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
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