Protein Foods

Foods high in protein such as fish, chicken, meats, soy products, and cheese, are all called “protein foods.” You may also hear them referred to as ‘meats or meat substitutes.”

The biggest difference among foods in this group is how much fat they contain, and for the vegetarian proteins, whether they have carbohydrate.

Best Protein Choices

The best choices are:

  • Plant-based proteins
  • Fish and seafood
  • Chicken and other poultry
  • Cheese and eggs

Plant-Based Proteins

Plant-based protein foods provide quality protein, healthy fats, and fiber. They vary in how much fat and carbohdyrate they contain, so make sure to read labels.

  • Beans such as black, kidney, and pinto
  • Bean products like baked beans and refried beans
  • Hummus and falafel
  • Lentils such as brown, green, or yellow
  • Peas such as black-eyed or split peas
  • Edamame
  • Soy nuts
  • Nuts and spreads like almond butter, cashew butter, or peanut butter
  • Tempeh, tofu
  • Products like meatless "chicken" nuggets, "beef" crumbles, "burgers", "bacon", "sausage", and "hot dogs"

Fish and Seafood

Try to include fish at least 2 times per week.

  • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like Albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, sardines, and salmon
  • Other fish including catfish, cod, flounder, haddock, halibut, orange roughy, and tilapia
  • Shellfish including clams, crab, imitation shellfish, lobster, scallops, shrimp, oysters.


Choose poultry without the skin for less saturated fat and cholesterol.

  • Chicken, turkey, cornish hen

Cheese and Eggs

  • Reduced-fat cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Egg whites and egg substitutes


  • Buffalo, ostrich, rabbit, venison
  • Dove, duck, goose, or pheasant (no skin)

Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb

If you decide to have these, choose the leanest options, which are:

  • Select or Choice grades of beef trimmed of fat including: chuck, rib, rump roast, round, sirloin, cubed, flank, porterhouse, T-bone steak, tenderloin
  • Beef jerky
  • Lamb: chop, leg, or roast
  • Organ meats: heart, kidney, liver
  • Veal: loin chop or roast
  • Pork: Canadian bacon, center loin chop, ham, tenderloin

Tips for Carbohydrate Counters

Meats do not contain carbohydrate so they do not raise blood glucose levels. A balanced meal plan usually has about 2-5 ounces of meat.

Most plant-based protein foods, like beans and soy products, and any breaded meats contain carbohydrate. It's best to read food labels carefully for these foods.

In general there is about 15 grams of carbohydrate in ½ cup beans, and between 5 to 15 grams in soy-based products like veggie burgers and "chicken" nuggets.

For the Plate Method

About ¼ of your plate should come from high protein foods. So 1 chicken breast or about 3-4 ounces of pork loin fits.

If you are having a casserole type entrée like lasagna, about 1 cup will count as your meat and the starch for your meal. Fill the other ½ of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables.

For Using the Glycemic Index

Meats do not have a glycemic index because they do not raise blood glucose levels. Vegetarian sources, like beans, lentils and nuts have a low GI. As with all the meal planning options, include a source of protein at each meal.

  • Last Reviewed: August 1, 2013
  • Last Edited: August 26, 2014

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