The Best Sources of Protein


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Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays a crucial role in building muscle, repairing tissue, and producing enzymes and hormones. Whether you’re an athlete, bodybuilder, or simply someone trying to maintain a healthy diet, incorporating high-quality protein sources into your meals is crucial. In this article, I will tell you the best & healthiest sources of protein, covering both animal and plant-based options, to help you optimize your nutrition goals.

While both have their roles in human nutrition, understanding the differences between plant-based and animal-based proteins is essential. Both sources provide the essential amino acids necessary for bodily functions, but they differ in composition, digestion, and the additional nutrients they offer.

Before getting into it, I wanted to touch on the amount of protein our bodies actually require. It is dependent on who we are, how active we are and what our goals are. For adults who are not physically active beyond regular daily activities, the general guideline for their recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 0.8g/kg of bodyweight (i.e. if you weigh 80kg, you should aim for 64g of protein per day. For those who engage in regular physical exercise, you will need more protein to support your muscle repair and growth. For those who engage in moderate aerobic activity with light to moderate strength training, the recommendation increases to between 1.1 to 1.4g/kg of bodyweight (i.e. if you weigh 80kg, you should aim for 88 – 112g of protein per day. If you’re really active, doing heavy strength training with endurance sports and intense physical training, the recommendation goes to 1.5 to 2.0g/kg of bodyweight.

It should also be noted that as we age, it is important to get adequate protein as to help mitigate the loss of muscle mass and strength that comes with aging, also known as sarcopenia. Based on the literature available, getting 1.1 – 1.3g/kg of bodyweight while doing basic daily physical activity seems to be the sweet spot for older adults.

Animal proteins

Animal proteins are considered “complete” because they contain all nine essential amino acids in the right proportions needed for human health. They are typically high in B vitamins (particularly B12), vitamin D, heme iron (which is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron), zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, especially in fatty fish like salmon.

Some of the best sources of animal-based protein sources are:

Chicken Breast. A staple in many diets, chicken breast is lean and packed with high-quality protein. It’s versatile, easy to cook, can be incorporated into a variety of dishes, and it is an excellent option for meal prep. Focus on products from organic, pasture-fed chickens.

Eggs. Eggs are not only a great source of protein but also contain essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. They’re incredibly versatile and can be prepared in numerous ways for any meal of the day. Focus on eggs from pasture-fed chickens.

Greek Yogurt. A personal favorite, especially mixed with fresh fruit. High in protein and rich in probiotics, Greek yogurt is great for our gut health and can be a delicious part of breakfast or snacks. I always avoid any yogurts with added sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners or chemical additives which are hard to find on supermarket shelves – keep an eye out for this.

Salmon. Aside from being an excellent source of protein, salmon is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for our cardiovascular and brain health. Its rich, fatty flavor and nutritional profile also make it on the favorites list. As often discussed in this blog, the best source is wild caught or farmed salmon from North America.

Beef. Particularly lean cuts like sirloin or tenderloin, beef is high in protein and essential nutrients like iron, zinc, and B vitamins. For those who are not ready to give up on red meat, I suggest reducing your consumption to 2 times per week and opting for grass-fed beef, which is generally a better option for both environmental impact and health.

Plant proteins

Plant proteins are often and falsely labeled “incomplete” because many lack one or more of the essential amino acids. However, this can be easily remedied by consuming a variety of plant-based protein sources throughout the day. They’re rich in fiber, polyphenols and other phytonutrients, and non-heme iron. Plant-based proteins tend to be lower in saturated fat and higher in dietary fiber.

Some of the best sources of plant-based protein sources are:

Lentils. Lentils are not only a fantastic source of protein but also rich in fiber, iron, and folate. They can be a hearty base for soups, salads, stews, and are great at keeping you satiated. I try to have at least 2-3 servings of lentils per week.

Quinoa. Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s also gluten-free and a versatile ingredient for salads, bowls, and as a side dish.

Tofu and Tempeh. Made from soybeans, both tofu and tempeh are excellent plant-based protein sources. They’re adaptable to many recipes, absorbing flavors well, which makes them great for a variety of cuisines.

Chickpeas. High in protein and fiber, chickpeas are incredibly filling. They’re the main ingredient in hummus and can be added to salads, soups, and more for a protein boost.

Nuts and Seeds. Almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds are not only great sources of protein but also contain healthy fats and fiber. They’re perfect for snacking or adding a nutritional punch to salads and smoothies. This being said, it is easy to eat more than a couple servings and both nuts and seeds are quite high in calories!

Incorporating a variety of protein sources into your diet can ensure you get all the essential amino acids your body needs. Whether you prefer animal or plant-based proteins, the options are plentiful and can fit into any dietary preference or restriction. Remember, the key to a balanced diet is variety, so try to mix up your protein sources to get the most nutritional benefit. If you are suffering from a chronic disease, always consult with a healthcare professional or a dietitian to tailor your diet to your specific health needs.

In terms of digestibility, animal proteins are generally more easily digested and absorbed by the body compared to plant proteins. This is because plant proteins can be encased in fibrous walls, which makes it harder for the digestive system to access and break down the protein. However, processing methods like cooking, blending, or fermenting all improve the digestibility and absorption of plant proteins.

While providing high-quality protein and essential nutrients, excessive consumption of certain types of animal protein, particularly red and all processed meats, has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and other chronic health conditions. Moderation and choosing lean cuts of meat and dairy can mitigate some of these risks.

Diets high in plant-based proteins are associated with lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. The high fiber content also promotes the diversity and richness of the gut microbiome and helps with weight management. However, it’s important to ensure that an exclusive plant-based diet is well-planned to avoid nutrient deficiencies, such as vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.

I’ve seen some valid arguments on both sides for what I’m going to say next, but based on what the data says, such as the EAT-Lancet Commission Summary Report and a wealth of scientific publications, plant-based proteins have a significantly lower environmental footprint compared to animal-based proteins, in particular those coming from red meat. Producing plant proteins requires less land, water, and energy and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions (57% vs. 29% global food-related emissions). This makes them a more sustainable option for those looking for a healthy diet and want to reduce their environmental impact at the same time.

Both animal-based and plant-based proteins have their places in a balanced diet, each offering unique nutritional benefits. The choice between them can depend on personal health goals, ethical beliefs, dietary preferences and environmental concerns. What I do, and suggest to those willing to do so, is to follow a diet largely based on plant-based foods in combination with a moderate amount of animal-based proteins, which provides the best of both worlds, ensuring a wide range of essential nutrients while balancing health and environmental considerations.

E. Dylan Mayer is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, with a major in Neuroscience and minor in Business. He also holds a Master’s Degree in Nutrition from Columbia University.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD