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 different types of protein bring different nutrition to the table.
"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.
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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
Chicken has 21 grams of protein in 3 ounces, and it 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 chicken may be raised more ethically and have a lower toll on the environment than large-scale conventional chicken. If it is in your budget, choose organic.
There are 6 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 (here are 10 foods with more protein than an egg). "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. Similar to chicken, feel free to opt for organic or pasture-raised eggs if your budget allows. They may help lower the energy and resources going in to your plate.
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.
One concern when buying seafood is whether to go with farm-raised or wild-caught. Though this may seem simple, the answer is more complicated than you think. To make more climate-concious seafood choices, check out SeafoodWatch.org where they rate fisherman and fisheries holistically on their environmental and health impacts. To learn more about seafood labels, check out our Clean Eating Buyer's Guide to Seafood.
Nuts and Seeds
For plant-based protein, go for nuts and seeds. "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. Try these 6 Healthiest Nuts to Snack On.
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.
Related: Top Vegetarian Protein Sources
Bison is underrated, where beef is usually the chosen meat. Most meats will come in at about 17-27 grams of protein 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," says Magryta. Many people do not get enough iron, which can lead to illnesses like anemia. Mixing in a bison or lean ground beef can help you meet your iron and protein needs.
The Unhealthiest Proteins
All foods can fit in a healthy diet, but some of these protein sources listed below seem healthier than they are. Don't rely on them to meet your protein needs often.
"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. Sweetened yogurt even makes our list of 10 foods that have more sugar than a glazed donut. 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.
High-Sugar 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 and high-glycemic carbs," adds Magryta. When your foods have a high-glycemic index, it means they raise your blood sugar very quickly and can lead to an energy crash. Low-glycemic index foods help you get energy as you need it, without the spike and crash.
"Artificial sweeteners can disrupt our hunger hormones as well as promote bad bacteria in our gut," she adds. A recent review in Current Gastroenterology Reports found that these disruption to your gut microbiome may correlate with increased obesity risk. Source and quality is essential in finding a good product.
Plant "Meat" Replacers
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 unfamiliar ingredients, preservatives and additives. Magryta adds, "They are also high in sodium," which can impact heart health if consumed in excess. Many people also have sensitivities to soy, and may have concerns regarding soy and reproductive cancer risk. However, the jury is still out, especially for how soy relates to breast cancer risk specifically. There are studies that show it is potentially helpful and others that claim it is potentially harmful. Age may also be an important consideration. If you eat soy, whole food versions, such as edamame and tofu, may be a safer bet. Additionally, beans, lentils and other whole food meat replacers, like seitan, can help you cut out the unwanted sodium and additives.
The food itself may sound like treason to artisan cheese lovers. "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. Add our 6 healthiest cheeses to your shopping list.
Ultimately, there are many ways to enjoy protein in a healthy way. Most Americans get plenty of protein in their day to day, and could benefit from focusing on other foods like fruits and vegetables. However, not all proteins are created equally and a focus on quality is important. That being said, it doesn't mean you have to cut cold turkey because a food is on the "worst" list, though it may be something to eat in moderation.