Protein is in many of the foods that we eat every day, but for something so common, it’s often a misunderstood part of our diets. Think of protein and you might think of steak sizzling on a grill, an energy bar touting to banish fatigue, or a protein shake promising muscle growth. Yes, these foods are all packed with protein, but when it comes to making the best protein choices to keep your body and mind healthy, quality is just as important as quantity
Most animal sources of protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, deliver all the amino acids your body needs, while plant-based protein sources such as grains, beans, vegetables, and nuts often lack one or more of the essential amino acids. However, that doesn’t mean you have to eat animal products to get the right amino acids. By eating a variety of plant-based sources of protein each day you can ensure your body gets all the essential amino acids it needs.
- In countries like the U.S., for example, industrially-raised animals are typically denied access to the outdoors, fed antibiotics and growth hormones, and given GMO feed grown with pesticides.
- Eating organic, grass-fed red meat and dairy from animals raised in a more natural environment avoids these additives and therefore may not carry the same health risks.
- While some processed or lunch meats, for example, can be a good source of protein, many are loaded with salt, which can cause high blood pressure and lead to other health problems.
- Processed meats have also been linked with an increased risk of cancer, likely due to the substances used in the processing of the meat.
- The key to ensuring you eat sufficient high-quality protein is to include different types in your diet, rather than relying on just red or processed meat.
Other sources of high-quality protein
- Fish. Most seafood is high in protein and low in saturated fat. Fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, sablefish (black cod), and herring are also high in omega-3 fatty acids. Experts recommend eating seafood at least twice a week.
- Poultry. Removing the skin from chicken and turkey can substantially reduce the saturated fat if that concerns you. In the U.S., non-organic poultry may also contain antibiotics and been raised on GMO feed grown with pesticides, so opt for organic and free-range if possible.
- Dairy products. Products such as cheese, milk, and yoghurt offer lots of healthy protein. Beware of added sugar in low-fat yoghurts and flavored milk, though, and skip processed cheese that often contains non-dairy ingredients.
- Beans. Beans and peas are packed full of both protein and fiber. Add them to salads, soups and stews to boost your protein intake.
- Nuts and seeds. As well as being rich sources of protein, nuts and seeds are also high in fiber and “good” fats. Add to salads or keep handy for snacks.
- Tofu and soy products. Non-GMO tofu and soy are excellent red meat alternatives, high in protein and low in fat. Try a “meatless Monday,” a plant-based protein sources are often less expensive than meat so it can be as good for your wallet as it is for your health.
- Reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates you consume—from foods such as pastries, cakes, pizza, cookies and chips—and replace them with organic, grass-fed meat, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, peas, chicken, dairy, and non-GMO soy and tofu products.
- Snack on nuts and seeds instead of chips, replace a baked dessert with Greek yogurt, or swap out slices of pizza for a grilled chicken breast and a side of beans.
Other ways to get more quality protein
- Choose unsalted nuts and seeds, to reduce your daily sodium intake.
- When shopping for canned beans, choose the low sodium versions.
- Adding more protein to your diet can increase urine output, so drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Increasing protein can also cause calcium loss so make sure to get plenty of calcium (1,000 to 1,200 mg per day).
Protein powders, shakes, and bars
- A teenager who is growing and exercising a lot
- An adult switching to a vegan diet—eliminating meat, chicken, fish, and even dairy and eggs from your diet
- An older adult with a small appetite who finds it difficult to eat your protein requirements in whole foods
- Starting or increasing a regular workout program, trying to add muscle, or recovering from a sports injury. If you feel weak while exercising or lifting weights you may benefit from adding a protein supplement.
Using protein supplements
- Protein supplements come in various forms, either as powders you mix with milk or water, in pre-mixed, ready-to-drink shakes, or in bars. The most common types of protein used are whey, casein, and soy. Whey and casein are milk-based proteins, while soy is the better choice for vegans or anyone with a dairy allergy.
- Safety concerns. Protein supplements may not be safe for older people with renal disease or people who have recently undergone surgery on the digestive organs. Some ingredients may even interact with prescription medication, so check with your doctor or pharmacist before using.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and make sure you’re getting enough calcium in your diet.
- Look out for extra ingredients. Many protein bars are packed with carbs and added sugar.