If you already saturate your diet with chicken, beef, and salmon, you’re off to a good start when it comes to getting the best protein you need to get a little more buff. And if you toss some beans into the mix for a hit of plant-based protein, that’s an added bonus.
But just as you shouldn’t perform the same lifting exercises for every workout, you shouldn’t be reliant on the same old protein foods to keep muscular growth going in full force. That’s because not only can experimenting with some surprising alternative proteins give your diet a new nutritional makeup, they will also add flair to your menu that may have become stale, so to speak. (Seriously, who gets stoked by another dinner of dried-out chicken breast?) Interestingly, a Cornell investigation found that people who were more adventurous eaters tended to maintain higher rates of physical activity and also are more concerned about the nutritional quality of what they are eating.
So get ready to take your physique and culinary skills to the next level with these exciting new-to-you protein-packed foods (in no particular order) that you’ll want to pen onto your grocery list and certainly flaunt on the Insta.
Best Protein No. 1: Sablefish
Protein Power: 15 grams in 3 ounces cooked
Sure, salmon and canned tuna are great catches when it comes to delivering the protein you need to build muscle like a champ, but consider casting your line more often for this overlooked swimmer. Swimming along the ocean floor in the icy waters of the North Pacific, sablefish (also regularly called black cod) is blessed with a highly palatable buttery flesh that provides a boatload of high-quality protein and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
On that point, when going fin-to-fin sablefish hammers salmon when it comes to omega-3s. And that is notable when you consider a in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which discovered that people with higher levels of omega-3 fats in their blood are more likely to live longer and healthier. Far from a two-hit wonder, deep-dwelling sablefish also brings a range of vital micronutrients to the table including phosphorus, selenium and niacin. And not to be overlooked, The Monterey Bay Aquariums’ lauded conservation program Seafood Watch gives U.S. wild-caught sablefish high-water marks for being a sustainable choice due to its well-managed fishery.
Eat More: Similar to other white-fleshed fish like halibut and tilapia, sablefish fillets can be steamed, broiled, poached, seared in a skillet or tossed on the grill. Lucky for you, its high-fat content makes sablefish forgiving to the novice cook because all that fat acts as a buffer against overcooking. Ergo, your chances of ending up with fish jerky are much less. It works amazingly well with all sorts of salsas, glazes, marinades and spice rubs. Awesome in tacos, too.
Need to know: A high oil content means sablefish does not have a long shelf-life, so it is not always easy to find a fresh catch. Knowing that, ask your fishmonger for frozen cuts which are also of high quality and can be cheaper, not to mention available year-round.
Best Protein No. 2: Tempeh
Protein power: 20 grams in 3 ounces
Trying to eat more plants? Who isn’t these days. A good place to start as any is with tempeh. No, not tofu, we mean tempeh. It’s produced when whole soybeans are soaked, cooked, left to ferment with a fungus and then pressed into a firm, dense patty that is big on earthy, umami flavor with a touch of nutty taste.
Compared to tofu, tempeh delivers about 60% more protein in a serving. That is a big step-up and is nearly the amount of protein you’d get from a hunk of chicken breast. So the belief that plants are protein wimps is certainly not the case when it comes to tempeh. It should also be praised for its hefty amounts dietary fiber, 10 grams in a cup serving. It’s worth pointing out that very few American men are meeting their daily fiber needs. This is a big problem when you consider the major role dietary fiber plays in heart health, digestive functioning, steadying blood glucose levels, and improving the gut microbiome.
There are very few foods on the market that will do a better job at meeting your protein and fiber needs at once than tempeh. Recent research suggests that the fermentation process that goes into making foods like tempeh allows their nutrients to be more bioavailable, a measure of how easily your body can absorb particular nutrients in a food such as the iron, calcium and magnesium found in tempeh. Tempeh also appeals to consumers who don’t have an appetite for the highly engineered plant-based products like meatless burgers and faux chicken nuggets that are now everywhere.
Eat more: You can buy tempeh that is plain flavored, or with added flavors such as maple or teriyaki. Lightlife is an excellent brand option. Since it soaks up flavors like sauces and spices well, try marinating plain slabs of tempeh just as you would steak and other proteins and then grill, bake, pan-fry, or cube and then stir-fry. Use cooked tempeh in grain bowls, salads, sandwiches and tacos. Or crumble a block with the large holes of a box grater (or finely chop with a knife) and use the grounds to make a meat-free chili, plant-based meatballs, veggie burgers or a no-meat Bolognese for pasta night.
Need to know: Since tempeh is made from soybeans, if you have a soy allergy you’ll more than likely need to steer clear.
Best Protein No. 3: Chickpea Pasta
Protein power: 13 grams in 2 ounces
Think noodles, but with way more protein and fewer starchy carbs. An example of processed food that can work in your favor. This modern-day pasta is made when chickpeas are dried, ground into flour, then formed into noodles of various shapes.
Depending on the brand, chickpea pasta can provide nearly double the protein of regular pasta and even more than most of those other gluten-free rice kinds of pasta on the market. That makes the noodles much better at helping you build up your lean mass and a lot less likely to send your blood sugar on a roller coaster of a ride. And the latest research suggests that as long as you are getting enough total protein in your diet it’s perfectly acceptable if most of this hails from plant-based sources when it comes to making new muscle.
An analysis of data from more than 30 studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked higher protein intake overall and plant protein specifically to lower all-cause mortality risks. Another bonus: up to 3 times as much dietary fiber as wheat-based pasta. This, in turn, can set you up for fewer post-meal hunger pangs and also improved blood sugar levels so you feel less sluggish after a big meal. What’s more, you get additional amounts of vital micronutrients like magnesium, iron and potassium that are found abundantly in chickpeas.
Best of all, manufacturers have been working hard so that the textures of their cooked products won’t leave an Italian grandma cringing. Two excellent brand options are Chickapea and Banza.
Eat more: Anywhere regular pasta goes so can the chickpea version—topped with meat sauce, made into pasta salad, used in soups, baked into noodle casserole, you name it.
Need to know: There are a couple of important things to keep in mind when preparing any chickpea-based pasta. Most notably, they can go from perfectly al dente to soggy in a matter of moments, so taste test often close to the recommended cooking time. The noodles also foam like crazy in boiling water, so skim this off as needed during cooking with a spoon. Unlike wheat-based noodles, these should be rinsed with cold water after draining.
Best Protein No. 4: Beef Heart
Protein power: 20 grams in 4 ounces
OK, we admit, this is the wild card of the bunch. But hear us out on this one. While many people get squeamish even at the thought of slicing into organ meat, smart guys see it as an opportunity to upgrade their diet on the cheap (less appetizing to the masses often means a lower price tag). Worthy of much more than being ground into pet food, beef heart can pump your body full of nutrition including plenty of protein, vitamin B12, iron and the supercharged antioxidant selenium.
Truth be told, beef heart can be more nutrient-dense than most other cuts of beef at the butcher. And in this new era of soaring food prices, it’s good to have options for foods that provide more nutrition for your buck. Remember that the heart of a cow is a constantly functioning organ. For that reason, it’s always getting a workout out, which means that it’s pretty much pure muscle and very little fat. Four grams of beef heart contain 20 grams of protein for 119 calories and barely a gram of saturated fat.
And take this to heart: Cow’s heart is not as strong tasting as other organ cuts like liver and is easy to work with in the kitchen since it has a taste and texture similar to more common cuts of steak. (Beef tongue? Not so much.)
Eat more: Slice away any white connective tissue before preparing. Since it’s so lean, your best bet is to thinly slice a beef heart and then cook slices quickly over high heat to no more than medium-rare, which is browned around the edges but still some crimson in the center. You can also skewer slices and grill kabob-style. Eat the heart meat on its own or tuck into sandwiches, salads and tacos.
Need to know: You won’t likely find beef heart alongside other shrink-wrapped meats at the supermarket. So the best way to get your hands on this protein-packed red meat is to ask a local butcher to put one aside for you when he processes a cow. One beef heart is about one pound of meat, which should get you about three servings.