7 Grains That Are Surprisingly High in Protein

Grains like wild rice, kamut, and quinoa, are high-quality sources of carbohydrates, the body’s preferred source of fuel. Whole grains also contain fiber, a type of non-digestible carbohydrate that helps maintain a healthy gut, as well as regular digestion, and lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

Healthy sources of carbohydrates like whole grains also contain critical nutrients like B vitamins, iron, and even plant-based protein. Though animal products like red meat, poultry, and fish are probably the first foods that come to mind when you think of protein, certain grains can also deliver a substantial amount of the macronutrient.

That’s important, since proteins serve as the building blocks for bones, muscles, and skin. Eating adequate protein also supports healthy immune function and a robust metabolism.

Grains certainly won’t make up the bulk of your protein intake, but high quality starches can contribute to your daily protein goal. Here are seven grains that can add a surprising amount of plant-based protein to your plate.

Though technically a seed rather than a grain, quinoa tends to be categorized as a high-protein whole grain. The fiber-rich and naturally gluten-free ingredient has long been consumed in South America.

Mild in flavor and nutty in texture, quinoa is versatile. Use it as the base of a vegetarian grain bowl, sprinkle it into leafy green salads, or enjoy it much like classic oatmeal, warmed up with milk and topped with nuts, seeds, and fresh fruit. 

One cup of cooked quinoa contains:

  • Calories: 222
  • Carbohydrates: 39 grams (g)
  • Fiber: 5 g
  • Protein: 8 g
  • Fat: 5.5 g

Whole grains like brown and wild rice are both great sources of fiber, but the latter grain has a slight edge when it comes to protein content. Denser in texture, wild rice tends to be slightly lower in carbohydrates compared to conventional brown and white rice.

The purple-black grain is also a good source of B vitamins, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc.

Toss the cooked grain with flavorful ingredients like toasted pine nuts and raisins for a nourishing side dish at lunch or dinner.

One cup of cooked wild rice contains:

  • Calories: 166
  • Carbohydrates: 35 g
  • Fiber: 3 g
  • Protein: 6.5 g
  • Fat: 0.5 g

Kamut is actually a trademarked name for an ancient grain called khorasan wheat. Slightly higher in protein than both common wheat and durum wheat, kamut is grown according to strict regulations. For example, the brand name ancient grain is always grown organic and never genetically modified or mixed with other forms of wheat.

Kamut grains are longer and thinner than alternatives like farro and barley. Its texture is dense, so it holds up well when added to soups, stews, and casseroles. 

One cup of cooked kamut contains:

  • Calories: 227
  • Carbohydrates: 47.5 g
  • Fiber: 7 g
  • Protein: 10 g
  • Fat: 1 g

Teff is a staple grain commonly found in East African countries like Ethiopia. The cereal, which has a very fine texture, comes in different colors, including white and reddish brown. While both types of teff contain fiber, calcium, and zinc, the latter variety is slightly higher in the mineral iron.

Research shows that teff is rich in fiber and has a low glycemic index (GI) value. The glycemic index is a tool that demonstrates the degree to which carbohydrate-containing foods raise blood sugar levels. Foods with a lower glycemic index are typically less likely to spike blood sugar levels.

Teff has a high fiber content and low GI value, making the grain is a wonderful option for those looking to stabilize their blood sugar levels, particularly individuals diagnosed with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. It’s also free of gluten, so it’s a great choice for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Teff flour can be used as the base of injera, a delicious spongy bread that’s widely consumed in Ethiopia, as well as in pastas and porridges.

One cup of cooked teff contains:

  • Calories: 255 
  • Carbohydrates: 50 g
  • Fiber: 7 g
  • Protein: 10 g
  • Fat: 2 g

Much like quinoa, amaranth is also a ‘pseudo-grain.’ That is, amaranth is technically a seed but is often characterized as a whole grain.

Different varieties of the reddish plant may assist in the management of conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and celiac disease (amaranth is naturally gluten-free). This may be due to the fact that, like most plants, amaranth is rich in antioxidants.

Antioxidants are molecules that scavenge harmful substances called reactive oxygen species (ROS) that naturally pop up in the body. Over time, ROS can damage cells and tissues, increasing your risk of chronic disease. Eating adequate amounts of antioxidant-rich foods can help counteract this.

In addition to antioxidants, teff contains B vitamins, as well as the minerals copper, zinc, and manganese.

When cooked, amaranth tends to form a soft puree-like consistency. Try swapping classic oats or polenta for amaranth. 

One cup of cooked amaranth contains:

  • Calories: 251
  • Carbohydrates: 46 g
  • Fiber: 5 g
  • Protein: 9 g
  • Fat: 4 g

A derivative of wheat, farro is a hearty grain with a satisfyingly chewy texture. Since farro is denser than alternatives like teff, it maintains its shape better when added to soups and stews. 

Farro is also a great base for grain salads. Try tossing the starch with fresh herbs, cucumbers, and tomatoes for a Greek salad-inspired side dish. Another winning combo: farro mixed with caramelized onions, toasted walnuts, and dried cherries for a savory-sweet grain salad. 

One cup of cooked farro contains:

  • Calories: 200 
  • Carbohydrates: 41 g
  • Fiber: 4 g
  • Protein: 8 g
  • Fat: 0.5 g

Another naturally gluten-free grain, sorghum is rich in polyphenols, compounds found in plants that can act as antioxidants and have health benefits.

When cooked, sorghum grains appear globe-like and closely resemble Israeli couscous. The grain can also be popped to create a different type of popcorn. Flours made from sorghum can be used for baking gluten-free breads and pancakes.

One-quarter cup of raw sorghum contains:

  • Calories: 170
  • Carbohydrates: 36 g
  • Fiber: 8 g
  • Protein: 4 g
  • Fat: 0.5 g

The optimal level of dietary protein intake is very debated. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is about 0.36 g of protein per pound of body weight. For a 150-pound person, that translates to about 54 g of dietary protein per day. 

However, many experts believe that the RDA for protein is far too low. They argue that while 0.36 g of protein per pound of body weight may be sufficient to prevent protein deficiency, it is not nearly adequate for optimal health.

Exactly how much protein each person needs depends on factors like age, stage of life, physical activity levels, personal health goals, and medical history. For example, whereas athletes and pregnant individuals are encouraged to eat more dietary protein, people diagnosed with conditions like chronic kidney disease often need to eat less of it.

Working with a registered dietitian is the best way to determine the optimal daily protein intake level for you, as this number is highly subject to change based on your personal medical history and health goals.

Grains are not nearly as rich in protein as animal products like red meat, poultry, or fish. However, certain high-quality starches can put a surprising amount of protein on your plate.

Grains like wild rice, quinoa, and teff are high in fiber, naturally gluten-free, and can be used in a wide variety of both sweet and savory recipes.