When you first embark on a low-carbohydrate diet, it feels like freaking EVERYTHING has carbs—leading to a lot of Regina George-level questions. (Don’t worry: Butter is not a carb.)
Yes, it can be super confusing. But, in general, when building a high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal, fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies (like leafy greens), a fourth with lean protein, and a fourth with whole grains or beans with healthy fats (like avocado or nuts), says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
“Add a few fruit servings per day, and your diet will be appropriately balanced and lower in carbs than the typical American diet,” she says.
Choosing the right types of carbs for your high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet is key. “If going low-carb is important to you, make sure to use your carb grams wisely and pack in plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and low-fat dairy,” she says. That way, you’ll still get a balanced amount of nutrients.
And when it comes to what qualifies as high-protein, low-carb, “there isn’t really a cut off, but it depends on the goal of the eater,” says Sonya Angelone, RD. If you’re following a keto diet, for example, you may not eat more than 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day. But, for other low-carb dieters, “I just recommend that the protein be more than the carbs for most items,” says Angelone.
So which high-protein, low-carb foods should you stock up on? Here’s what nutritionists stock up on:
1. Snacking Cheese
String cheese and Mini Babybel are Harris-Pincus’ go-to snacks. “Mini Babybel offers 100 percent real-cheese snacks in a convenient and fun little package. One creamy cheese round provides at least four grams of protein and zero grams of carbs for 70 calories or less,” she says.
Per cheese stick: 50 calories, 2.5 g fat (1.5 g sat), 1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 160 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 4g protein
“Pistachios make an excellent snack, with 30 nuts providing only 100 calories and five grams of carbs,” says Harris-Pincus. These little nuts can also help aid weight-loss efforts.
Per 1/4-cup serving: 172 cal, 14 g fat (2 g sat), 8 g carbs (5 g net), 2.3 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 6 g protein
If you’re on a high-protein, low-carb diet, fish is your best friend. “Fish is a brain-healthy lean protein, and fatty fish in particular helps you get the essential omega-3 fatty acids that are important for healthy arteries, reduced inflammation, and a healthy brain,” says Maggie Moon, RDN, and author of The MIND Diet. And each serving generally has 15 to 20 grams of protein (depending on the fish), with zero carbs.
Per 3-oz serving (salmon): 177 cal, 11 g fat (3 g sat), 0 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 50 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 17 g protein
Try these lemon herb salmon kebabs:
4. Greek Yogurt
There are many lower-sugar Greek yogurts on the market now, some with just a touch of sugar and others sweetened with Stevia or monkfruit to keep the carb content down without use of artificial sweeteners, says Harris-Pincus. “On average, these yogurts range from 90 to 120 calories with 12 to 15 grams of protein, 11 to 15 grams of carbs, and some with higher fiber counts as well. Look for varieties containing nine grams of sugar or less, and add in nuts or berries for added fiber,” she says.
Per one 7-oz container (plain, low-fat): 146 cal, 4 g fat (3 g sat), 8 g carbs, 7 g sugar, 68 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 20 g protein
Per the USDA, a half-cup serving of low-fat ricotta has 14 grams of protein and six grams of carbs, making it a great low-carbohydrate, high-protein food.
If you don’t eat dairy, though, don’t fret. Plant-based cheeses are a unique way to add protein and healthy fats to the day. “Ricotta made from almond milk, using traditional cheese-making methods, has nine grams of plant protein per three ounces, and is completely plant-based, and therefore cholesterol-free,” says Moon.
Per 1/2-cup serving (part-skim): 171 cal, 10 g fat (3 g sat), 6 g carbs, 0.4 g sugar, 123 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 14 g protein
One large egg is enough to provide a good source of hard-to-get vitamin D, which can improve bone and tooth health, says Moon. “It also provides an excellent source of choline (20 percent daily value), an under-recognized nutrient important for memory,” she says. Try making eggs for a high-protein, low-carbohydrate breakfast.
Per one whole, large egg: 72 cal, 5 g fat (2 g sat), 0.4 g carbs, 0.2 g sugar, 71 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 7 g protein
“Avocado is a nutrition powerhouse,” says Harris-Pincus, thanks to its high amount of fiber and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. “For a low-carb snack, roll up a slice of avocado in a piece of deli turkey,” she says.
Per avocado: 322 cal, 29 g fat (4 g sat), 17 g carbs (3 g net), 1 g sugar, 14 mg sodium, 14 g fiber, 4 g protein
8. Cow’s Milk
Good old-fashioned cow’s milk is a protein powerhouse. Plus, in addition to the high amount of protein you get per cup, “cow’s milk provides potassium, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin A, and vitamin B12,” says Elizabeth Shaw, RDN, and author of Fertility Foods.
Per 1-cup serving (low-fat): 101 cal, 3 g fat (1 g sat), 12 g carbs, 12 g sugar, 106 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 8 g protein
If you’re vegetarian and looking to try a low-carb, high-protein diet, seitan is your answer. “Made from wheat, seitan is the gluten protein that remains after wheat flour has been ‘washed,'” says Shaw. “You can use this in stir-fry, sandwiches and really, any meat-based recipe that you’re looking to turn vegetarian.” It does tend to be high in sodium, so be mindful of adding tons of extra salt or seasonings like soy sauce to it. And of course, if you have Celiac’s, steer clear.
Per 2.5-oz serving: 90 cal, 1 g fat (0 g sat), 4 g carbs (3 g net), 2 g sugar, 340 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 17 g protein
“There’s a reason this crunchy high-protein, low-carbohydrate snack is appearing all over the snack food aisle,” says Shaw. It’s packed with vegetarian protein and iron. You can easily toss this into a salad, stir-fry, or soup. “Brands like Seapoint Farms have even taken to packaging dry roasted edamame for a high-protein, convenient snack on the go,” she adds.
Per 1-cup serving: 188 cal, 8 g fat (1 g sat), 14 g carbs (6 g net), 3 g sugar, 9 mg sodium, 8 g fiber, 18 g protein
11. Mozzarella Cheese
With tomato and basil, who can resist this high-protein, low-carbohydrate snack? “A one-ounce serving of mozzarella provides eight ounces of high-quality protein with only one gram of carbohydrates,” says Shaw.
Per 1-oz serving (part-skim): 72 cal, 5 g fat (3 g sat), 1 g carbs, 0.3 g sugar, 175 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 7 g protein
Along with pistachios, almonds make a great high-protein, low-carb snack. “Research suggests that eating nuts like almonds is linked to longer lifespan, less belly fat, improved brain health, and more,” says Moon. Here for allll of that.
Per 1/4-cup serving: 207 cal, 18 g fat (1 g sat), 8 g carbs (2 g net), 2 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 5 g fiber, 8 g protein
13. Deli Turkey Meat
“Deli turkey makes an easy lunch or fast snack,” says Harris-Pincus. “Spread on one tablespoon of hummus and create roll-ups for an additional 25 calories, one gram protein, two grams of carbs, and one gram fiber,” she says. You can also try these deli turkey kebabs for lunch.
Per 2-oz serving: 62 cal, 0.5 g fat (0.1 g sat), 2 g carbs (1.7 g net), 2 g sugar, 440 mg sodium, 0.3 g fiber, 12 g protein
14. Chia Seeds
“Chia seeds are a secret weapon on any diet plan. They absorb about 10 times their weight in water, helping to keep you full,” says Harris-Pincus. What’s more, the high-protein food is also rich in healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower inflammation. “Add them to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, cereal, and much more,” she says.
Per 1-oz serving: 138 cal, 9 g fat (0.1 g sat), 12 g carbs (2 g net), 2 g sugar, 5 mg sodium, 10 g fiber, 5 g protein
15. Peanut Butter
Here’s more reason to open up a jar of peanut butter for a low-carb, high-protein snack or pre-workout fuel. “Peanuts have the highest protein content among nuts,” says Harris-Pincus. And if you’re concerned about calories, try powdered peanut butter—which has comparable protein with way fewer calories.
Per 2-Tbsp. serving: 187 cal, 12 g fat (2 g sat), 13 g carbs (11 g net), 3 g sugar, 194 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 10 g protein
16. Pumpkin Seeds
“Pumpkin seeds are fantastic with yogurt, cottage cheese, smoothie bowls, soups, and salads,” says Harris-Pincus. They are also a rich plant-based source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, too, much like those chia seeds.
Per 1-oz serving (roasted): 163 cal, 14 g fat (2 g sat), 4 g carbs (2 g net), 0.4 g sugar, 5 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 8 g protein
“Jerky is back as a portable snack with many trendy, flavored varieties on store shelves,” says Harris-Pincus—but not all are created equal. “The nutritional content varies widely depending on the brand and the flavor. Some are much higher in carbs and sugar than others,” says Harris-Pincus.
But if you find one that isn’t heavily sweetened (so, no teriyaki flavor!), you’ve got yourself a low-carb and high-protein snack.
Per 1-oz serving (beef): 116 cal, 7 g fat (3 g sat), 3 g carbs (2.5 g net), 3 g sugar, 506 mg sodium, 0.5 g fiber, 9 g protein
18. Cottage Cheese
“Cottage cheese is such a great way to boost your protein intake with very few carbs,” says Brooke Zigler, RDN. You can use it instead of yogurt as a topper for berries and granola, and you’ll have an easy, filling breakfast. “Cottage cheese is also a great swap for mozzarella cheese on homemade pizzas. By swapping for cottage cheese, you’re boosting the protein content and making it an even more filling meal,” she says.
Per 4. oz serving (low-fat, 2% milkfat): 92 cal, 3 g fat (1g sat), 5 g carbs (5 g net), 5 g sugar, 348 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 12 g protein
Tofu is an inexpensive source of protein that is extremely versatile and can be a great alternative to meat. “It also has a longer shelf life, so it can be a great option to keep in the refrigerator for when you want a quick and easy protein for your meal,” says Zigler. Add to smoothies for additional protein, or use instead of eggs in a quick scramble.
Per ½ cup serving: 181 cal, 11g fat (2g sat), 4g carbs (1g net), 0g sugar, 18mg sodium, 3g fiber, 22g protein
“Skinless chicken breast is one of my favorite sources of lean protein,” says Zigler. “It’s low in saturated fat compared with other meats, which can help someone maintain a healthy weight,” Add to salads and sandwiches, or eat plain or with some veggies as a meal or snack.
Per serving of 3 oz. chicken breast: 140 cal, 3 g fat (0.9 g sat), 0 g carbs (0 g net), 0 g sugar, 63 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 26 g protein
“Not only are artichokes loaded with the highest amounts of fiber of any vegetable, they also have four grams of protein per serving, making this a super filling vegetable,” says Zigler. Roast them with some oil and lemon or add to salads to boost satiety.
Per medium artichoke: 60 cal, 0 g fat, 13 g carbs (6 g net), 1.3 g sugar, 120 mg sodium, 7 g fiber, 4 g protein
22. Hemp Seeds
“Technically a nut, hemp seeds are small but mighty when it comes to nutrition and protein,” says Maggie Michalczyk, RD, and author of Once Upon a Pumpkin. “More than 25 percent of their total calories come from protein, and they’re a great addition to baked goods, salads, yogurt bowls, and more.” Hemp seeds are also a good source of phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, and iron, and they add a nice nutty, crunchy texture.
Per ¼ cup serving: 170 cal, 120 g fat (1.5 g sat), 3 g carbs (0 g net), less than 1 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 10g protein
23. Grass-Fed Beef
“A great source of protein, grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3s fatty acids, and lower in total fat compared to other types of meat,” says Michalczyk. Opting for higher quality red meat, when available, is best. Pair it with nutrient-dense foods, like veggies.
Per 4 oz. serving: 157 cal, 7 g fat (3.1 g sat), 0 g carbs (0 g net), 0 g sugar, 72 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 24 g protein
This cruciferous veggie will definitely fill you up. “Believe it or not, broccoli ranks high on the protein list in terms of vegetables,” says Michalczyk. “Packed with antioxidants and fiber to boot, it’s definitely a powerhouse veggie you should aim to include a few times a week in dishes like stir fry or on the side of fish.”
Per 1 cup serving: 30 cal, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 5.8 g carbs (3.8g net), 1 g sugar, 30 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 2.4 g protein
25. Green Peas
“Peas are a good source of many vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and protein,” says Michalczyk. “While they do contain carbohydrates, they still rank high in terms of vegetables that contain protein.” If you’re trying to decrease carbs even further, simply lower the serving size and pair with another high-protein food.
Per ½ cup serving: 59 cal, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 10.5 g carbs (7 g net), 4 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 3.5 g fiber, 4 g protein
“These vibrant green spears boast a long list of nutrients like vitamin K, antioxidants, and protein. Another higher-protein vegetable, asparagus is a great green to put on your weekly rotation more than just in the spring,” says Michalczyk. Grill them with some olive oil or cheese, or add to a stir-fry with meat or tofu.
Per ½ cup serving: 27 cal, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 5 g carbs (2.2 g net), 2.5 g sugar, 3 mg sodium, 2.8 g fiber, 3 g protein
27. Canned Sardines
“I like to recommend canned sardines,” says Angelone. “I find people don’t usually eat them because they think they are the same as anchovies which are fishy and salty, but sardines are convenient, high in omega-3 fatty acids, and are not very fishy.” To make them the most palatable, Angelone buys a variety without bones, drains off the little olive oil, then tosses them with eggs, tops a salad, or combine them with crackers.
Per can: 151 cal, 10 g fat (1 g sat), 0 g carbs (0 g net), 0 g sugar, 370 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 16 g protein
28. Cashew Butter
There’s more to life than just peanut butter (yes, gasp!) “Most people know about peanut butter but not as many people try other nut butters,” says Angelone. One of her fave varieties: cashew butter. This creamy treat is packed with protein, and you can use it anywhere you’d use peanut butter. Angelone loves adding a scoop or two to her day for an extra boost of protein.
Per 2 tbsp: 94 cal, 8 g fat (1.6 g sat), 4.4 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 65 mg sodium, 0g fiber, 3 g protein
29. Sunflower Seeds
Nutrient-rich seeds are another great way to fit your high-protein, low-carb needs. Angelone is a big fan of sunflower seeds—eat a scoop for a snack, sprinkle them on your salads, or grind them into a pesto.
Pr 1/4 cup: 190 cal, 15 g fat (1.6 g sat), 7 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 360 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 6 g protein
30. Collagen Powder
Okay, so this isn’t exactly a “food” but Angelone highly recommends collagen powder as a way to up your protein intake. “It dissolves in both hot and cold water and has no taste or texture,” she notes. Add it to your soups, smoothies, or morning coffee for a boost of protein.
Per 2 scoops (in Vital Proteins collagen powder): 70 cal, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 0 g carbs (0 g net), 2 g sugar, 110 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 18 g protein