Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 May

Top 10 Best & Worst Protein Sources (vegetarians take note)

SteakYesterday, I discussed protein a little bit, and it’s such an important topic that I think it deserves its own Tuesday 10 (Read all Tuesday 10 columns here).

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

SalmonLoser: 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

ShellfishLoser: 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:

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)

Loser: Tofu

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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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Quinoa isn’t a grain. Someone probably said this somewhere, but it’s a seed, and what some call a “pseudograin”. It’s high carb and high GI, but it’s primal, in moderation.

    Willow wrote on January 12th, 2013
  2. Nice list you got here, I agree with your focus on organics, going back to basics is always the right idea in my opinion. I also do my own hunting and fishing, I would love to hear what you think about wild-sourced meat.

    I think you should add hemp to this list as a great source as well.

    Despite the negative connentation surrounding hemp (I promise you I am not writing this in the back of a hotboxed VW with pink floyd playing), it is a phenominal source of protien, good fats, and many different micro-nutrients. All of this with NO THC (the drug that makes you ‘high’).

    It’s protein profile is complete. Including all 8 essential amino acids our body can’t produce on it’s own!

    Food for thought!

    Alecia wrote on January 25th, 2013
  3. GORILLAS , cows, sheep, horses, hippos, elephants, goats, … ARE ALL VEGETARIAN AND GET AMPLE PROTEIN MAN WAS ORIGINALLY VEGETARIAN!!!!!!

    Elaine wrote on February 6th, 2013
    • Hi Elaine, You might be desillusioned, but Chimps aren´t vegetarian, in fact they eat (amongst fruits and veggies) other little monkeys. not a beautiful sight, but biological reality.
      and as for the cow-horses-sheep-goat combo: ever wondered what kind of gut they carry around in their big bellies ? they have four legs so it doesn´t show that much …
      about man being oroginally vegetarian – maybe don´t talk with fitness-or diet-selling ideologists but simply with people with a degree in anthropology or archeology and they will tell You what the archeological evidence shows, then decide, what arguments to use for vegetarianism if that´s Your ideal.

      Annie wrote on February 6th, 2013

    Elaine wrote on February 6th, 2013

    Elaine wrote on February 6th, 2013
  6. me too

    tim wrote on March 1st, 2013
  7. I think I will just starve myself. Everything seems to be bad for you I don’t know what to eat anymore. Not everyone can afford organic foods .

    Tara wrote on March 2nd, 2013
  8. lentils, peas, spinach, black beans. Seriously there are a lot of vegetable sources for protein.

    Cate wrote on March 4th, 2013
  9. Indisputedly fish as salmon is a protein source with a lot of nutritional and health benefits. But according to a lot of information published in reviewed papers and recognized organizations, principally predatory fish, and then wild kind may cause a health risk. For example, the FDA announces as a matter of prudence that women might wish to modify the amount and type of fish they consume if they are planning to become pregnant, pregnant, nursing, or feeding a young child due to the presence of certain chemicals as methylmercury and polychlorinated biphenols.

    Ana Curia wrote on March 15th, 2013
  10. Sardines before salmon, sustainably harvested and cheap

    Shane wrote on March 19th, 2013
  11. All grains are seeds (and so are beans, nuts & seeds)(all seeds should be soaked to help get rid of phytates also). Quinoa is an annual & a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal (or grain) because it is not a member of the true grass family. Grasses that grow grains are in the Poaceae family (corn, wheat, millet, rice, etc).
    A complete protein (or whole protein) is a source of protein that contains an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for the dietary needs of humans or other animals (source: Wikipedia, complete protein) Complete proteins include quinoa, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds.
    Someone said it doesn’t really matter if you eat pasta or chicken, as long as you eat a decent amount of protein. It does matter what you eat – that’s why most of us are in the shape we’re in today (along w/ stress, not enough sunshine, exercise, sleep, etc).
    Mass produced food may feed the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to go.
    The China Study is a good book to read. But the most enlightening thing I’ve read over the past 50 years has been Dr. Weston Price’s study “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration”, which can be found at
    I’ve come to a couple of basic conclusions after being a health nut for 50 years and reading hundreds of books and doing searches on the web extensively (keep in mind you can’t believe everything you read from books or online, or even from scientific studies) and experimenting on different diets myself (BTW, I’m in excellent health, and weight appropriate for my height, and have never had a major disease, only occasional colds, etc). The first conclusion I’ve come to is to eat as natural a diet as you can and avoid everything that has been altered by man in ANY way (this includes homogenized, pasteurized, fat-free, low-carb, sugar-free, artificial sweeteners, grain-fed and CAFO cows, poultry that’s been given antibiotics & not allowed to free-range, farm-raised fish, processed foods, including processed protein powders & nut/hemp milks (use hemp seeds, chia seeds & flax seeds instead), refined foods (including sugar, flour, etc), etc., and making the majority of your diet organic fruits & veggies (raw & cooked in bone broths; including cruciferous veggies & sea veggies (including blue-green algae: chlorella & spirulina) – bone broth, cruciferous veggies & sea veggies are all great sources of Ca), and preferably grown yourself, or from local growers that grow organic and in-season, and having animal products (free-range beef, free-range poultry & their eggs (free range beef & poultry are high in omega-3s, just like fish – and God made a perfect food in eggs – they have almost every nutrient we need except vit C – eat both the yolk & the white & stop worrying about cholesterol – just avoid man-made hydrogenated fats), wild-caught low-mercury fish, fermented foods you’ve made – 1 T to 1/2 cup at each meal –raw dairy could contain pathogens which might not be eradicated even by fermenting so make it at your own risk) a minor part of your diet (we don’t need that much protein, and some protein is in almost everything, but you can include small amounts of these complete proteins: hemp seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, raw nuts & seeds that have been soaked & dried, & quinoa (more info on quinoa at, and up to 1 oz animal protein at each meal. Grains & beans should be a minor part of your diet, also. (even soaked ones, which help get rid of phytates, etc)
    (vegetarians take note –animal proteins are the best sources of some nutrients, namely conjugated linoleic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin A (best source is liver), carnosine (an amino acid; the only sources are animal sources), carnitine (meats are best source), EPA & DHA (best sources are fish); CoQ10 (best source is liver), other vit’s & min’s that vegetarians might be deficient in are vit D, Ca, Fe, Zn, and I (iodine)(best source is sea veggies). If you’re worried about animals dying, just eat eggs – chickens don’t have to die to get their eggs.
    Secondly, don’t eat the same things every day and don’t over-eat any one thing in one day (especially gluten grains, and never eat wheat – it’s been over-hybridized to contain too much gluten).
    Thirdly, we would all be better off if we would grow at least some of our own food & herbs with compost and not be so dependent on commercial food, which is full of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, GMOs, xenoestrogens, artificial additives, and God knows what else. If you’re interested in growing your own food, do a little research on biointensive farming and organic farming. I was so impressed when I visited Germany – every house has a little garden beside it and they have bike trails beside the highways (the highways are built up and the bike trails are down below on each side).
    One more thing to take note of sometimes we don’t notice any ill effects from eating harmful foods (or we don’t pay attention to them). Sometimes it takes years to develop a degenerative disease – it doesn’t happen overnight or we’d all be eating a lot differently.
    P.S. don’t believe everything the FDA tells you either
    There seems to be a lot of people w/an ego problem on this site. Why do you have to resort to name-calling? We all just “know” what we read, and who’s to say that it’s right? Take what you read (including what I wrote) w/a grain of salt and try it yourself and see what happens. Can you say that you never get sick from eating the way you do? In 10 or 20 years from now, will you have a degenerative disease? If you can, then I’ll take it to heart.
    Oh, and another thing, plants may have feelings after all – read The Secret Life of Plants and
    Judy, horticulturist, master gardener, & health nut

    Judy wrote on April 6th, 2013
  12. Quinoa is not a grain

    Donna wrote on April 11th, 2013
  13. I’ve reduced my meat intake a bit over the years, and seem to feel better. I use a cold processed whey protein shake for breakfast, hemp products, organic eggs and occasionally tuna and salmon for protein.

    I really don’t do the protein bars much anymore for snacks, and try to eat more whole foods instead of the processed stuff. Harder to get protein away from home, I know – but the whey and hemp protein shakes are easy to take on the go, or hard boiled eggs.

    B.E. wrote on April 24th, 2013
  14. that sucked
    meat sucks.
    u suck.

    hrikul wrote on May 2nd, 2013
  15. I know you don’t recommend dairy, but I do use whey daily and feel great on it – along with raw eggs.

    Also enjoy some grass fed bison occasionally – it’s the best tasting red meat in my opinion.

    Brian wrote on May 11th, 2013
  16. How do you feel about pecans and almonds?

    Kate wrote on May 15th, 2013
  17. Quinoa is a seed, not a grain.

    Ally wrote on May 17th, 2013
    • Quinoa (“Chenopodium quinoa”) is a
      grainlike crop grown for its edible
      seeds. 😺

      Jerry Montero wrote on September 9th, 2013
  18. Hemp?

    Braxton wrote on June 2nd, 2013
  19. Hate popcorn shrimp, but I don’t see what’s wrong with fish sticks. It’s the only fish I eat since I find the rest disgusting. Also, taking salmon /other fish from the wild isn’t sustainable. Tuna populations are suffering terribly and animals like dolphins and sea turtles get caught in the nets. Stick to farmed!

    Also, PB isn’t toxic. -_-

    IfOnly wrote on June 7th, 2013
  20. Enjoyed your assessment.
    Still, I’d like to know what you regard as your Number One protein.
    Many thanks

    Seamus McCotter wrote on June 10th, 2013
  21. You do realize that no one needs animal protein, and one can easily get it from plant sources, and the protein from plants is far superior to those found in animals. Please, before posting something, albeit an old post, get your facts straight.

    Elizabeth wrote on June 23rd, 2013
  22. There is one major problem with this advice Mark. Most of us cannot afford to buy grass-fed beef, organic chicken, wild salmon, omega enriched eggs, etc on a regular basis. The average family needs to tightly control their food budget. This is fine advice for the wealthy, but what are the rest of us to do?

    Shaun wrote on June 23rd, 2013
    • Shaun, the average family can do it:

      1 Take public transportation one to three
      times a week.
      2 Keep room temperature at 60-65 °F in winter
      and 80-84 °F in summer.
      3 Buy used clothes and shoes.
      4 Buy only essentials—children didn’t need
      cellphones 15 years ago.
      5 Keep not up with the Joneses; that’s envy.
      6 Eat when you are hungry, drink when you are
      7 Buy all fruits, vegetables, tubers, nuts, seeds,
      and gluten-free grains organic. We don’t need
      animal products; they are bad for the environment,
      bad for animals, and bad for us.
      8 Avoid these like the plague: junk food, fast
      food, trans fats, and soft drinks.
      9 Avoid these bad food groups at all costs: soy,
      peanuts, sugar, corn, eggs, dairy, and gluten.
      10 Try never going to a hospital by being healthy,
      which means buying organic. Buying organic is
      cheap compared to going to a hospital; we’re
      talking here about tens or even hundreds of
      thousands of dollars. I have never been to a
      hospital and the last time a doc saw my pee pee
      was in 1959, when I was 14. 😷

      Jerry Montero wrote on September 9th, 2013
      • Shaun, here are three more, to be read after (9)

        10 Avoid TOTALLY all drugs (legal and illegal)
        used recreationally, including coffee, tobacco,
        and alcohol…And no, I’m not a Mormon.

        11 Avoid going to stadiums, unless the event is free.

        12 Avoid going to beauty parlors for manicures,
        pedicures, and so on. (By the way, beauty parlors are
        full of germs that will threaten your precious health.)
        Women spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars
        a year doing that and buying cosmetics; besides
        cosmetics are bad for your health.

        Jerry Montero wrote on September 9th, 2013
      • Eggs aren’t bad. Commercial eggs are bad. Raise your own fruits, vegetables, meat animals and chickens. good for you, your kids, environment.

        Annie Sires wrote on September 9th, 2013
  23. I still eat peanut butter and regular eggs anyway.

    Tom Banks wrote on June 25th, 2013

    Lindsey Stuvick wrote on July 2nd, 2013
  25. Generally pointless article for anyone but those that are up their own rear end. every food that is recommended costs much more than what is readily available to the average punter. This article glorifies the pomposity of foodies, so be helpful and rewrite and recommend good protein food that is affordable to all of the population please?

    Samwise wrote on July 19th, 2013
  26. It is amazing the number of people here who have no scientific or nutritional training whatsoever and who claim certain “facts” about food because they read them on some blog or some news article somewhere. Please understand that even if they have based such an article on actual scientific research, it is usually the findings of just one study and if you knew anything about science you would know one study does not a scientific fact make. In terms of actual scientific studies and nutrition, there are so many contradicting studies out there that it is hard to say what is a fact and what isn’t. One will say grains are bad others that grains are great. What you have to do is look at the ENTIRE body of scientific evidence and take the most common found results. Things are never proven with science, only supported. If you want to have a better understanding of nutrition learn how to read actual scientific journal articles, and research thoroughly on the subject – don’t just take one study as verbatim.

    Wade wrote on July 29th, 2013
  27. If you ever paid any attention in science class where they studies the food chain, you would have to wonder and when humans began eating grain or grass for that matter. As far as great protein? Alpaca meat. They are extremely rich in iron due to the fact that their red blood cells are oval and not round allowing them to carry more oxygen at high altitudes. Out paces bison. Very easy on the planet, grass fed….extremely low in fat.

    crosshaven wrote on July 29th, 2013
  28. Disagree w your issue w yogurt, mainly semantics. Most “Greek” yogurt made in the us is made “Greek” w/ thickeners, not by traditionally straining. So the us version starts out less healthy to begin with. I question the health benefits of strained yogurt, even made authentically, b/c what leaves is water + water-soluble nutrients. Not sure what these are, this is just a guess, maybe calcium, maybe protein?
    I make my own yogurt weekly using full-fat or low-fat milk and an active culture that I re-use, and I eat it on a daily basis. I think the active cultures are beneficial, I think it’s healthier than US “Greek” yogurt, and it is easy to make. No sugars or weird fillers or thickeners. Just organic milk home delivered from our local dairy.

    Sujatha92 wrote on July 29th, 2013
  29. Okay I have raised cattle my entire life. before I was born my father was raising cattle and I have raised cattle since I’ve been old enough to walk. cattle do not die of grain feeding after they are 6 months of age! This is the biggest lie I have ever heard in my life! Second of all, beef cattle are not slaughtered at 6 months of age anyway! You city people crack me up! Cattle will not die of being fed grain unless they have been eating grass their entire life and are switched to grain. Please do not comment on farming if you have never done it before. It just shows your stupidity.

    robb wrote on July 30th, 2013

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