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Protein powders are an easy way to increase your protein intake, but can you increase your protein intake without protein powder?
Yes, you can increase your protein intake without protein powder. You can do this by eating bigger servings of the protein sources you already consume, prioritizing protein at every meal/snack, getting to know convenient sources of protein that you enjoy, and exploring plant-based sources of protein.
In this article, I’ll share 30 strategies and tips to easily increase your protein intake without taking protein powder or shakes. I’ll also include links to make my recommendations easy for you to follow. This goes way beyond just a list of foods!
1. Come Up With A Protein Target Per Meal/Snack
Working with a high protein target can seem overwhelming at first. Rather than focus on the total number of grams, divide this total by the number of meals and snacks you eat in the day. You can also choose a slightly higher number for meals than for snacks.
- If you want to eat 150g of protein in the day and you have 3 meals and 3 snacks, this could be 30g of protein per meal and 20g of protein per snack.
Focusing on this lower target and taking it meal by meal will make it much more manageable. Breaking down a larger goal into smaller, more easily achievable pieces sets you up for success.
Having these small successes each time you eat makes it much more likely that you will keep trying, which naturally will lead to a higher protein intake for the entire day than if you give up.
- To learn more, check out Protein Bars vs. Shakes: Pros, Cons, & Which Is Best?
2. Realize That It All Adds Up
Many foods that are not primary sources of protein still contain at least a few grams of protein per serving. It is important to realize that these sources of protein can and do add up over the day.
- For example, 4 ounces of broccoli provides 3g of protein. Depending on the type, 2 slices of bread can provide 4-12g of protein.
You should track ALL foods consumed to capture your total protein intake for the day.
3: Increase the Serving Size of the Protein Sources You Already Eat
You are likely already eating protein-containing foods at one or more of your meals or snacks. Simply increase your portion size. Aim for 25-50% more, e.g. a 5 ounce serving of chicken breast instead of a 4 ounce serving, or 3 eggs instead of 2.
Without introducing any new foods at all or even changing what you eat, only how much, you can increase your protein intake dramatically. If you started with 60g of protein in a day, this one tip could increase it to 75-90g. Starting with 100g, this can get you to 125-150g.
- Related Article: Tofu vs Chicken: 5 Differences & Which Is Better?
4. Think of Every Meal or Snack in Terms of the Protein Source First
When you are planning a meal or snack, ask yourself what protein you want to eat. Then, plan the side dishes for the meal around that.
- For example, instead of having pasta with meat sauce, think of having a serving of meatballs with pasta on the side.
Start with at least one protein source from the lists below, and then consider what side dishes you would add to make your meal.
Breakfast protein sources:
- Cottage cheese
- Egg whites
- Greek yogurt
- Turkey bacon
Lunch or dinner protein sources:
- Chicken, duck, turkey
- Deli meat
- Fish & seafood (clams, lobster, mussels, salmon, sardines, shrimp, tilapia, tuna)
- Wild game (bison, elk, moose, rabbit, venison)
Snack protein sources:
For snacks, start with one of the protein sources listed and then add fruit or vegetables and a small serving (½ ounce) of nuts or seeds to add healthful fats (and a few more grams of protein) for a balanced snack.
- 1 ounce of cheese with a sliced apple and almonds
- ½ cup Greek yogurt with a handful of blueberries and a few walnuts
- ¼ cup hummus with carrot and celery sticks and a few olives
5. Prep Your Protein in Advance
Your “food environment” has a big impact on what you eat, meaning that foods that are most visible and easiest to obtain are what you will eat. This means that you need to have protein on hand that is ready to eat.
Prep your protein in advance by batch cooking. Many people like to take one day of the weekend to do this:
- Bake a tray of chicken breasts sprinkled with your favorite spices. Cool, slice and measure into desired serving sizes and store in containers in the fridge.
- Cook a large package of ground meat (chicken, turkey, pork or beef) and season with salt and pepper. Divide into desired serving sizes and store in containers in the fridge.
- Hard boil a dozen eggs and store in a carton in the fridge
6. Shop Smart for Protein Sources
Of course, you can’t eat or prepare protein sources if they are not on hand in your kitchen. You will need to include protein sources in your regular grocery shopping.
For the fridge:
- Fresh meats
- Fresh fish & seafood
- Deli meats
- Eggs and liquid egg whites
- Cottage cheese
- Greek yogurt
For the freezer:
- Frozen meats
- Frozen fish & seafood
- High-protein ice cream
For the pantry:
- Canned fish (tuna, salmon, sardines)
- Canned meat (chicken, ham)
- Canned or dried legumes (lentils, beans and dried peas)
- Nuts & seeds
- Protein bars
Get in the habit of having a variety of protein sources in your kitchen. Each week, do an “inventory check” of items that are out of stock or running low, and add them to your grocery list. This way, you will always be able to have protein in your meal or snack.
- Related Article: Is It Okay To Eat Protein Bars Every Day? (4 Things To Know)
7. Know Your Convenience Protein Options
Even if you do a great job of shopping for and preparing protein to eat in your own home, there will be times when you are out and about and need to eat.
Don’t reach for the nearest vending machines! Those snacks are usually highly processed and high in refined sugar and low-quality fats, and low in protein.
Get to know convenient protein sources instead.
Convenience protein sources:
- Beef jerky
- String cheese
- Pepperoni sticks
- Bags of nuts
This list is in order from highest protein and lowest fat to lowest protein and highest fat per serving. All of these foods are usually available in convenience stores and even gas stations. You can keep your protein intake up even on a road trip.
8. Know Your Restaurant Protein Options
Beyond just snacks, there will be times when you want or need to have one or more of your meals at restaurants. Just like at home, consider your meal in terms of the protein source.
Look for the same protein sources that you eat at home and order meals that emphasize those. Or, you could try a protein that you wouldn’t normally prepare for yourself at home such as lamb or duck.
Next, to increase your protein intake, order a larger serving size. This could mean a 10-ounce steak instead of 8 ounces (+25%), or getting several different kinds of meat on your pizza.
In many fast-food restaurants, it’s also possible to pay a little extra to double the amount of meat. This applies to sandwiches/wraps, salads, and pizzas.
- For breakfast, check out: Eating At Dunkin’ Donuts When Bulking (6 Bodybuilding Meals)
- For lunch, check out: What To Eat At Subway When Bulking or Cutting (6 Meals)
- For dinner, check out: Eating At Chipotle Bulking (6 Bodybuilding Meals)
9. Select Protein-Rich Appetizers
Instead of filling up on the bread basket, you can increase your protein intake by ordering protein-rich appetizers.
- Beef tartare
- Charcuterie boards featuring cured meats and cheeses
- Fish cakes
- Shrimp cocktail
10. Embrace Low-Fat Dairy Products
Dairy products can be a great source of whey protein. Low-fat or fat-free dairy products allow you to add protein with minimal additional fat and only some carbohydrates. Filtered milk (Fairlife) increases the protein content even more, and it’s lactose-free.
- 1 cup Fairlife 0% milk = 14g protein (0g fat, 6g carbs)
- 1 cup of skim milk = 9g protein (0g fat, 12g carbs)
- ½ cup fat-free cottage cheese = 13g protein (0g fat, 6g carbs)
- ½ cup fat-free Greek yogurt = 12g protein (0g fat, 5g carbs)
- 1 ounce low-fat cheese = 8g protein (5g fat, 1g carbs)
Regular or full-fat dairy products can supply more of their calories from fat than from protein, so these should be reserved for individuals looking to increase both protein AND total calories (bulking).
If you don’t have any allergies or intolerances to dairy products, this is a great way to increase your protein intake.
11. Try Powdered Peanut Butter
Powdered peanut butter is just like regular peanut butter that has had the fat removed and is dehydrated. There are a few popular brands; my go-to is PB2. Just 2 tbsp has 6g of protein but only 1.5g of fat and 60 calories. Regular peanut butter has 90 calories per 1 tbsp and only 3g of protein.
How to use powdered peanut butter:
- Reconstitute it with water (1:1 ratio) and use it like regular peanut butter
- Add ½ – 1 tbsp to regular peanut butter to pump up the protein
- Add it to smoothies
- Add up to ¼ cup to baked goods such as muffins
- Add a few spoonfuls to savory soups, stews, stir-fries and chilis
- Make a peanut sauce
12. Make Higher-Protein Swaps
There are a lot more high-protein versions of products on the market these days. You can increase your protein intake by switching to the higher-protein version of your favorite foods. Or, you can use a higher-protein option to replace an ingredient or food.
- Greek yogurt: Eat Greek yogurt instead of regular yogurt, and swap it in place of sour cream. It can also replace mayonnaise and be used in creamy dressings and dips.
- Legume-based pasta: There are many new pasta products made with chickpeas, black beans, red lentils or edamame. Legume-based pasta can offer up to 23g of protein per 3 ounce serving compared to 11g of protein for regular pasta.
- High-protein wraps: “Flatout” brand makes high-protein wraps, flatbreads and pizza crusts. One small wrap is only 60 calories but has 6g of protein. Regular small wraps have twice the calories but half the protein.
- High-protein ice cream: There are several brands of high-protein ice cream (Halo Top, Cool Way, Breyer’s Delights) offering ~5-6g of protein per ½ cup serving with lower fat and carbs than traditional ice creams. While 5-6g of protein is not “high-protein,” these ice creams are usually only 70-90 calories per serving. Since this is about half the calories of regular ice cream, you could have two servings and get 10g of protein.
13. Choose Leaner Cuts of Meat
When you choose a leaner cut of meat you will get relatively more protein and less fat compared to the same serving size of a fattier cut of meat.
- Eat skinless chicken breasts instead of chicken thighs
- Eat extra lean ground chicken instead of ground pork
- Eat extra lean ground turkey instead of ground beef
- Eat tilapia instead of salmon
- Eat flank steak instead of marbled steak
- Eat low-fat dairy products instead of full-fat dairy products
Note: if your goal is bulking and you want more calories overall, it is appropriate to keep the fattier meats.
- Check out Whey Protein vs Meat
14. Add Egg Whites to Every Meal
Egg whites are a fantastic source of protein, providing 7g in a ¼ cup serving for only 30 calories. They are also extremely versatile for adding to existing recipes.
As long as you purchase pasteurized liquid egg whites in a carton, they are safe to consume without cooking. I do not recommend eating raw egg whites (cracking an egg yourself and separating the egg white from the yolk), but these egg whites can be used in cooking.
Options for adding egg whites:
- Add ¼ cup of liquid egg whites to a ½ cup serving of oatmeal, stirring them in at the end of the cooking process (+7g protein). Check out my Egg White Oatmeal Recipe.
- Add ½ cup of liquid egg whites to an omelet (+14g protein)
- Hard boil 2 eggs and remove the yolks and add the sliced hard boiled egg whites to a salad (+7g protein)
- Add ¼ cup of liquid egg whites at the end of cooking a ¼ cup serving of rice (+7g protein)
15. Add Legumes
Legumes are plants with pods that have edible seeds in them. This includes beans, peas, lentils, and even peanuts (despite the name, peanuts are not actually nuts).
Across the board, beans and lentils provide an average of 15g of protein per 1 cup. They also contain carbohydrates but they are high in fiber which means that they provide long-lasting energy and keep you feeling full.
Legumes are easy to add to existing dishes, especially if you buy canned varieties. You can simply open the can and rinse them, vs. soaking dried legumes. The only caveat is that canned varieties can be higher in sodium. Be sure to rinse them thoroughly and look for lower-sodium options if sodium intake is a concern for you.
Legumes and ways to eat them:
- Black beans: make black bean burritos or serve with scrambled eggs and salsa.
- Chickpeas: chickpeas can be roasted with spices for a nutritious crunchy snack, or added to salads, soups and pasta dishes.
- Edamame: steam edamame in the pod and enjoy with a little sea salt or soy sauce (unless you are watching your sodium intake), or add them to stir fries.
- Lentils: add lentils to soups or stews, or add 1 cup for each pound of ground meat when making burger patties.
- Red kidney beans: add red kidney beans to chili or soups.
- White kidney beans: mash white kidney beans and add them to mashed potatoes for a protein boost, or blend them into a smoothie.
One drawback of legumes is that their high fiber content can cause gastric distress. Start with a small serving (¼ cup) and slowly increase over time as your body adapts to digesting more fiber.
16. Make a Protein Smoothie Without Protein Powder
With so many high-protein foods, it’s easy to make a protein smoothie without protein powder. You just need a blender.
Choco-Nutty Protein Smoothie
- 1 cup skim milk
- ½ cup Greek yogurt
- 2 tbsp powdered peanut butter
- 1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 tbsp natural peanut butter
- Handful of ice cubes
- Pinch of sea salt (optional)
Combine all ingredients in the order listed in a high-speed blender and process until smooth. This smoothie has 330 calories, 32g protein, 27g carbs, and 9g fat.
Green Machine Vegan Protein Smoothie
- 1 cup unsweetened soy* milk
- 1 tbsp spirulina powder
- 1 tbsp chlorella powder
- 2 tbsp powdered peanut butter
- 2 handfuls baby spinach
- ½ cup white kidney beans
- Handful of ice cubes
- Pinch of sea salt (optional)
Combine all ingredients in the order listed in a high-speed blender and process until smooth. This smoothie has 300 calories, 34g protein, 30g carbs, and 7g fat.
- Note: If you’re concerned about soy, read this article: Do Bodybuilders Eat Soy? (What NOT To Do).
17. Choose quinoa over rice
Quinoa is a plant-based complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids.
Quinoa also has twice the protein of brown rice, but a nearly identical calorie count for the same serving size (~120 calories per 100g cooked product).
You can increase your protein intake by choosing quinoa where you would normally eat rice.
18. Opt for whole grains
Whole grains vs. processed grains nearly always provide more protein per serving, along with other health benefits. Look for whole-grain versions of the following products:
- Whole-grain bread (5g protein per slice for most brands) instead of white bread (2g protein per slice)
- Whole-grain flour, such as wholewheat flour (4g protein per ¼ cup) instead of white flour (3g protein per ¼ cup)
- Whole-grain oatmeal (5g protein per ½ cup serving)
- Whole-grain pasta (12g protein vs. 9g protein per 3 ounce dry serving)
19. Try ancient grains
“Ancient” grains are grains that are largely unchanged over centuries vs. “modern” grains like wheat or corn. From a nutrition perspective, ancient grains have similar macronutrient profiles to other whole grains.
The real benefit is introducing variety and even more sources of food to increase your protein intake without protein powder.
- Black Rice
- Blue Corn
- Wild Rice
You can easily search the preparation and cooking instructions for these grains. Here is a handy Visual Guide To Cooking Ancient Grains for several of the varieties listed.
20. Consider unconventional protein sources
Looking across various cultures around the world gives us lots of new ideas about protein sources that might be less common in our daily diets. Consider the following:
Less-common protein sources:
- Chlorella: Chlorella is a green algae rich in protein and micronutrients. Similar to spirulina (see below), it comes in a powder that can easily be added to smoothies. Just 1 tbsp has 6g of protein and only 30 calories.
- Crickets: Whole roasted crickets or cricket powder are a highly nutritious way to add protein to your diet. Crickets contain all 9 essential amino acids, making them a complete protein. Try them sprinkled on a salad for some crunch instead of croutons, or get a flavoured snack bag like sriracha or BBQ. A 1 ounce serving provides 16g of protein.
- Escargot (snails): Escargot is not just for fancy French restaurants. Available near the canned fish in many grocery stores, they are ready to eat straight out of the can (after rinsing). You can put them on pizza before it goes in the oven, or sprinkle them with Parmesan cheese and garlic powder and bake them in a ramekin with 1 tsp of butter (350F for 8 minutes). Each 124g can of escargot has 16g of protein.
- Nutritional yeast: Nutritional yeast is a vegetarian dietary supplement that is yellow in colour and is described as having a slightly cheesy or nutty flavour. It is great to sprinkle on baked potatoes, popcorn, or scrambled eggs, or stir it into sauces or soups. A ¼ cup serving has 8g of protein.
- Seitan: Seitan is a gluten-based vegan protein product made by rinsing away the starch from wheat dough (not suitable for gluten-free diets). The end result has a meaty texture and bland taste. It easily soaks up the flavour of marinades, sauces and spices, making it a great choice for grilling or stir fries. A 4-ounce serving provides ~20g of protein, putting it on par with chicken.
- Spirulina: Spirulina is a blue-green algae rich in protein and micronutrients. Similar to chlorella, it comes in a powder that can easily be added to smoothies. Just 1 tbsp has 6g of protein and only 30 calories.
- Textured vegetable protein (TVP): TVP is a very popular vegan substitute for ground meat. These dehydrated soy crumbles are reconstituted using hot water for an end product that has a texture similar to cooked ground beef. TVP can be used in addition to or as a replacement for ground beef in dishes like burritos, chili, sloppy joes and spaghetti meat sauce. Each ¼ cup (dry crumbles) serving has 12g of protein.
- Wheat germ: Wheat germ is the heart of the edible part of a wheat grain (not suitable for gluten-free diets). It has a mildly nutty, toasted flavor. I love stirring it into yogurt or adding it to baked goods. You can replace up to half a cup of flour with wheat germ instead. It also can be used to replace breadcrumbs in meatloaf or meatballs, or used as a coating for chicken or fish. A ¼ cup serving as 8g of protein.
21. Try Tofu
Tofu is made from soybean curds and it is a great plant-based source of protein. There are types (silken vs. non-silken) and different levels of “firmness” for tofu which can be used in different recipes.
Types of tofu:
- Extra firm (non-silken) tofu (16g protein per 4 ounce serving; 8g fat): this tofu can be cut into cubes and soaked in a marinade and used in stir fries or grilled tofu
- Medium firm tofu (11g protein per 4 ounce serving; 5g fat): this softer tofu is great for scrambled tofu – break up the tofu with a fork and scramble in a pan like scrambled eggs with salt and pepper and your favorite spices
- Soft (silken) tofu (7g protein per 4 ounce serving; 3g fat): this tofu has a creamy texture than can be easily used in puddings and smoothies
22. Add a protein bar as a snack
Protein bars are a very quick, convenient, and easy way to increase your protein intake. There are many different brands and types of protein bars to suit different eating styles (vegan, keto, paleo, gluten-free) and different macronutrient needs (low-carb and/or low-fat).
Look for bars that provide at least 12-20g of protein and have a calorie count of 150-250 calories. Of course, if you are bulking, you can consider even higher calorie options. Ideally, the bar would have at least 5g of fiber and less than 5g of sugar.
23. Add milk to tea or coffee
We saw that low-fat dairy is a great way to increase your protein intake (Tip #10). If you have three cups of tea or coffee per day, and add ¼ cup milk (especially high-protein filtered milk) to each of them, you can add 6-9g of protein.
An even bigger protein boost comes when you have a skim milk latte instead of a cup of black coffee. One medium (tall size) skim milk latte has 10g of protein and only 100 calories.
24: Use oat flour instead of wheat flour when baking
Oat flour is made by grinding whole grain oats. Since it starts with a whole grain, it is higher in protein than refined flours (4g protein per ¼ cup serving). You can make your own by grinding oats in a coffee grinder or a blender, or buy pre-made oat four.
Making this simple substitution when baking will allow you to increase your protein intake.
25: Add beans to baking
Beans are so versatile that they can even be added to baked goods to increase the protein content.
Try adding ½ cup black beans (6g protein) to brownie recipes. You can use ½ cup white beans (navy beans 8g protein or white kidney beans 6.5g protein) in banana bread.
Baking with beans:
- New & Improved Healthy Avocado Black Bean Brownies
- Chickpea Blondies with White Chocolate
- White Bean Banana Bread
26. Add nuts and seeds
Even though nutsand seeds are primary sources of healthful fat, they do also provide a few grams of protein per serving (3-6g per ounce). Since all sources of protein add up over the day, look to add nuts and seeds.
You can sprinkle nuts and seeds on yogurt or oatmeal, in smoothies, on top of salads, in baked goods, and as part of snacks. Grinding nuts or seeds into a “flour” (or “meal”) means they can be used as a coating for chicken or fish instead of bread crumbs, or as a binder in meatloaf or meatballs.
Keep in mind that nuts and seeds are also very high in calories and fat, with 160-200 calories per ounce and 15-20g of fat. This makes them ideal for bulking, but they should be limited for individuals looking to cut.
27. Use nut butter instead of oil for sauces and dressings
Compared to oil, each tbsp of nut butter provides 3-4g of protein with fewer calories and less fat. This is great news for increasing protein intake without increasing overall calories.
28. Be smart about your sauces and spreads
Many salad dressings, sauces, dips, and spreads provide negligible protein. To increase your protein intake, read the labels on these products. Look for sauces and spreads that are higher in protein, or make your own.
You can use Greek yogurt in place of sour cream or mayonnaise as the base for many creamy dressings and dips.
Consider hummus or nut butter or a peanut sauce instead of Ranch dressing as a dip for veggies.
29. Go for gelatine
Unflavoured gelatine gets its calories exclusively from protein, so finding ways to add it to your diet is a way to increase your protein intake. It contains no sugar, artificial flavors or colors, which means that it can be used in just about any dish.
My first experience using unflavoured gelatine was in BCAA gummies and I enjoyed them.
30. Find higher-protein desserts
Just like meals and snacks, approach desserts with a “protein-first” mindset. Desserts that feature milk, eggs, and cheeses will be higher in protein. This includes cheese trays, flans, custards, pavlova (made from egg whites), meringues, ice cream, and cheesecakes.
Keep in mind that most of these desserts are often also high in sugar, fat, and calories.
At home, you can make your own higher-protein baked goods by using whole grain flours, adding beans, and adding nuts and seeds.
Choosing to have a milk-based specialty coffee drink (latte or cappuccino) to end your meal is a great way to increase your protein intake.
There are dozens of ways for you to increase your protein intake without protein powder. Now that you know how to do it, you can learn even more from the following articles:
- Struggling To Eat Enough Calories? 15 Tips That Actually Work
- Will I Lose Muscle If I Stop Taking Whey Protein?
- 50g Protein Meal: 15 Ideas for Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x
Cohen, D., & Farley, T. A. (2008). Eating as an automatic behavior. Preventing chronic disease, 5(1), A23.
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.
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