If you’re working with weights to build muscle, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of using whey protein, and maybe you’ve already used it.
Maybe you even have a favorite brand.
But you’re also open to healthy and more affordable substitutes for whey protein.
After all, high-quality whey protein doesn’t come cheap. And you shouldn’t have to go broke or into debt to build muscle and improve your overall health.
And since we usually find real food more satisfying than most protein supplements – smoothies, shakes, and bars – it makes sense to focus on those rather than alternative protein powders.
With that in mind, we’ve created this list of seven healthy and affordable real food alternatives to whey protein.
7 Healthy Alternatives to Whey Protein
Fortunately, we have a wide variety of foods available to choose from, which wasn’t always the case.
Maybe you want a whey protein replacement that you can keep handy in your car or in your gym bag.
Or maybe you know you’ll be eating out with a friend after a workout, and you want to know what foods are best to eat for muscle gains.
Or you want to avoid protein sources that are high in saturated fat.
Whatever you’re looking for, the seven whole food protein sources listed below are ideal for muscle-building and overall health.
1. Salmon / Tuna / Shrimp
Oily fish like salmon and tuna are high in Omega 3 fatty acids as well as high-quality lean protein.
Farm-raised and wild-caught salmon have close to the same amount of omega 3’s, and there’s nothing wrong with choosing what is usually the more affordable option.
As a rule, fish and shellfish are great sources of lean protein and healthy fats, so don’t be afraid to have it once or even twice a week, as long as you’re careful to avoid those with a high level of mercury — like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish.
If you prefer tuna, go for the “chunk light” tuna, which is lower in mercury than other tuna varieties.
And get it packed in water, rather than oil, to avoid the unnecessary and less healthy fats.
Other good choices for fatty fish include herring, sardines, bluefish, and mackerel.
2. Nuts and Seeds
These plant-based protein sources are everywhere and rich in high-quality omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, as well as protein and other essential nutrients.
They’re not a complete protein source since they don’t contain all nine essential amino acids.
But since they also provide high-quality fats and complex carbs, and they go well with other protein sources, they deserve a place on this list.
They’re also great for healthy, low-glycemic snacking. The following have the most protein, though they vary in their omega fat and mineral profile:
While peanuts are actually a legume, we’ll add them to this group, since they provide 6.6 g protein per 1 oz. serving.
The average egg provides 6 to 7 grams of high-quality protein. It also provides all nine essential amino acids in the correct ratios.
The amount of protein your body can use depends on how you prepare your eggs. Cooking makes the egg protein more digestible, so your body can access and make use of it.
Eggs are a fairly low-calorie and balanced source of almost every nutrient you need — including choline, which is essential to brain and heart health.
Eggs also promote feelings of fullness, which helps you lose fat or maintain a healthy weight.
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Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is actually a seed rather than a cereal grain.
While it’s been a staple food item in South America for thousands of years, it’s only recently been recognized as a superfood in the United States.
Every one-cup serving of cooked quinoa provides 8 grams protein, 5 grams fiber, 39 grams carbohydrates, and 4 grams fat.
The nutrient profile — with manganese, magnesium, folate, and zinc, among others — makes this a healthier alternative to rice and other grains.
Quinoa also contains flavonoids, like quercetin and kaempferol, which have powerful anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-cancer, and anti-depressant effects.
Since it’s gluten-free, it provides a perfect alternative to grains for people with gluten allergies and gluten intolerance.
Using quinoa instead of the refined gluten-free substitutes like tapioca, potato, corn, or rice flour can significantly improve the nutrient profile of your diet.
It’s also less expensive than many gluten-free grain substitutes.
To top it off, quinoa provides all 9 essential amino acids, making it a perfect protein source.
A half-cup serving of cooked lentils provides about 12 grams of protein.
While the protein in lentils lacks some of the essential amino acids, when you combine them with brown rice, you create a complete protein source.
Lentils also provide a healthy dose of iron, zinc, folate, niacin, potassium, and phosphorus.
They’re also rich in soluble fiber (8 grams per one-half cup), which is essential to a healthy digestive system.
So, while they may not pack as much protein as fish, eggs, or quinoa, their overall nutrient profile makes them an ideal protein source.
Lentils of all colors provide about the same amount of protein, but different types work well in different dishes, helping you work lentils into your diet in a variety of tasty and interesting ways.
Red and yellow lentils cook faster than others and are great for purees (like the Indian dish, dal) and stews.
Black lentils and small French lentils are great in salads for an extra protein and fiber kick. If you love lentil soup, try the brown and green lentils.
I know the word “Lent” is in there, but eating lentils doesn’t have to be penance.
6. Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt is thicker than regular yogurt because the whey has been strained out.
What’s left behind provides around 17 to 20 grams of protein per 6- to 7-ounce serving.
It also provides about 20 percent of your recommended daily intake of calcium, and most come in low-fat or no-fat varieties.
Eat it plain or with a swirl of raw honey (or your sweetener of choice) as a satisfying post-workout snack.
Throw in some fresh or frozen berries for an extra antioxidant boost. Or cut in some fresh, organic apple, banana, or melon chunks.
While it’s lower in lactose, it’s not lactose-free. Coconut milk-based Greek yogurt is a viable alternative.
It has far less protein (2 grams per serving), but it also provides over a third of the recommended daily intake of calcium, as well as of vitamin D, vitamin B12, and magnesium.
7. Cottage Cheese
A one-cup serving of 1% milkfat cottage cheese provides 28 grams protein, 6.1 grams carbohydrates, 2.3 grams fat, and at least 30% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of selenium, which is essential to thyroid health.
It also provides calcium, vitamin B12, riboflavin, phosphorus, folate, and other essential vitamins and minerals.
With its high protein and low-calorie profile, it’s an ideal protein source for those looking to either lose weight or maintain the weight they have.
Like eggs, cottage cheese stimulates a feeling of fullness, helping you to avoid overeating. And there are lactose-free options for those with lactose intolerance.
It also works well with both sweet and savory toppings.
Add pineapple chunks and coconut flakes to make a tasty dessert, or top your cottage cheese with lightly-salted (or unsalted) toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds for an extra crunchy protein boost.
And if you’re a cottage cheese fan who loves a good mac ‘n’ cheese, try this recipe by Terry Crews.
Which whey protein alternative suits you?
Now that you’ve taken the time to learn more about these seven whey protein substitutes, which ones sound best to you right now?
What recipes could you add to your weekly menu plan to help you build more muscle without breaking the bank?
Tell me I’m not the only one dying to try that mac ‘n’ cheese recipe!
Whether you need a high-protein post-workout meal or you just want to increase your daily protein intake, the options in this article can be the foundation of a healthy, varied, protein-rich diet without red meat.
You don’t have to eat all of these foods if your particular diet or your personal tastes rule out one or more of them.
But I hope this article at least got you thinking of ways to increase your healthy protein intake without buying expensive protein supplements (or at least not as many).