20 healthy, cheap protein sources – Diet Doctor


Evidence based

Are you interested in eating more protein for weight loss or better health, but concerned about the cost of high-protein foods? While some protein sources can be pricey, affordable animal and plant-based protein options are widely available. 

In this guide, we’ll share 20 cheap high-protein foods that are healthy, tasty, and easy to find. We’ll also provide nutrition information to help you decide which protein sources fit your dietary preferences and health goals, along with tasty recipes that feature budget-friendly protein foods.


Why is protein important?

20-healthy-cheap-protein-sources-lead

Protein provides essential amino acids your body needs to survive. Eating higher amounts of protein may also help you feel full, lose weight, and preserve muscle. You can learn much more in our complete guide, Benefits of higher protein.

We believe a good weight loss strategy is to prioritize foods that provide plenty of protein compared to carbs and fat. The best high-protein foods for weight loss have high protein percentages, meaning they provide a lot of protein per calorie.

Both animal and plant protein sources work, but they differ in protein quality. With the exception of soy, the protein in most plants isn’t digested and absorbed as easily as the protein in animal foods. In addition, plant-based proteins are typically low in one or more of the essential amino acids. However, consuming a variety of plant proteins and eating more protein overall can help plant-based eaters meet their protein needs.


20 cheap sources of protein, ranked

Here’s our list of 20 affordable protein options. We provide the price per container, but we rank the foods based on the cost per 25-gram serving of protein.

Note

Prices are in US dollars, and based on name-brand foods available from Walmart.com. In other countries, a similar ranking of cost per gram would likely apply.

1. Beef liver

Liver can be a love-or-hate food — or at least an acquired taste. Like other organ meats, it’s loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals. Liver takes the top spot on our list because it provides a lot of protein per calorie at a very low cost. 

To make the taste of liver more appealing, soak it in milk for 30 minutes, sauté it with onions in butter or oil, and season with salt and pepper.

Cost per package/container
$2.48 per pound (One package contains 92 grams of protein, or about 3.7 servings.)

beef liver
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 4.5 ounces/125 grams of raw liver, about the size of a deck of cards after cooking

Good to know

Although liver is nutritious and affordable, it shouldn’t be consumed every day. Liver is extremely high in vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin that can be stored in your body. Eating liver too often may lead to vitamin A toxicity.

For this reason, it’s important to limit liver intake to once a week or less. This goes for other types of liver, too, such as chicken, pork, veal, and lamb.


2. Frozen chicken drumsticks

Chicken drumsticks are delicious, versatile, and widely available. Plus, they’re among the least expensive parts of the chicken. Drumsticks also provide an impressive amount of protein per calorie – with zero carbs. 

Frozen drumsticks in a bag are usually your best option, cost-wise. Take out as many as you need, and store the rest in the freezer to use later. They taste wonderful when roasted. Try this simple recipe for low-carb chicken with garlic.

Cost per package/container
$5.72 per 4-pound bag (One package contains 200 grams of protein, or 8 servings of 2 drumsticks each.)

Chicken drumsticks
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 2 medium drumsticks

Good to know

Most frozen chicken drumsticks are sold raw, so you’ll need to cook them thoroughly to an internal temperature of at least 165 F (74 C) before eating.

Should you remove the skin if you’re trying to lose weight? If you like the skin, go ahead and eat it. Chicken drumsticks can be an excellent food for weight loss, whether you eat the skin or not.


3. Canned mackerel

Mackerel is a fatty fish with a firm texture that’s similar to tuna. Like other oily fish, it’s rich in omega-3 fats, which some studies suggest may be beneficial for heart health. Although fresh fish is often expensive, canned fish is usually quite affordable. And mackerel is one of the most budget-friendly seafood options.

Try canned mackerel in place of tuna fish, or use it as your main protein in a salad. Like all canned fish, it’s cooked and ready to eat.

Cost per package/container
$2.73 per 15-ounce can (One can contains 96 grams of protein, or about 3.8 servings of fish, plus water.)

mackerel
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 3.5 ounces/100 grams of mackerel, about 2/3 cup

Good to know

Several kinds of mackerel exist. The types that are used for canning are low in mercury. Therefore, you can eat canned mackerel several times a week. However, King mackerel has an extremely high mercury content and may be best to avoid.


4. Eggs

As one of nature’s most perfect foods, eggs provide protein, vitamins, and minerals in a compact package. Studies show that eating eggs can help you stay full for several hours after eating.
Plus, they’re delicious, versatile, and inexpensive.

Enjoy eggs fried, scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, in omelets, or any way you like.

Cost per package/container
$2.67 per one dozen large eggs (One carton contains 76 grams of protein, or about 3 servings.)

eggs
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 4 large eggs

Good to know

Egg prices vary among brands. You’ll pay a little more for cage-free, organic, or “enriched-feed” eggs. And pastured eggs may cost more than twice as much as eggs from hens raised in what’s commonly called “conventional housing.”

Although the low price above is based on a dozen eggs from a national brand, you can further reduce costs by choosing a store brand or buying eggs in larger quantities.


5. Canned kidney beans

Kidney beans are so named because they resemble human kidneys in shape and color. These beans provide a generous serving of plant-based protein for less than $1.00, which makes them an excellent cheap vegan protein source. Plus, like other beans, they’re high in fiber, which can help you feel full. Some studies suggest that eating beans may be helpful for weight loss.

Canned beans are fully cooked and ready to eat. Use kidney beans in salads, chili, or other cooked dishes.

Cost per package/container
$1.00 per 16-ounce can (One can contains 28 grams of protein, or slightly more than one serving of beans, plus water.)

canned kidney beans
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 10 ounces/285 grams of kidney beans, about 1 3/4 cup

Good to know

Kidney beans are low in the essential amino acids methionine and tryptophan. If you follow a plant-based diet, make sure to eat plenty of foods high in these essential amino acids – such as nuts, seeds, and grains – in addition to beans every day, although not necessarily at the same meal.

Also, like most plants, their protein isn’t as easily digested and absorbed as the protein in animal foods. So, you’ll need to eat more protein overall to ensure your needs are met.


5. Canned light tuna

Tuna is a favorite food for many adults and kids alike. As a lean fish, it’s naturally high in protein and lower in fat than oily fish. Besides providing a lot of protein per calorie, tuna is inexpensive. So it provides a lot of protein per dollar, too.

In addition to mixing canned tuna with mayo and celery to make tuna salad, try it in a cooked dish like this easy keto tuna casserole.

Cost per package/container
$1.88 per 12-ounce can (One can contains 50 grams of protein, or about 2 servings of fish, plus water.)

canned pink tuna
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 3.5 ounces/100 grams of tuna, about 2/3 cup

Good to know

As with mackerel, tuna species vary in mercury content. Feel free to eat canned light tuna up to three times a week. Limit canned albacore (white) tuna to once a week because it’s higher in mercury. Avoid walleye tuna – which is only sold fresh – due to its extremely high mercury content.


7. Canned black beans

Black beans are prized in Latin American, Cajun, and Creole cuisine. These small, mild-flavored beans are a good source of plant-based protein. Plus, they’re rich in potassium, magnesium, and fiber.

Canned black beans are easy to prepare: After draining, combine them with onions, season with garlic, and add some hot sauce if you like your beans spicy. Simmer on the stove for a few minutes until they’re warm.

Cost per package/container
$1.58 per 26.5-ounce container (One can contains 42 grams of protein, or about 1.7 servings of beans, plus water.)

canned black beans
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 10 ounces/285 grams of black beans, about 1 2/3 cup

Good to know

Although canned black beans and tuna share the same cost per serving, we ranked tuna higher because it contains complete protein. Like most beans, black beans are low in the essential amino acids methionine and tryptophan.

If you’re a plant-based eater, make sure your diet includes a wide range of protein sources in addition to beans – such as nuts, seeds, and grains – so that all of your essential amino acid needs are covered.


8. Canned pink salmon

Salmon is prized for its delicate flavor and nutritional value, including its high protein and omega-3 fat content. The downside of fresh salmon is that it can be pricey. Fortunately, canned salmon is very affordable. 

Try mixing canned salmon with mayo, eating it as the main protein in a salad, or using it to make salmon patties (or in other recipes that call for skinned, chopped salmon).

Cost per package/container
$3.98 per 14.75-ounce can (One can contains 95 grams of protein, or about 3.8 servings of fish, plus water.)

canned pink salmon
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 3.5 ounces/100 grams of salmon, about 2/3 cup

Good to know

Although nutrition content varies among different types of salmon, wild salmon provides more protein per calorie than farmed salmon. In the US, nearly all canned salmon is wild-caught, although canned Atlantic salmon is farmed. Plus, salmon is a low-mercury fish that you can enjoy eating several times a week.


9. Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese is known for its lumpy appearance and slightly tart flavor. This budget-friendly dairy product packs a lot of protein per calorie. Although it has slightly more carbs than Greek yogurt, it can still fit into most low-carb diets.

Enjoy cottage cheese alone, with fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, or in a delicious high-protein lime smoothie.

Cost per package/container
$3.17 per 24-ounce container (One container contains 75 grams of protein, or about 3 servings.)

cottage cheese
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Calories
172(for low-fat cottage cheese)

Note: One serving is 8 ounces/225 grams of cottage cheese, about 1 cup

Good to know

Cottage cheese comes in several varieties: nonfat, low-fat, and full-fat (regular). They share similar protein and carb counts, and their costs can vary among brands. Since all types of unflavored cottage cheese have impressive protein percentages, choose the one that you like best.


10. Extra-firm tofu

Soy is considered a complete protein because it provides adequate amounts of all of the essential amino acids. Like other legumes, soy is rich in iron and magnesium, among other nutrients. Plus, extra-firm tofu provides more protein per calorie (and is easier on your wallet) than tempeh and other soy foods.

Use tofu in soups, stews, and entrees, such as our keto vegan tofu scramble.

Cost per package/container
$2.98 per pound (One package provides 67 grams of protein, or about 2.7 servings.)

extra-firm-tofu
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 6 ounces/170 grams of tofu, about 3/4 cup

Good to know

The controversy surrounding the safety of soy is based on very weak research in animals and test tubes. By contrast, most of the robust research on soy intake in humans demonstrates that it is safe and potentially beneficial in some cases. For vegans in particular, the benefits of consuming soy may greatly outweigh the risks.


 11. Pea protein powder

At Diet Doctor, we recommend getting most of your protein from minimally-processed food rather than supplements. However, protein powder provides a concentrated protein source at a low cost per serving. And, because protein powders are so low in carbs, plant-based varieties can help keto and low-carb vegans meet their protein needs while staying within their daily carb targets. 

Mix unflavored plant protein powder with water and optional sweetener, or try our low-carb vegan vanilla shake.

Cost per package/container
$22.24 per 1.5-pound container (One container has 510 grams of protein, or about 20 servings.)

Pea protein powder
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 1.2 ounces/35 grams of protein powder, about 2 to 3 scoops

Good to know

The cost of plant-based protein powder varies among brands. Although the up-front costs can be high, large containers provide many 25-gram servings of protein. So, they can be worth the investment.

Besides pea protein, other options include protein powders made from pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, and seed mixtures.

12. Frozen chicken breasts

Chicken breasts are popular, versatile, and widely available. They also have a higher protein percentage and offer more protein at a lower price than many other meats. Purchasing several frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a family-sized package can further reduce their cost.

You can prepare boneless chicken breasts in countless ways, including this delicious keto chicken fajitas recipe.

Cost per package/container
$10.14 per 3-pound bag (One package contains 225 grams of protein, or about 9 servings.)

chicken-breasts-frozen
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 4 ounces/114 grams of raw chicken breast, about the size of a deck of cards after cooking

Good to know

We used the price for a national brand of boneless chicken breasts. If you opt for a store brand instead, you’ll likely pay even less per serving.


13. Pinto beans

Pinto beans are a staple food among many vegetarians and vegans. These soft, light-colored beans are used to make refried beans. They provide protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber at a low cost. 

Canned pinto beans require little preparation. Simply rinse and drain the beans, add them to a nonstick pot, sprinkle with salt and spices, and heat on your stovetop until warm.

Cost per package/container
$1.58 per 28-ounce can (One can contains 36 grams of protein, or about 1.4 servings of beans, plus water.)

pinto beans
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 10 ounces/285 grams of pinto beans, about 1 2/3 cup

Good to know

Like other beans, pinto beans may cause digestive upset, especially if you’re not used to eating them in large amounts. To reduce bloating, gas, and other symptoms, rinse beans thoroughly before cooking.

You can also add spices like ginger, turmeric, and fennel to make the beans more digestible. Finally, chew them thoroughly before swallowing.


14. Frozen edamame

Edamame is another name for green soybeans. Although edamame provides slightly less protein per calorie than tofu, it’s still a good vegan protein source that’s rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Edamame can be affordable, too, especially if purchased frozen.

Frozen edamame is quick and easy to prepare. Just boil or steam the soybeans for three to five minutes, season them with salt, and dig in.

Cost per package/container
$2.00 per 12-ounce bag (One bag contains 43 grams of protein, or about 1.7 servings.)

frozen edamame
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 7 ounces/200 grams of edamame, about 1 1/3 cups

Good to know

 The above information is based on a national brand of frozen shelled edamame. Frozen edamame can also be purchased unshelled, in the pods.

However, edamame shells are tough and can be difficult to digest. If you purchase unshelled edamame, discard the shells instead of eating them.


15. Whey protein powder isolate

Whey protein powder provides more protein per calorie than other dairy products like yogurt or cheese. Although it’s highly processed, whey protein powder can be a convenient and cost-effective addition to your diet. Unflavored whey protein isolate is nearly carb-free, whereas whey protein concentrate is less processed but contains about 3 grams of carbs per serving.

Mix protein powder with water and vanilla or sweetener. If you’re a chocolate fan, try our high-protein chocolate almond smoothie.

Cost per package/container
$19.98 per pound (One container has 400 grams of protein, or about 16 servings.)

Whey protein powder isolate
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 1 ounce/28.4 grams of whey protein powder, about 1 scoop

Good to know

Most protein powders are sold in containers that provide many servings. Although their per-serving cost is low, the price per container can be high. Additionally, some of the least expensive whey protein powders have added sugars and other fillers, so be sure to check ingredients labels.

We recommend choosing protein powders with minimal to no additives.


16. Lean ground turkey

Ground meat offers a tasty, versatile source of complete protein for a low price. And ground turkey is one of the most affordable ground meat options around. 

Use it in burgers or chili in place of ground beef. For an Italian-inspired dish, check out our keto Bolognese with cabbage noodles.

Cost per package/container
$4.27 per pound (One package contains 84 grams of protein, or about 3.4 servings.)

ground-turkey
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 4.5 ounces/125 grams of raw turkey, about the size of a deck of cards after cooking

Good to know

The protein percentage of ground turkey varies depending on its fat content. Extra-lean ground turkey provides slightly more protein per calorie than lean or regular ground turkey, but it usually costs more per pound.


17. Plain Greek yogurt

Eating Greek yogurt can help you meet your protein needs without spending a lot of money. It’s higher in protein than regular yogurt because it’s strained. Straining yogurt reduces its lactose (milk sugar) content and makes it more concentrated in protein. 

Enjoy Greek yogurt plain or topped with berries, cinnamon, or sweetener.

Cost per package/container
$5.38 per 35-ounce container (One container has 102 grams of protein, or about 4 servings.)

Plain-non-fat-Greek yogurt
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Calories
175 (for low-fat Greek yogurt)

Note: One serving is 8.8 ounces/250 grams of Greek yogurt, slightly more than 1 cup

Good to know

The protein percentage and calorie information above is for plain low-fat Greek yogurt. Nonfat Greek yogurt provides more protein per calorie than low-fat, whereas full-fat Greek yogurt provides less. Since all types of plain Greek yogurt are high in protein, low in carbs, and similarly priced, choose the kind you like best.


18. Canned sardines

Small, oily sardines are typically sold in compact tins. They’re decidedly “fishy” tasting. Although sardines are not universally loved, they definitely have many fans. 

Canned sardines offer high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids in a convenient, ready-to-eat package. Enjoy sardines straight from the tin, use them as the primary protein source in a main-course salad, or serve them atop sautéed kale or spinach.

Cost per package/container
$0.92 per 3.75-ounce can (One can contains 16 grams of protein, or about 0.6 servings of fish, plus water.)

canned sardines
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 4 ounces/114 grams of sardines, about 2/3 cup

Good to know

Unlike most canned fish, sardines are usually only available in small tins that provide less than 25 grams of protein. You’ll need to eat about 1 1/2 of these tins to get 25 grams of protein.

Larger cans (15 ounces) of sardines packed in tomato sauce are available at a lower cost per serving, but this option will add a few carbs and change the flavor of the fish.


19. Canned lentils

Similar to beans but smaller and flatter, lentils provide inexpensive plant-based protein, along with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Although lentils come in several varieties, they all share similar nutrition profiles. Canned lentils are brown and have a mild, earthy taste.

Like all canned beans, canned lentils have been cooked, so they’re fast and easy to prepare. Use them in lentil soup or in curries, chilis, or other dishes that call for beans.

Cost per package/container
$1.22 per 15-ounce can (One can contains 21 grams of protein, or about 0.8 servings of lentils, plus water.)

canned-lentils
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is about 10 ounces/285 grams of lentils, about 1 1/2 cups

Good to know

Large cans of lentils can be difficult to find. You’ll need about 1 1/4 standard (15-ounce) cans of lentils to get 25 grams of protein. Also, like beans, lentils are low in the essential amino acids methionine and tryptophan.

So, if you’re a vegan who eats a lot of beans and lentils, make sure your diet also includes foods that are plentiful in these amino acids, like nuts, seeds, and grains.


20. Ground beef chuck

Many people love beef but don’t eat it too often due to its high cost. But you can watch for sales and buy more affordable options, such as ground beef. That way, you’ll take advantage of the great taste, as well as the protein, iron, and potassium that beef provides.

Use ground beef in chili, casseroles, or burgers, or serve it with vegetables, as in this tasty keto ground beef with broccoli dish.

Cost per package/container
$4.57 per pound (One package contains 78 grams of protein, or about 3.1 servings.)

Ground beef chuck
Based on a serving of 25 grams of protein

Note: One serving is 5 ounces/142 grams of raw ground beef, about the size of a deck of cards after cooking

Good to know

 Ground beef loses water and fat during cooking. A 5-ounce portion of raw ground beef reduces down to about 3.5 ounces after cooking. The nutrition and cost information above is for 80% lean beef (80/20). Regular beef (70/30) is usually less expensive but provides slightly less protein per calorie. Extra-lean beef (90/10) costs more, but provides more protein per calorie.


High-protein, budget-friendly recipes

Check out these additional recipes featuring inexpensive protein sources:



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