Protein is a fundamental macronutrient and building block for our muscles. There is a lot of information available on cheap protein sources, however, most neglect to consider how many total calories you would consume when targeting a certain amount per meal. Thus, the costs are not the only critical aspect to consider when choosing a protein source. Let’s look into this a little further.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
10%-35% of your total consumed calories should come from protein. The more active you are and if you are thriving for a lean physique, the more important it becomes to consume sufficient amounts of protein.
Generally, the guidance is to aim for a daily protein intake between 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (or 0.73- 1 grams per pound). So, a 120lb woman should roughly aim for 120grams of protein per day.
To make nutrition simple, I try to consume protein with every meal targeting 30-40grams per meal.
Protein Rich Food Sources – Calorie Comparison
Like carbohydrates, one gram of protein provides 4 calories. In order not to overshoot total calories per day, it is important to choose food sources which are rich in protein but relatively low in calories.
For example, you can eat a 5 oz piece of chicken breast which would provide roughly 32 grams of protein for just about 150 calories. While you can get your protein from plants, it does not mean they are low in calories.
If you choose let’s say black beans instead of chicken breast, you would need to eat 18 oz of black beans to get the same amount of protein, but you would consume 470 calories. That’s 3 times the calories compared to the chicken breast. Even worse, to get the same amount of protein out of peanut butter, you would need to eat 8 Tablespoons resulting in over 750 calories.
See below a comparison of different food sources. Shown is a portion size yielding in about 30-35grams of protein and the related total calories. As you can see, the best options with high protein content and low calories are Tilapia (or similar lean fish), Chicken Breast, Egg White and Greek Yoghurt. Now, let’s see how these foods score when we look at costs.
To compare the costs of different protein food sources, we need to understand the protein content. Usually, you can find the protein content per serving on the nutrition facts label. Otherwise you can find this information using any macronutrient or food tracker app. We will also need to look at the overall package size and how much it costs. With that information we can then simply calculate what a gram of protein costs, or if we target a portion of 30 grams of protein, how much would that portion cost.
Below you can find a selection of my favorite protein sources. Again, Eggs, Chicken Breast, Greek Yoghurt and Tilapia are the cheapest options out there. That’s good news, because these are also low in calories. I understand that costs fluctuate and depend on the region. Feel free to use the calculator in my other post to determine how much your desired protein portion will cost, how many calories it would be for the portion needed.
One note of caution, these comparisons do not account for micronutrient composition. Thus, I would not necessarily advise to eat 5 whole eggs in a meal per day due to high cholesterol amounts. While salmon may be on the higher side in calories, it does provide beneficial omega-3-fatty acids. So, consider a mix of multiple protein sources.
I usually eat the leaner and cheaper protein foods during the week and treat myself on the weekends with the more expensive and higher calorie one. As always, in the end balance is the key. Follow my nutrition blog to find helpful tips to achieve that balance.