Protein is the perennial favorite topic when it comes to diet, exercise, weight-loss and health & fitness in general. This is despite the fact that as a nutrient, it is pretty much a non-issue. If this surprises you, check out our protein article. We recommend skimming through it to understand its role within the diet, daily requirements (about 42 grams) and get answers to some frequently asked questions.
Today, we’ll be talking about Protein sources. As we’ve mentioned in our previous article, nearly every food contains protein. That being said, we’ll be limiting our choices to foods that are particularly good sources.
Before we begin, let’s keep in mind that food is almost never eaten in isolation. While whole foods are almost universally the healthier options, just because a food contains a high amount of protein does not make it a good choice. This is especially true if it also contains unhealthy fat, cholesterol or anything else that isn’t really good for you.
Here are Our Top Recommendations for High-Protein Food:
Not only are Pulses, beans, peas and lentils all excellent sources of Protein, they are also great all-round additions to any diet, as all good food should be. While this may appear to be a single group of plant food, there is a massive variety to be found here. For example, here is a list of just one component of this food group: Beans:
- Kidney bean
- Lima bean
- Azuki bean
- Mung bean
- Moth bean
- Tepary bean
Whoa! That’s a whole lot of beans!
As you can imagine, there are endless permutations and dish combinations possible and Beans are just a small part of the legume family. A single serving of most beans will easily provide you with 50% of your daily protein requirement. Take Black beans for example, a particular favorite of ours. Just a single cup will provide approximately 15 grams of protein.
Soybeans will provide double that, or as much as 30 grams of protein per serving of the same size. We’re talking about whole, boiled/roasted/cooked soybeans here but you shouldn’t worry about consuming soy-based foods such as tofu, Tempe or soy milk. There have been several myths revolving around soy products as some believe they can affect testosterone levels in men. Since soy contains phytoestrogens and not mammalian-estrogen, it has no effect on humans. Sure, you can find an example of some sort of isolated soy protein not being a great choice but that’s true for all isolates. When consumed as a whole food, soy is a great protein source. Apart from containing all the essential amino acids for a complete protein profile, Soy beans also contain essential fatty acids and insoluble fiber, which is great for digestion.
So basically, find a bean you like and go nuts! I mean, go beans!
Speaking of nuts, Peanuts, technically classified as legumes are high in protein (about 25 grams per 100 gm). They are also excellent sources of B Vitamins, Vitamin E and minerals such as magnesium, manganese and phosphorous. We love our Peanut butter here at fitnesstep1 and can’t get enough of it! We definitely get enough protein as a result.
Anyway, Lentils will provide comparable levels of protein as they have the second-highest ratio of protein per calorie of any legume, after soybeans. But that’s not all, Lentils are also a great source of dietary fiber and contain a high amount of the micronutrients folate, thiamin, phosphorus, and iron.
Up next are Peas. They’re a good source of vitamin A, C, thiamin, phosphorous, and iron. They also contain generous amounts of B vitamins, folate and about 9 grams of protein per cup. Chickpeas contain nearly double the amount.
Green leafy vegetables such as Spinach, Kale, Brussels sprouts, Broccoli etc. provide a nice protein kick apart from delivering a payload of important nutrients.
Broccoli packs over 100 percent of your daily need for vitamins C and K and also delivers a considerable dose of the anti-oxidant folate.
Kale provides copper, potassium, iron, manganese, phosphorus as well as vitamins C, K & A.
Spinach is also a great leaf that’s packed full of nutrients and is a good source of fiber.
Most green vegetables will provide approximately 3 grams of protein per 100 grams. Considering the high water content of these foods, they reduce considerably as you cook them.
Like Legumes, Green vegetables are inherently low in fat, high in fiber and anti-oxidants. This makes them some of the healthiest protein sources available.
Seeds & Nuts
Nuts and seeds can be a great way to boost your protein intake. Studies indicate that people who consume them regularly are far less likely to develop coronary heart disease and they tend to have a protective effect against all-cause mortality in general.
We may have mentioned this already; our favorite method of consuming nuts is to turn them into a butter. There are tons of tasty nut-butters you can try to support your protein intake:
- Almond butter
- Cashew butter
- Hazelnut butter
- Macadamia nut butter
- Peanut butter (all-time favorite)
- Pecan butter
- Pistachio butter
- Walnut butter
And of course, the same can be done with seeds. Particularly good choices are as follows:
- Pumpkin seed butter
- Sesame seed butter (also known as ‘tahini’)
- Soybean butter (made from roasted soybeans)
- Sunflower seed butter
Nut-butters contain about 3 grams of protein per tablespoon. Alternatively, you could just eat them whole, in which case they contain approximately 20 grams of protein for every 100 grams.
It’s important to note that nuts and seeds are generally higher in fat and therefore have denser calories than any of our previous choices. While this fat is generally of the healthiest type available, it’s worth remembering that these are great additions to your diet, not staple foods.
Grains & Cereals
Speaking of staple foods, grains hold this position for the majority of the Earth’s population. No matter what your health, fitness or life goals in general may be, there is no substitute for the energy these provide.
On the subject of protein, grains demonstrate more than any other food that it is an abundant macro-nutrient. Every food grain on average contains about 3 grams of protein per 100 grams, and these being ‘staple’ foods, one is bound to eat them in significant quantities.
I’m sure everyone’s familiar with these, but we’ll still list the most popular and versatile grains to drive the point home:
- Maize (corn)
Some worthy alternatives are: – Oats, Millet, Barley, Amaranth and Quinoa.
That wraps up our best protein food picks! You may have noticed a bit of a theme running through them; they all deliver considerable quantities of vitamins, minerals and fiber apart from just protein.
Hang on, where’s the meat and eggs?
That is an excellent question. After all, those foods have long been considered to be some of the best sources of protein. One of the things we try to stress when educating people about nutrition is that the source of the nutrient often matters more than the nutrient itself, depending on what’s included in the overall package and the way it is handled by the body. Our bodies don’t really care about source of protein but they do care about the ‘baggage’ that comes with our protein package.
Let’s take Red meat for example. If you read our article on the subject, you’ll see why it’s not a particularly good food despite containing a lot of protein. The World Health Organization has come down pretty hard on Red and processed meat recently and in light of the mounting scientific data against its consumption, we think it’s a food that is best avoided.
A Harvard study used for the research of the same article found that substituting red meat with other healthy protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, and legumes, was associated with a lower risk of mortality. With fish and poultry being the only non-plant sources on the list, they’re the only ones we can recommend with any conscience.
Eggs contain way too much cholesterol and fat for us to recommend as a primary protein source, especially considering that a single egg only contain 6.29 grams of protein yet brings you close to the daily max. cholesterol limit at around ~200mg.
Isn’t plant protein incomplete? Do I need to combine foods?
This is a myth. Every plant food is a complete protein i.e. contains all the essential amino acids. In fact, that’s where they originate from. It’s just that they are available in different ratios depending on the food. This is not a problem because nobody eats just one type of food. It is also not necessary to consciously combine foods as our bodies maintain pools of free amino acids, adjusting the ratios as they see fit.
Should I be taking a protein supplement? Whey or Soy?
Neither. Isolates make sense when they are vitamins or minerals as they are hard to find in a concentrated form. So for example if you had a vitamin deficiency, it would make sense to supplement to raise levels quickly. It does not make sense for abundant macro-nutrients like protein. The absence of natural regulators such as fiber can be a detriment to overall absorption and health. Besides, tests have found that not only do we not need the extra protein, but protein powders/drinks may be laced with additives, heavy metals and all sorts of things you really don’t want inside you. Whole food delivers everything to your body in the right proportion.
Is there a chance I’m not getting enough protein?
Unlikely, unless you’re simply not eating enough food. Here is a chart of the average daily US consumption across different diet groups:
Colored line indicates the estimated average requirement. Image source.
If in doubt, consume a bit more. That being said, you should probably avoid getting more than twice the requirement amount.
I am a body builder/athlete. Do I need more protein?
You’re going to need more energy/calories to sustain higher levels of activity. The beauty of whole foods is that they are self-regulating. As you eat more for your efforts, you will automatically increase protein consumption. If you are a natural lifter for example, the focus should be on gaining strength and overall caloric intake. There are artificial ways to increase protein synthesis so be wary of advice from anyone not on the same ‘program’. Experiment with less or more protein to find what works for you and your training goals.
Are there any risks associated with consuming too much protein?
Yes. While protein rich food is low on the glycemic index, it is high on the insulin index. Excess protein can lead to high fasting insulin levels and can also tax kidneys. Increased IGF-1 levels can promote the growth of certain cancers and contribute to obesity. Protein derived from plant sources can greatly mitigate these effects but we do not recommend going out of your way to consume more than you need. Check the references below for sources and further reading.
When judging foods, it’s important to look at the bigger picture rather than just focusing on one nutrient.
Our best protein sources are: –
- Green Vegetables
- Nuts & Seeds
- Grains & Cereals
- Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition
- Gut luminal endogenous protein: implications for the determination of ileal amino acid digestibility in humans
- Nutrient Profiles of Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian Dietary Patterns
- Food-derived bioactive peptides–a new paradigm
- Amino Acids in Nutrition and Growth
- Renal, metabolic and hormonal responses to ingestion of animal and vegetable proteins
- Comparison of a vegetable-based (soya) and an animal-based low-protein diet in pre-dialysis chronic renal failure patients
- The Associations of Diet with Serum Insulin-like Growth Factor I