Let’s state the obvious: protein is good for you. You need protein, whether it’s for building muscle, losing fat, staying full, or just maintaining your health.
What’s not as settled is where you should get your protein and what are the best protein sources. And when you consider all the options, it’s easy to see why. From meat to vegetarian sources, powders to dairy, there’s a wide variety of options and plenty of difficulty understanding what you need, what is good, and if “too much” is really a danger.
Protein supplementation should not be catered around absorption speeds, marketing promises, or the latest and greatest proteins
While your own needs will be personal based on your body and goals, here’s how you can make the protein column on your shopping list a little easier to understand.
Understanding Your Protein Options
The top sources of food protein are those that are high in protein while simultaneously lowest in fatty acids (kind of obvious). Meat rarely, if ever, has carbohydrate or alcohol content. These “lean meats” are fairly equivalent on a macronutrient basis to many protein powders, with roughly 100 calories per 20 to 25 grams of protein.
Your typical lean meats include warm-water fish, white poultry meat, and red meat sources considered extra lean. (For reference, red meat and pork tend to have higher fat content.) Egg whites also qualify, and most protein powders fall into this category.
Food sources of protein that also contain fatty acids are cold water fish (salmon as an example), most of the red meats, the dark meat of the poultry, and any of the lean category if you decided to cook it in oil. Whole eggs are similarly in this category as the yolk contains fatty acids.
If a meat has breading on it, it is now covered in carbs. That is not inherently bad, but you should understand that no meat can be breaded and still be considered lean.
Dairy products tend to never be as lean as the leanest meat products, although they are in a wide spectrum of fat content; checking the label or investigating nutritional information online would be prudent.
The Food Groups Richest in Protein
As mentioned earlier, it seems that the best sources of protein on a caloric basis come from animals. In general, the food groups and their overall protein contents are in the order (greatest to least content on a caloric basis):
- Meat and Dairy products (lean)
- Most Vegetables
- Meat and Dairy products (fatty)
- Meat substitutes
- Fruits and harvest vegetables
- Most grains
Vegetables are in a weird position, as they tend to have roughly 3 to 4 grams of protein per 40 calories (which is 30-40% by caloric weight). It is unlikely that they will form a substantial amount of your dietary intake due to their filling nature, but they are indeed decent protein sources from a caloric perspective.
Most root and harvest vegetables (pumpkin, squash, potatoes, etc.) are listed further down as they have a greatly increased amount of carbohydrates. Additionally, although some grains can indeed have a high protein content (such as quinoa), the majority of grains eaten in a standard diet tend to have a large degree of carbohydrates relative to protein; the focus on enhancing grains appears to be related to micronutrition and fiber, with minimal focus in increasing protein content.
Vegetarian and Vegan Proteins
Supplement-wise, a rice/pea blend as well as both soy and hemp appear to be viable vegan protein sources. Soy food products are viable options, as are vegetables themselves if you can eat sufficient amounts of them. Some microalgae protein sources also exist, mostly chlorella and spirulina.
What About Powders?
Overall, the importance of a protein supplement is only important if you don’t consume enough protein your diet. Protein supplementation should be catered mostly around allergies, price range, flavor, and perhaps functional properties of the protein if pudding is desired.
Protein supplementation should not be catered around absorption speeds, marketing promises, or the latest and greatest protein powder modification.
Adding more amino acids tends to have the biggest impact when total protein intake is lower. Let’s say you only consume 50g of protein a day. It is a good idea to increase that to 75g by adding whey because of its cysteine content.
However, if you’re a 180 pound male and you eat 100 grams per day, you don’t need to worry about consuming any specific protein, as even poor sources of one or another amino acid will add up.
Because of these reasons, BCAA and EAA supplements also seem to have less of a role as supplements when protein intake from food and supplements is comparatively high; they have a much larger role when your diet is low in protein overall, especially low in complete proteins.
The bottom line: Consume enough protein and you do not need to worry about absorption speeds, amino acids, or complete vs incomplete. Instead, focus on consuming protein via your diet and/or supplementation, however works best for you.