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 this nutritionist-approved high-protein, low-carbohydrate foods list can make your next shopping trip a little bit easier.
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, registered dietician and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
“Add a few fruit servings per day and some low-fat dairy products, and your diet will be appropriately balanced and lower in carbs than the typical 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.
So, what are these high-protein, low carbohydrate foods you’ll want to stock up on? Dietitians share their top 20 choices:
“Black beans boast some of the same antioxidants that give blueberries their superfood status. They pack 60 percent of the daily recommended value of fiber per cup, and provide a source of vegetarian iron and plant protein, as well as a modest amount of calcium,” says Maggie Moon, registered dietician and author of The MIND Diet.
Per 1-cup serving canned beans: 912 kilojoules, 0.7 g fat (0 g sat), 40 g carbs (23 g net), 0.5 g sugar, 922 mg sodium, 17 g fibre, 1 g protein. Buy Black Beans HERE
Mini Babybel is Harris-Pincus’ go-to snack. “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 292 kilojoules or less,” she says.
Per cheese stick: 209 kilojoules, 2.5 g fat (1.5 g sat), 1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 160 mg sodium, 0 g fibre, 4 g protein. Buy best Snacking Cheese HERE
“Pistachios make an excellent snack, with 30 nuts providing only 418 kilojoules and five grams of carbs,” says Harris-Pincus. These little nuts can also help aid weight-loss efforts.
Per 1/4-cup serving: 719 kilojoules, 14 g fat (2 g sat), 8 g carbs (5 g net), 2.3 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 3 g fibre, 6 g protein. Order best PISTACHIOS HERE
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, reducing inflammation, and keeping the brain healthy,” says Moon. And each serving generally has 15 to 20 grams of protein (depending on the fish), with zero carbs. Order best FISH HERE
Per 85 g serving (salmon): 740 kilojoules, 11 g fat (3 g sat), 0 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 50 mg sodium, 0 g fibre, 17 g protein.
There are many lower-sugar Greek yogurts on the market now, some with just a touch of sugar and others sweetened with Stevia to keep the carb content down without use of artificial sweeteners, says Harris-Pincus. “On average, these yogurts range from 376 to 502 kilojoules with 12 to 15 grams of protein, 11 to 15 grams of carbs, and some with higher fibre counts as well. Look for varieties containing nine grams of sugar or less, and add in nuts or berries for added fibre,” she says.
Per one 200 g container (plain, low-fat): 610 kilojoules, 4 g fat (3 g sat), 8 g carbs, 7 g sugar, 68 mg sodium, 0 g fibre, 20 g protein.
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.
If you’re not into the idea of a non-dairy ricotta, don’t fret. 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.
Per 1/2-cup serving (part-skim): 715 kilojoules, 10 g fat (3 g sat), 6 g carbs, 0.4 g sugar, 123 mg sodium, 0 g fibre, 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-recognised nutrient that is important for memory,” she says.
Per one whole, large egg: 300 kilojoules, 5 g fat (2 g sat), 0.4 g carbs, 0.2 g sugar, 71 mg sodium, 0 g fibre, 7 g protein.
“Avocado is a nutrition powerhouse,” says Harris-Pincus, thanks to its high amount of fibre and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. “For a low-carb snack, roll up a slice of avocado in a piece of deli meat. Super easy,” she says.
Per avocado: 1 347 kilojoules, 29 g fat (4 g sat), 17 g carbs (3 g net), 1 g sugar, 14 mg sodium, 14 g fibre, 4 g protein.
In need of a crunchy snack that’s high in protein but low in carbs? Ditch the bag of chips and roast beans instead. “Roasted broad beans are so versatile and delicious. They are portable, non-perishable, and a terrific snack for your desk, car, or gym bag,” says Harris-Pincus.
Per 1-cup serving (canned): 761 kilojoules, 0.6 g fat (0.1 g sat), 32 g carbs (22 g net), 3 g sugar, 14 mg sodium, 10 g fibre, 14 g protein.
Good old-fashioned cow’s milk is actually a protein powerhouse loaded with great nutrition. 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, registered dietician and author of Fertility Foods.
Per 1-cup serving (low-fat): 422 kilojoules, 3 g fat (1 g sat), 12 g carbs, 12 g sugar, 106 mg sodium, 0 g fibre, 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 proteins that remain after wheat flour has been ‘washed,’” says Shaw. “You can use this in stir-fry, sandwiches and really, any meat-based recipe that you are 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 70 g serving: 376 kilojoules, 1 g fat (0 g sat), 4 g carbs (3 g net), 2 g sugar, 340 mg sodium, 1 g fibre, 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.
Per 1-cup serving: 786 kilojoules, 8 g fat (1 g sat), 14 g carbs (6 g net), 3 g sugar, 9 mg sodium, 8 g fibre, 18 g protein.
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 30 g serving (part-skim): 300 kilojoules, 5 g fat (3 g sat), 1 g carbs, 0.3 g sugar, 175 mg sodium, 0 g fibre, 7 g protein.
Along with pistachios, almonds make a great high-protein, low-carb snack. “Research suggests that eating nuts like almonds regularly is linked to longer lifespan, less belly fat, improved brain health, and more,” Moon says.
Per 1/4-cup serving: 866 kilojoules, 18 g fat (1 g sat), 8 g carbs (2 g net), 2 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 5 g fibre, 8 g protein.
Lean Deli Meat
“Lean deli meat makes an easy lunch or fast snack,” says Harris-Pincus. “Spread on one tablespoon of hummus and create roll-ups for an additional 104 kilojoules, one gram protein, two grams of carbs, and one gram fibre,” she says.
Per 60 g serving: 259 kilojoules, 0.5 g fat (0.1 g sat), 2 g carbs (1.7 g net), 2 g sugar, 440 mg sodium, 0.3 g fibre, 12 g protein.
“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 30 g serving: 577 kilojoules, 9 g fat (0.1 g sat), 12 g carbs (2 g net), 2 g sugar, 5 mg sodium, 10 g fibre, 5 g protein.
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 kilojoules, try powdered peanut butter—which has comparable protein with way fewer kilojoules.
Per 2-Tbsp. serving: 744 kilojoules, 12 g fat (2 g sat), 13 g carbs (11 g net), 3 g sugar, 194 mg sodium, 2 g fibre, 10 g protein.
“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 30 g serving (roasted): 681 kilojoules, 14 g fat (2 g sat), 4 g carbs (2 g net), 0.4 g sugar, 5 mg sodium, 2 g fibre, 8 g protein.
“Biltong is back as a portable snack with many trendy, flavoured varieties on store shelves,” says Harris-Pincus—but not all are created equal. “The nutritional content varies widely depending on the brand and the flavour. Some are much higher in carbs and sugar than others,” says Harris-Pincus.
However, if you find one that isn’t heavily sweetened, you’ve got yourself a low-carb and high-protein snack.
Per 30 g serving (beef): 485 kilojoules, 7 g fat (3 g sat), 3 g carbs (2.5 g net), 3 g sugar, 506 mg sodium, 0.5 g fibre, 9 g protein.
READ MORE: 9 Foods That Are Naturally Gluten-Free
Lentils are a versatile and delicious high-protein food. “Add them to salads, soup, pasta, chili, veggie burgers, and so much more. They are incredibly satisfying and can help to stabilise blood sugar and lower cholesterol,” says Harris-Pincus.
Per 1-cup serving (cooked): 962 kilojoules, 0.8 g fat (3 g sat), 40 g carbs (24 g net), 4 g sugar, 4 mg sodium, 16 g fibre, 18 g protein.