The Best and Worst Protein Sources to Eat for Your Health, According to Dietitians
It's important to get enough protein, but not all are created equal.
It's important to eat enough protein throughout the day, as it aids in muscle recovery and repair, boosting your metabolism and keeping hunger at bay. However, it's all about quality, too, and some types of protein are better for you than others.
"When determining what types of protein are the best, I first think in terms of bioavailability, which is the portion of a nutrient that is absorbed in the digestive tract, its essential amino acid composition and its digestibility. But we also must consider sustainability and other nutritional benefits that are included in the source," says Nicole Magryta RDN, author of Nourish Your Tribe: Empowering Parents to Grow Strong, Smart, Successful Kids.
And that means considering whether it's a whole food, made of good ingredients, offers a hefty dose of protein per serving and (of course) tastes just as good as it is for you! These are the best and worst sources of protein to eat for your health, according to dietitians.
The Healthiest Proteins
Bison is underrated, where beef is usually the chosen meat. Most meats will come in about about 17-27 grams of protien in 3 ounces. However, bison has 17 grams of super lean protein in 4 ounces. "This is a great source of lean protein, B-vitamins, zinc, selenium and iron. Plus, grass fed animals have also been found to have a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and higher levels of nutrients like vitamins A and E," says Magryta. Omega-3s are great for reducing inflammation to lower the risk of various diseases, so it's important to get enough in the day.
Clean chicken has 21 grams of protein in 3 ounces, and chicken is an excellent source of lean protein. "It's also high in selenium, phosphorus and B vitamins, [which] are building blocks of a healthy body and directly impact energy levels and brain function," says Magryta. Plus, selenium is great for thyroid health, she adds. You can use chicken in so many ways: soup, salads, stir-fry, plain and roasted or grilled, in tacos, and more.
Organic, Pasture-Raised Eggs
There are 7 grams of protein in one egg, and eggs have a complete amino acid profile and contain healthy omega-3 fats, B vitamins, selenium, Vitamin D and choline, so they're super good for you. "They have also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease in clinical trials. And just two egg yolks contain around 250-300mg of the powerful brain nutrient choline," says Magryta. Don't forget to eat the yolks because that's where almost all of the other nutrients are, although you do get protein from the whites.
There are 10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons. "These seeds contain all nine essential amino acids and they are an abundant source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) as well as dietary fiber," says Magryta. This is an excellent plant-based source of protein and is a great option for vegetarians and vegans, plus they're super yummy and versatile in cooking. "Hemp seeds are also packed with antioxidants and unsaturated fats which are great for heart health," she adds. They can easily be thrown into foods like smoothies, yogurt, veggies and salads.
There's nothing fishy about fish when it comes to being an awesome protein source. There are 22 grams of protein in a 3-ounce fillet. "It's one of the best sources of omega-3 fats and is loaded with B vitamins and selenium," says Magryta. "Salmon is also a great anti-inflammatory food because of the omega-3 fatty acids which helps reduce chronic disease," she adds. Aim to eat fish 2-3 times a week.
Nuts and Seeds
For plant-based protein, go for nuts and sees. "2 tablespoons of nut butters will give you 4 to 8 grams of protein, depending on the specific kind of nut or seed. These healthy nuts and seeds not only contain protein but healthy omega fats, vitamins, minerals and fiber," says Randy Evans MS, RD, LD and consultant for Fresh n' Lean. Spread on toast or enjoy sprinkled on salads, in soups or in smoothies.
Beans and Lentils
A serving of beans or lentils contains about 7-8 grams per half cup. "Along with being a protein source, beans and lentils are a great source of vitamins, minerals and fiber," says Evans. And they're great for those who don't eat animal meat for protein. Plus, don't forget soybeans, like edamame. "Soy is a very popular plant protein source containing 12-15 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving," says Evans.
The Unhealthiest Proteins
"Many people use store-bought yogurt as a quick meal because it contains protein. While there are healthy yogurts available most commercial yogurts have little protein and are often loaded with sugars especially if they say low fat on the label," says Evans. So, don't be fooled here. He says to opt for healthy Greek yogurt, instead, and look for few ingredients and a culture for probiotics on the label.
Low-Quality Protein Bars and Powders
Evans says, "Watch out of protein or meal bars, which can contain a lot of sugar along with other additives. If you have to use them as an emergency ration, check out the label." He says to look for shorter lists of ingredients and things you understand, not just a list of chemical dashes and slashes. "Many protein bars [and powders] on the market are more like candy bars packed with highly processed protein, sugar, inflammatory fats and high-glycemic carbs," adds Magryta. So, be careful. "For example, artificial sweeteners can disrupt our hunger hormones as well as promote bad bacteria in our gut. Another issue with protein powders in general is that many have been found to contain low to moderate levels of lead, arsenic and mercury," she says. Source and quality is essential in finding a good product.
Fake Soy Meat
Some plant-based burgers, sausages and deli meats can be delicious alternatives, but it comes down to the brand and label. These products are often heavily processed foods with a laundry list of unhealthy ingredients. Magryta adds, "They are also high in sodium and are highly likely to contain high amounts of glypohsate, the active ingredient in the pesticide Roundup." Many people also have sensitivities to soy, especially those with autoimmune conditions, so if you fall into the camp, avoid them and go for other plant-based proteins.
Yuck, it already sounds bad, right? "While real cheese can fit into the healthy animal products category and does have good protein, most American's eat processed or manufactured cheese," says Evans. "Real cheese can be expensive—especially the range fed, organic real cheese, so manufactures make cheese, which like the processed meats, contain little cheese and are mostly made from processed oils and colored to look like cheese," he warns. Go for the real deal instead. It'll taste better, too.