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. Nice list.
    I agree on most of it.
    I couldnt disagree more with the almond butter, tempeh and DHA-enhanced eggs though.

    Peanut butter isnt bad in moderation.
    Enhancing eggs with something like DHA isnt exactly natural and organic.
    Tofu is generally pretty damn healthy in comparison to many other foods.

    Dude wrote on August 12th, 2013
  2. Everything should be made as simple as possible,
    but not simpler. —Albert Einstein

    Let’s keep things simple. Simplicity is essential in
    life: 😺

    How To Live To 100 – Forbes (

    Jerry Montero wrote on September 9th, 2013
  3. Quinoa is a seed, not a grain.
    It’s popularity worldwide, although creating jobs for the Andean people, has also meant it is too expensive for them to now buy.

    Kune wrote on September 24th, 2013
  4. This list complete fails in taking into consideration the toxins, pesticides, hormones, bacterial load, fecal load, cholesterol, saturated fats, and other issues with animal proteins. The best sources of proteins are plant sources hands down! Free of toxins and harmful fats, and loaded with fiber which makes you feel sated. The questionable increase in calories is offset by increased feeling of being full. And beyond being selfish you are kinder to the environment and ethically on the safe side by eating cruelty free.

    Robin wrote on October 1st, 2013
    • And you think plants don’t have pesticides, toxins, pesticides, hormones, bacterial load, fecal load? And why would cholesterol and saturated fats be an issue? You obviously haven’t read the web site about fats…

      I was a vegetarian. Plant sources of food are just as bad if not worse because they hide the bad stuff (labeling, out right lies by the companies that sell) and because like commercial meat, commercial plants/grains have their bad things too. LIke too much sugar, salt.

      And if you think that no animals were harmed in the making of your tofu burger or chickpea humus, you don’t understand agribusiness monoculture and how it’s degrading and destroying farming and producing problems.

      AND add that most of the USA’s soy, corn, peanuts, sugar beets and wheat is genetically engineered and genetically modified. And we don’t know if that will make a difference in our lives.

      Do more research before you categorically call all meat bad.

      And cruelty free is not necessarily meat free and vice versa.

      Oh, and it’s fat that makes you sated, not fiber.

      Annie Sires wrote on October 2nd, 2013

    dr. watts (university of rading) wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  6. Mark, I always enjoy your articles. I find a lot of the paleo community to be incredibly bull headed towards those that don’t entirely share their views. I was raised a vegetarian, although I don’t really classify myself like that any more. I like the idea of primal eating, but there are a number of reasons I don’t follow it. I suffer from a strong penicillin allergy – none organic chicken/meats have landed me in hospital so I tend to steer clear of meat. I do eat wild fish, but as I’m in grad school I can’t afford organic meat and wild fish every day. Also, the ever increasing amount of people on the planet mean that eating meat/fish every day has a serious negative impact on our environment and fish stocks – it’s unfortunate but its true. If we could eat clean meat and protect our environment I would switch to full paleo in a second.

    Personally I look forward to the availability of insects for human consumption in the west (I like in the UK). I’ve heard great things about trials of mealworm and dragonfly larvae in mainland europe. These are supposedly incredibly sustainable and nutritious. Have you any thoughts on this?

    Helen wrote on October 29th, 2013
  7. Brown rice protein is complete, go to this website to see how the bioavailability compares to other proteins:

    and a good source of protein from a bar/powder form is:

    good article! Also, quinoa isn’t a grain, it’s actually a seed. Do some research on it…

    J. wrote on October 31st, 2013
  8. I can tell you as a dairy and beef farmer, that I have NEVER, had an animal die in 6 months from the grain I feed it. Now, it may be possible that happens in large commercial operations, but if you are getting your grain fed beef from a local source, there is nothing to worry about.

    Mike Robinson wrote on November 14th, 2013
  9. Where are your sources?

    Sean Fernandez wrote on November 24th, 2013
  10. You forgot two key sources of protein especially for Vegetarians – Quinoa and all kinds of Beans!!

    Jessica wrote on December 3rd, 2013
  11. I still do not convinced how whey protein concentrate is bad, what if we take pepsin tablet with each serving ?

    Amit wrote on December 13th, 2013
  12. The best protein sources are paired meals for a balanced intake of different foods that fill different roles. This is also the basis of a healthy diet. Likely people have heard that pairing vitamins/supplements with meals are important because they are otherwise poopied and peepeed out without doing much of anything else…this is why.

    Beef is perhaps one of the WORST protein sources…and most cuts are miserable sources in the sense that the amount the body can utilize is far from what is on the label. While certain rib/tenderloin cuts are good, the cost of low yield complicate them being a frequent source of protein for most people. Super fatty cuts (which are the cheapest priced) may result in less than 1/3 of the available protein being used. If you like beef, try buffalo or ostrich for leaner sources. Our GI systems do not process highly-saturated fats, especially in large quantities. It all just comes out in poopoo…often which floats if fat reaches a certain point of excess (and eventually in that triple bypass too.)

    On the contrary, salmon is probably the most complete and eggs are the best-utilized (unless you include whey protein which has an even higher BV) sources. Our systems better utilize eggs than milk…even human milk. The whole ‘eggs are bad for you’ is really a big stink and newer research shows eggs aren’t the terrible things they were once thought. A ham-spinach omelet is one helluva good source of protein and essential nutrients and is a surprisingly well-balanced meal.

    Predatory fish are generally excellent meat sources in general beyond just protein. Largely, they provide essential fatty acids omnivores cannot produce on their own and several other nutrients. Farmed fish can be as healthy as the finest wild-caught, or worse than fish from a toxic pond. Kind of like chickens, cows, pigs, etc., it completely depends on who is farming them and the practices used. Many predatory animals in general are good sources of lean meat.

    There are good vegetable sources of protein and there are healthy vegetarians…but the diet is more complex and certain strands of omega 3’s are far more difficult to get in quality. Also vegetarian diets and especially vegan diets are dominated by soy…not exactly a food we digest very well and one of questionable safety. But black beans are protein-heavy and great for the GI system like papaya and pineapple (all far better than yogurt!!!). Nuts have tons of elements we need and they are filling…there’s a good reason peanut butter is a preferred anti-starvation tool. Some dark greens enhance protein extraction of foods by as much as 2-fold and nutrient uptake multi-fold (like how a dark green high in potassium paired with milk can increase calcium and vitamin D uptake by multiple times than what milk alone results in.)

    Ultimately, the body’s ability to utilize protein is inherently linked to the intake of other nutrients…as an omnivore, we are blessed/cursed (depending on your take) with this fact. Survival depends on a diet with far more variety than an animal programmed to consume meat or plant matter only. Excessive intake of protein or excessive fats that are not beneficial fatty acids harms absorption and slows gut motility/metabolic rate/uptake efficiency. Consequently, it’s not as simple as ‘pick your protein and go’. Further, dark green vegetables are a staple of life…people generally don’t live well (or just die) without them. In an omnivore diet, the consumption of certain vegetables with certain meats act in a synergistic fashion. Broc, kale, collared greens, etc. is often paired with salmon because the nutrients in each boost the uptake of the elements from the other…rice or a grain is added due to the better utilization of carbs. You get more for your money. On the other hand, eat fries cooked in hydrogenated oils, down a 40 ounce Coke, and that salmon is going to go through you without doing much of anything at all.

    For most people in developed nations, the top concern by a landslide is a lack of healthy vegetable matter. It is not uncommon to see people who are class 2 obese or higher, who consume 3-20 TIMES the quantity of food considered safe, suffering from malnutrition because they do not consume plant matter with the nutrients we cannot survive without. These people tend to consume primarily heavily processed foods and huge amounts of proteins packed with saturated fats and hydrogenated oils 4-10+ times what is thought to be ideal and, consequently, they tend to die early.

    And then of course there is water…which plays a massive role in nutrient uptake including that of protein.

    So choose wisely :-)

    NickZac wrote on December 17th, 2013
  13. bad article

    German wrote on January 17th, 2014
  14. “Contrary to popular belief, dietary animal protein is consistently associated with greater bone mineral density and fewer bone fractures”

    The main reason for this would be COLLAGEN, which is built from the amino acid lycine. Collagen is the proteinaceous scaffolding that holds your whole body together, including your bones and muscles – it is in tendons, ligaments, and your skin and organs too. Check out how similar the collagen disorders symptoms are to protein deficiency! BTW… You’ll need a good deal of Vitamin C to make collagen… much more than the RDA amount is recommended by the Linus Pauling institute.

    Trillian wrote on January 20th, 2014
  15. Can you tell me best protein can effect on health or not if so then specify a reason if no then also specify a reason

    sourav wrote on January 23rd, 2014
  16. Hi there, I’ve been reading a lot about whey protein isolate powder and a lot of people are saying they get anxiety and panic attacks when starting to intake isolate whey protein, when starting to take vegetable protein powder that stopped (which I think they only developed anxiety due to all the other crap sometimes protein powder has like taurin).
    I developed Panic attacks but never had one due to whey protein powder intake in fact I think it helped me coping with that disorder.

    what are your toughts on that?

    Bruno wrote on February 6th, 2014
  17. I don’t see any mention of the cost–especially environmental– of producing all this meat you advocate. I have no doubt that a paleo diet is healthy, but I am also sure that our planet cannot support 7 billion people on a paleo diet without wiping out all remnant natural areas. I agree that if you are going to eat meat, eat free-range or pastured meat, because feeding grain to animals is insane from an agricultural sustainability standpoint (livestock require on average ten units of protein to produce one unit of meat protein) whereas animals are useful for converting cellulosic plant parts that humans can’t eat (namely grass) into food that humans can eat, and thus enabling us to support human populations off of land that is not suitable for till agriculture. Because pastures and other forages can be produced more sustainably than annual crops such as corn, it makes sense to rely on them for our meat production.

    But there simply isn’t enough productive land on this planet (not even land that is unsuitable for till agriculture) to produce enough meat for all 7 billion of us (and growing) to rely on it for our sole source of protein. Legumes, grains (yes, even wheat), veggies (dark leafy greens are especially great sources of protein), seeds and nuts must fill in the slack.

    Our nation’s nutritional problems stem from 1) eating too much processed food, not like nature made it, 2) eating too much, period, and 3) not eating enough diversity. Of course you’re going to have problems if you get all your protein from soy, or peanut butter, or wheat, but none of these things should cause you problems if they’re part of a well-balanced diet (barring, of course, conditions such as celiac disease).

    Eat a Paleo diet only if you are a narcissistic elitist!

    Lois Braun wrote on February 27th, 2014
    • What if we got rid of all the land supporting government subsidized farming of Big Ag faves such as soybeans and corn? There are two non-foods that could make way for grazing land. And yes, beef would not be on everyone’s plate. I just paid $13 for a grass-fed 4oz ribeye steak at the market. Delicious, but I could not afford to eat that daily. But there is sustainably raised pigs and goats, wild-caught fish, and free-range chickens and turkeys all vying for my dollars. I lived in Nebraska for several years and the hundreds of miles worth of corn (nonnutritious, sugary) and soybean (hormone imbalancing) fields are disgusting. I would urge too read “Stopping Inflammation: Relieving the Cause of Degenerative Diseases” by Nancy Appleton (PhD). Just because you are not throwing up when you ingest something, does not mean your body is happy with it.

      James Aragon wrote on June 7th, 2014
  18. This article should be retitled, “Ways to die sooner.” What a terrible load of crap. Enjoy several great years of health followed by a precipitous decline into disease and early death.

    Sober Thinker wrote on May 4th, 2014
    • Do not understand your comment without reasoning.

      Tommylee wrote on May 5th, 2014
  19. Awesome post. Been a big fan of your blog for sometime. Whenever I wanna find out about something I google the thing and then your blog name. You’re my first go to source.


    Kevin wrote on June 6th, 2014
  20. Wow! Just reading some of the high and mighty comments….Nothing like the topic of food to make the loonies come out. Everyone is so damn sure their opinion and what they’ve read on the Internet is the one and only gospel truth.

    Everyone needs to put down their (pitch)forks and knives and just relax. It’s all good, not everyone has to agree or think the same thing. There’s room for everyone. We’re all crazy, it’s not a competition. If you read something you don’t agree with you can just move on :)

    Christina wrote on June 6th, 2014
  21. I have never gone to an article or a blog that has this much misinformation all in one place! It amazes me how people can spout out about things they have never researched or information they are repeating from some very inaccurate information they stumbled across. There has been excellent peer reviewed research and information is readily available that most people simply do not want to hear…if they researched and listened, they might have to change their eating habits or misguided beliefs. So sad!

    Bonnie wrote on June 6th, 2014
  22. Everyone gives a negative opinion about so many foods one wonder what can we eat that will not be harmful. If I only had the food my mom and dad had, I too would live as long as they did. They raised everything they ate and lived to be, mom 96 dad 98. They died from old age and was never sick.

    Calvin parker wrote on June 9th, 2014
  23. I have to say that reading the comments in this section gives rise to my new belief that the Paleo diet may actually make one aggressive and mean-spirited. Besides the holier-than-thou attitude/altitude of the soap-box projectionists in the comments section of this blog, perhaps a different perspective on the message might be in order. People come to learn. And no one learns from derision. Pssssst — I would rather eat carbs with my meal if it prevents me from becoming hateful and toxic personality & mood-wise if I go all Paleo. I’d rather die younger and loved than old and very, very alone in this life. There is real ugliness here. Those of you who contributed in that manner might want to tuck that back in.

    KMac wrote on June 11th, 2014
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    Augusta wrote on July 10th, 2014
  25. Some interesting points, but I’m afraid your research is incomplete, biased, and plain wrong in places. A few more journals need to be read, but even with regard to this, it should be noted that research on nutrition is actually changing nutritional ‘facts’ all the time, nutrition and the effects of diet on long-term health is still a young subject, so all such information should be noted but not believed as the undisputed truth.

    Melissa wrote on August 4th, 2014
  26. Vegetables are an excellent source of protein, problem is they often don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, as do the meats (and milk). But if you eat enough of a variety of vegetables to compensate for that, then you will get all of the proteins you need, without the saturated fat. But I’m a firm believer in eating enough healthy food from every group to get all of the other necessary nutrients our bodies need to be healthy.
    On the note of milk, whey is made from milk, and milk also contains casein, which is a slower digestion/release, and has been shown to have benefits better, or different, or complementing whey supplementation (depending on how you want to supplement) but, with a healthy diet, there’s no need for protein supplements. The more unrefined, the better.

    Shayla wrote on November 16th, 2014
  27. Beans beans the army food the more you eat he more you shoot!

    Stanley Jermanowski wrote on December 16th, 2014

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