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Everything you need to know about high protein food

Jamie Rose Chambers

Learn about the benefits of high protein foods, with expert dietician tips for different dietary preferences and goals.

A front on photo of two people preparing meat for a barbecue in a backyard patio
A front on photo of two people preparing meat for a barbecue in a backyard patio

If you’ve landed on a health and fitness social media account lately, you’ll notice one thing they all seem to agree on: the importance of protein – and it seems they’re on the right track. 

While this macronutrient is beloved for its muscle-building powers, there are plenty of other benefits to eating protein-rich foods. So how much do you need, and where is the best place to get it?  

The importance of protein in your diet

Often hailed a superhero of good nutrition, protein is one of three essential macronutrients, alongside carbohydrates and fats.  

The hype around protein is warranted, says accredited practising dietitian Jaime Rose Chambers, opens in a new tab. As one of the body’s main building blocks, protein is important for the function of every single cell.  

“When we get a cut, an injury or a wound of some description, protein is needed to come in and heal those injuries and wounds. When we exercise, we get micro tears in our muscles and protein comes and fills them in,” she says. 

Protein also has a satiating effect that keeps us feeling fuller for longer, so it can play an important role in weight loss or maintenance.   

As a general guide, Dietitians Australia, opens in a new tab recommends adult men aim to eat around 0.84g and women 0.75g of protein each day, for each kg of body weight. For a woman who weighs 65kg, that’s roughly 50g of protein per day. 

“That’s considered the baseline protein requirement for general body processes,” Jaime says. “However, you’ll have a higher requirement for protein if you're doing any type of strength-based training – to repair micro-tears in the muscle – and even more so if you want to actually build muscle, such as with bodybuilding or weight training.” 

Our protein needs also tend to increase as we get older, she adds. For women, this begins around perimenopause, usually in the 40s, opens in a new tab.   

“Once women hit that perimenopause, opens in a new tab stage, the general consensus, opens in a new tab is that protein needs go up to about 1.2g of protein per kg of body weight, with the upper limit being around 1.6g,” Jaime says. For a 75kg woman, that’s around 90g of protein each day.  

But don’t go overboard with protein, Jaime warns: “You don’t want to be going over about 200g a day, or it can start to impair the kidneys.”  

High protein foods for different dietary preferences

Not all protein is created equal. Complete sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids our body needs, and primarily come from animal sources. This includes: 

Not all protein sources offer the same nutritional value, opens in a new tab. When we talk about "complete" protein sources, we mean those that provide all the essential amino acids required by our bodies. These complete proteins are mainly come from animal sources like: 

  • Meat  

  • Chicken  

  • Fish  

  • Eggs  

  • Dairy. 

Plant-based sources of protein like nuts, seeds, beans, legumes , lentils and wholegrains sometimes don't have all the important amino acids our bodies need. We refer to these as 'incomplete' sources of protein. 

But if you don't eat animal-based foods, you can still get these amino acids by eating a mix of different plant foods every day or opt for 'complete' plant proteins like quinoa, soy, amaranth and chia seeds. 

Vegetarian and vegan high protein meals 

As a ‘complete’ protein source, tofu and other soy products are a cornerstone of many high protein vegetarian meals, but Jaime says there are other alternatives if you’re looking to mix it up. Substituting quinoa or amaranth for rice or pasta in your favourite dish is a simple way to add complete protein to a vegetarian diet while still enjoying a similar taste and texture. 

Jaime says that eating ‘incomplete’ protein foods in complementary combinations is a savvy way to plan high-protein vegan and vegetarian meals. 

“An example might be nuts and seeds with wholegrains, such as peanut butter on wholegrain toast,” Jaime says. “Or you could have wholegrains with beans – for example, beans and rice or hummus and pita bread.” 

For a tasty and nutritious high-protein vegetarian meal, try an aromatic chickpea curry with brown rice; a black bean and quinoa poke bowl; or teriyaki tofu with buckwheat soba noodles.  

High protein foods for muscle gain 

The Australian Institute of Sport suggests, opens in a new tab that athletes (and all very active people) aim to consume 1.2 to 1.6g of protein per kg of body weight each day. However, if you're actively trying to gain more muscle, your protein requirements could be as much as 1.8 to 2g per kg each day, Jamie explains, although you should always consult a certified healthcare practitioner to find what's right for your body. 

So, how to include it in a sustainable protein-rich diet? 

Skinless chicken breast is a popular option to include in high protein meals for muscle gain – it’s a lean, complete source of protein and contains around 20-30g of protein per 100g.  

Similarly, a salmon fillet, opens in a new tab offers around 20g of protein per 100 g. Both are versatile – you can add them to a stir-fry or salad, bake them in the oven or season and grill on the barbecue.   

If you’re aiming to gain muscle, the timing of your protein intake can make a big difference too.  

“Aim to get 20 to 30g of protein within 20 to 60 minutes of finishing your training,” Jaime advises. “Experts have done a lot of testing, opens in a new tab on this and have found that this is the ideal timeframe to replenish the muscles with the protein and the energy they need after a workout.  

While many muscle-building diets can focus intensely on protein, Jaime points out that it’s important to eat a balanced diet including enough carbohydrates.  

“When we don't eat enough carbohydrates, many people tend to feel lightheaded. Their memory is often impaired and their stamina in exercise is often impacted.” 

Are protein powders and protein meal replacements good for me?

While protein meal replacements, powders and shakes can be useful in some circumstances, Jaime says they should be considered supplements to a balanced diet rather than a food replacement.  

Incorporating high-protein foods into your meals can give you big health benefits. Muscle repair, satiety and metabolic support are all vital for staying physically healthy and, if it’s part of your health plan, weight management. However, it's equally important to maintain a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrients from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, and you should always speak with your GP, opens in a new tab before embarking on a new diet regime. Diet is just one part of health and wellbeing. Explore a range of healthy living tools and resources, opens in a new tab to support you to be your healthiest. 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.  

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Dietitian Jamie Rose Chambers holding an apple in her kitchen

Jamie Rose Chambers

Jamie Rose Chambers is an accredited practising dietitian, nutritionist and aspiring cook, who is passionate about how food affects our bodies and our health. With two small children in tow, she has published several best-selling books and has special expertise in intermittent fasting. Jaime likes her coffees BIG, as to delay the sadness she feels when they're empty.