may satisfy hunger more quickly and decrease the need to eat.

There have been concerns associated with this approach to eating. Ketosis, though effective for weight loss in the short term, may cause problems like nausea and headaches, even kidney and heart trouble. Too much protein can add extra calories, and too much saturated fat is linked to heart disease and kidney disfunction.

Fortunately, there are ways to get the benefits of a higher-protein diet without all the risks. Weight loss might take just a bit longer. But by making safe, effective changes, you'll see lasting results and feel better in the process.

How Much Is Right?

What makes a diet high in protein? First, you need to know the standard amount recommended per day. The National Institute of Health has found 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women to be healthy.

For weight loss, you'll want to aim for 120 grams per day of protein, or about 35% of your calories per day.


  • Increase your protein level slowly. Give yourself a few days to adjust to the different balance.
  • There may be some side effects, physical and emotional, that come up during the first week or two. If these don't subside after a time, you may need to add more carbs back in or lower your protein intake.
  • Eat a variety of protein-rich foods, choosing leaner cuts and lower-fat versions when possible.

Healthy Cooking Methods To Try

Baking - demands a longer cooking time, but uses hot air to cook and lessens the need toadd fat from cooking oils.

Broiling & Grilling - both are similar in that the food is cooked close to the heatsource. So if grilling is not an option, the broiler is a fine substitute. Fatfrom the food drips off and leaves a leaner meat.

Braising - this means browning a food on top of the stove, then baking it in liquid. Theflavor remains inside and the liquid can be used as a base for a nutrient-rich sauce or broth.

Stir-frying - small pieces of food are cooked quickly, making this a very efficient way to cook on top of the stove. Light oil or spray is all thatis needed.

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chicken thighscut pork chopsQuinoa
chicken thighs
chicken thighs | Source
cut pork chops
cut pork chops | Source
Quinoa | Source

Kinds of Protein

1. Complete or high-quality

These provide all the essential amino acids on their own, and come from animal-based foods like meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and cheese.

Sources of Complete Protein

Serving Size
Grams of Protein
3 oz
4 oz
Chicken breast
about 3 oz
Chicken Thigh
average size
Chicken, assorted meat
4 oz
Pork loin
4 oz
Pork chop
1 slice
Fish filet, assorted kinds
3 oz
Fish, canned
3 oz
1 cup
1 cup
1 oz
6-10 (harder cheese have more)
Soy milk
1 cup
Soy Tofu
4 oz
Soy burger
1 patty
Ground soy burger
1/3 cup
1 cup cooked

Note: You'll see soy products and quinoa on this list, because though they are plant-based foods, they have been found to be complete protein sources.

Tofu with pasta & sundried tomatoes
Tofu with pasta & sundried tomatoes | Source

Recipe Idea

If you want a lower-fat but protein-rich main dish ingredient, try using tofu in a meal.

trail mix with nuts, raisins and seeds
trail mix with nuts, raisins and seeds | Source
Grains and produce
Grains and produce | Source

2. Incomplete

Found in plant-based foods, these are low in one or more of the essential amino acids. However, two or more incomplete proteins can be combined to form what's called "complementary proteins" - each fill in the other's gaps in protein nutrition.

Until recently it was believed that complimentary proteins had to be eaten together at the same time to reap the benefit. The newest findings prove that a balance of these protein sources eaten on the same day will produce the same effect.

Examples of pairings include;

  • Legumes + bread/grains, nuts, seeds or dairy

  • Grains + dairy

  • Dairy + nuts

Sources of Incomplete Proteins

Serving Size
Grams of Protein
Beans (Pinto, Navy, Kidney, etc)
1/2 cup
Split peas
1/2 cup
Whole wheat bread
2 slices
Brown rice
1 cup cooked
1/4 cup
1/4 cup
Sunflower seeds
1/4 cup
Pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup
Flax seeds
1/4 cup

Note: Vegetables and fruit also have some protein in them, though usually in much smaller amounts. Check out the Health Alternatives website for an expansive list of foods and their nutrition content.

Refried beans
Refried beans | Source

Recipe Ideas

Refried Beans

Delicious in burritos and tacos or as a side dish. This version is kind of mild (my taste), but you can make it as fiery as you want - even adding a jalapeno pepper if you dare!

2 cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed with liquid reserved

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tbsp canola oil

1/2 cup onion, diced

1/2 tsp each of cumin, chili powder

pepper, salt to taste

Put the beans into a food processor with about 1/4 cup of the reserved liquid. Pulse until they are almost fully mashed, adding more liquid if the consistency seems too thick (You can also mash them by hand with a fork).

Heat up the oil in a saute pan. Cook the onions for about 3 minutes until they are tender. Add in the garlic for another 30-45 seconds.

Pour the beans into the pan, stirring until they are heated through. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add cumin, chili powder, pepper and salt to taste. Serve warm.

Black bean and rice with veggies
Black bean and rice with veggies | Source

Vegetarian Main Dish

If you're eating vegetarian or just want a break from meat some night, try out this meal with black beans in the spotlight. They've got the protein, fiber and flavor to satisfy!

Flaxseed crackers and cheddar cheese
Flaxseed crackers and cheddar cheese | Source

Snack Ideas

You can reach your diet goals by sneaking in some extra protein through a tasty snack like:

Hummus & whole grain crackers

1 hard boiled egg topped with a sprinkle of olive oil and dried thyme

Peanut butter with 1 slice grain bread or apple slices, topped with a shake of cinnamon

Yogurt mixed with granola and honey

Whole grain tortilla drizzled with melted cheddar cheese


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    • Heather63 profile image

      Heather Adams 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      It's great that you like doing meat-less meals so much. I used to be a true carnivore - then my daughter became a vegetarian at 14. Her choice forced me to get creative, and I found out that I don't have to eat hamburger or chicken to feel satisfied. I'm like you, finding that balance each week. Thanks for reading - I hope your sister gets some new ideas to try!

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 5 years ago from Washington

      Great advice, Heather. We try and do a few alternative forms of protein per week - mostly beans during the summertime but do a lot of other things like lentils, barley, etc. in fall, winter and spring. I had no idea chicken breasts had so much protein in them - now I won't feel so bad if they cost a bit more! I do a lot of broiling or revamped recipes without breading by pounding them and then doing simple tomatoe purees, etc. Chicken Parm without all the fat~ Anyhow - fabulous info and will send this to my sister who is looking for alternative forms of protein, too.

    • Heather63 profile image

      Heather Adams 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Thanks, Helen! I've done a couple of higher protein eating plans, but have always tried to keep some sort of safe balance. Plus, I like carbs too much to give them up completely! Let me know if you like the recipes.

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      Great hub and very interesting!

      I've never tried a protein form of dieting really due to the concerns, as you mentioned, over health. But there are some excellent - and tasty - recipes in your hub that I would love to try out.

      This hub was really helpful and very interesting + voted up!

    • profile image

      Heather63 5 years ago

      Thanks for the correction - I'll change that right away.

    • kissayer profile image

      Kristy Sayer 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      This is a great hub! I don't eat meat and can't eat gluten, legumes or soy due to food intolerances and coeliac disease so I'm always looking for alternative protein sources.

      Only one thing! Quinoa is actually a complete protein!

    • Heather63 profile image

      Heather Adams 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Thank you for sharing this - I hope it can give some useful ideas!!

    • Dr Pooja profile image

      Dr Pooja 5 years ago

      Informative Hub! Shared!