Protein Density: How To Get More Protein for Fewer Calories

It can be challenging to increase your protein intake using plant-based sources without taking in more calories than you need. This is where the concept of protein density can help.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #483
high protein density foods

Which Has More Protein per Calorie?

Here’s one that may surprise you: Although we tend to think of wheat as a carbohydrate, it actually has a decent amount of protein as well. Whole wheat bread, for example, has a protein density of 5, about the same as whole milk and significantly higher than quinoa, which is often heralded for its protein content.

As you can see, the protein density score gives you an easy way to compare similar foods. Black beans have a protein density score of 6, meaning that 100 calories worth of black beans only delivers 6 grams of protein. Edamame, on the other hand, has a protein density of around 10. You get ~50% more protein from the same number of calories.

Earlier this year, I reviewed two vegan hamburger products, the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. The Beyond Burger is made of pea protein and has a protein density of 7. The Impossible Burger, which is made from soy and wheat protein, has a protein density of 9. (By way of comparison, a regular hamburger has a protein density of 10.)

Here are a few more unexpected findings: Cheddar cheese has a protein density of 5 while mozzarella is around 8. A regular baked potato has a protein density of 3 (about the same as almonds), compared with a baked sweet potato, which is only 2. And while similar in calories, it turns out that whole wheat pasta beats out egg noodles in terms of protein density, 4 to 3.

I should point out that protein density does not take into account protein quality.

Just for fun, I’ve posted a table of some healthy foods and their protein density but you can quickly calculate and compare protein density by dividing the protein by the calories and then multiplying by 100.

I should point out that protein density does not take into account protein quality. Because they contain a more optimal distribution of essential amino acids, animal proteins have a higher biological value than plant-based proteins. Nonetheless, protein density can still be useful—and it's a whole lot easier to calculate.

Let me know whether you find protein density to be a useful tool. Post your comments below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.


Protein Density of Foods

Fiber Density of Foods

Image of protein-rich foods © Shutterstock


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.