In all the debates this year about sugar (carbohydrates) and hydrogenated oil (fat), we forget that protein warrants consideration as well. The wrong proteins in the diet will quickly sabotage optimal health.
It helps to understand that protein is a macronutrient. What we call “protein” is, in fact, a family of amino acid molecules. When grouped together in various combinations we get proteins. There’s no protein molecule hanging out in that hamburger; rather, the animal tissue is made of many different amino acid building blocks. Protein is just a catch-all term we use. This is why vegetarians won’t keel over as people once feared. However, that doesn’t validate the popular myth that plant protein is equivalent or even superior to animal protein. Plant protein and animal protein is not equivalent, for several reasons:
- Animal protein is more complete and contains more essential amino acids – the amino acids we can’t synthesize in our bodies and thus require in our diets for optimal health – than plant protein.
- Contrary to popular belief, dietary animal protein is consistently associated with greater bone mineral density and fewer bone fractures (PDF), while dietary plant protein is associated with lower bone mineral density. Animal protein may increase calcium excretion, but it increases calcium absorption to a greater degree, resulting in a net positive effect on bone health.
- Plant proteins often come with plant toxins, while animal protein is generally harmless. That’s probably why plant protein consumption has been linked to increased disease risk and animal protein consumption has little to no effect. Heck, the plant proteins often are toxins themselves, as with the case of wheat gluten.
- It takes more calories to get adequate amounts of protein on a vegetarian diet. Living on beans and tofu increases the amount of carbohydrates in one’s diet significantly (and unnecessarily).
I hope no one believes that anymore.
Here are my ten ideal sources of protein, and their popular but inferior counterparts.
1. Winner: Grass-Fed Beef
Loser: Grain-Fed Beef
The average cow is raised on cheap grain that will kill it after about six months (they’re conveniently slaughtered before this happens – but not always). Hardly something I want to put in my body. Grass-fed, organic beef won’t make the vegetarians happy, but this beef is rich in beneficial fatty acids that are missing from the factory-raised cattle. It’s cleaner, healthier, more flavorful, and richer in nutrients. And grass-fed beef is typically raised in humane conditions. If you eat beef and can get your hands on it, grass-fed is a must. It’s getting quite easy to find these days, but you can order online from many outlets as well.
2. Winner: Pastured Chicken
Loser: Regular frozen chicken
No comparison. Did you know chicken has flavor? Yeah, bizarre, I know. Chicken raised properly on pasture and allowed to eat bugs and grasses (not shoved by the cluckload into dirty factories) is rich in EFAs and is one of the best sources of protein available. Also, if you cover a whole one in salt, pepper, and garlic, stuff it full of herbs, rub it down with grass-fed butter or olive oil, and place it in a preheated oven, you’ve got one of the greatest dinners in the history of the world.
3. Winner: Wild Salmon
Loser: farmed salmon
Fish is healthy, right? Don’t even bother patting yourself on the back for eating salmon if it’s from a farm. Farmed salmon is produced in a way that’s the seaside equivalent of a chicken factory. As a result, the fish are often sick and infected. They’re fed cheap feed that does not yield the desirable omega-3-rich flesh. They’re miserable and full of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
Stick with wild only. Most restaurants use farmed salmon, so you have to get a little aggressive about this.
Notice a trend here with my emphasis on good fats in protein foods? Source makes a huge difference in the quality of protein you get. Meat is – or was – a very valuable food because it’s so dense in nutritious fat and protein. What an efficient, rich source of energy! Helpfully, our modern factories have eliminated the nutritional value and left us with weak, flabby, carcinogenic, diseased patties and drumsticks. Hey, thanks, guys. (Although we consumers don’t get off easy: maybe if we ate less…)
4. Winner: Tuna
Loser: fish sticks and popcorn shrimp
I don’t think I need to go into this one.
5. Winner: Pastured Eggs
Loser: egg substitute and/or regular eggs
If eggs were meant to be eaten as mechanically-separated, low-fat, chemically-altered whites in a carton, the chickens would have done it by now. But an egg is a chick in the making. It’s rich in antioxidants, good fats, vitamins, and – for the calories – a lot of protein. Doubly so if your eggs come from pastured hens. Things like Egg Beaters are the result of food manufacturers exploiting fears based on grossly inaccurate health information. There’s nothing healthy about such unnatural products.
6. Winner: Greek Yogurt
Loser: Low-fat, sugar-sweetened yogurt
No comparison. The Greek stuff is richer, fattier, more nutritious and lower in sugar. Again, when choosing an animal protein source, choose one that also provides valuable fats to maximize nutrition. Don’t go for the conventional animal products that are high in chemicals, hormones, bad fats, and sugars. Yogurt isn’t a staple of my diet, but if I eat it it’s certainly not a plastic cup of sugar-infused strawberry dessert.
7. Winner: Shellfish
Loser: Deep-fried and breaded clams and oysters
When anthropologists search ancient human coastal settlements, they invariably find piles and piles of discarded shells. Our ancestors weren’t gathering shellfish to make jewelry. They weren’t hoarding pearls. They were gathering them because shellfish, including clams, oysters, mussels, and snails, are sources of animal protein that also happen to be full of iron, zinc, selenium, iodine, omega-3s, and other marine nutrients that we need to thrive. And, since farmed shellfish are raised just like wild shellfish – in the ocean feeding off microscopic lifeforms – without any junk food input from humans, farmed shellfish are just as good as wild. Limit or avoid shellfish farmed in China, however, as the waters there run a little more polluted than other waters.
8. Winner: Whey Protein Isolate
Loser: Whey Protein Concentrate
I know, I know – I just got done saying how important it is to eat whole food protein that comes with other nutrients. So what the heck is whey protein isolate, a processed protein powder that’s anything but “real, whole food,” doing on this list? Ultimately, I’m about results. I’m about food with proven health benefits as shown through science, and the body of literature supporting whey protein isolate as a worthy source of protein is impossible to ignore:
- Among patients with fatty liver, whey protein isolate supplementation improves liver blood work and reduced fatty deposition.
- A combination of whey protein isolate and resistance training boost glutathione levels, HDL, and total antioxidant capacity in young men.
- In both young and older men, whey isolate after resistance training increases muscle protein synthesis (but the older guys need more protein to get the same effect).
Since whey protein isolate is higher in protein (the stuff that’s giving all the health benefits) than whey protein concentrate, eat the former if you can get it.
9. Winner: Liver (from grass-fed or pastured animals)
Though it’s known primarily as nature’s multivitamin because it contains ample amounts of vitamin A (important for bone health and testosterone production), copper (important for heart health), choline (important for liver health), folate (important for brain and fetal health), and B-vitamins (important for almost everything), people tend to forget that liver is a rich source of protein, too. It might look weird to compare it to tofu, but since nothing else really compares to liver – and tofu is really easy and really fun to pick on – I went with the soy-based meat alternative.
10. What’s your favorite protein source?
Give me a shout, Apples. What protein do you favor? What have I left out? (To comment, simply click on Comments below to log in to the blog forum, or proceed directly to the forum.)
Note: “Cows’ milk is for baby cows,” the saying goes. You’ll notice I left cheese and milk out of this list. While I like a good aged gouda, I wanted to make this list as all-inclusive as possible – and potentially allergenic dairy proteins are not suitable for everyone. Raw dairy is healthy and enjoyable for many people who can tolerate it, but generally, I think quality meat works better for more people than quality milk. Cheese, the fermentation of which denatures some of the problematic components while increasing beneficial nutrients, is generally better tolerated than milk, especially aged cheeses like gouda. Cream and butter are fine in cooking (or coffee), because I don’t fear saturated fat, but I am concerned about folks who substitute nutritious meat with highly-processed cheese.
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