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.

Sponsor note:
This post was brought to you by the Damage Control Master Formula, independently proven as the most comprehensive high-potency antioxidant multivitamin available anywhere. With the highest antioxidant per dollar value and a complete anti-aging, stress, and cognition profile, the Master Formula is truly the only multivitamin supplement you will ever need. Toss out the drawers full of dozens of different supplements with questionable potency and efficacy and experience the proven Damage Control difference!

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. The tribes that live on milk, live on RAW MILK, not the over processed crap we are forced by law to use. Raw milk is a great food, but it is illegal to sell it in this country.

    And I spend little more than half of your $1200 on food and that is for 4 people.

    Harry wrote on March 29th, 2010
  2. Buy a portion of a cow and then it is legal to consume your own produce. I live in PacNW and it is a common way to get raw milk.

    I also suggest more people should eat low impact animals such as lamb and goat and turkey and emu etc.

    Vivienne wrote on June 20th, 2010
  3. you mean TOO

    Andrew wrote on August 5th, 2010
  4. i agree.. but you also.

    nighty night!

    namerequired wrote on October 16th, 2010
  5. @ Petunia: I hope you don’t home school your children. They haven’t believed in only two kingdoms in centuries. In fact, domain–a new rank of biological classification that has three branches–was added over twenty years ago.

    Additionally, most vegans don’t consume or use anything made from or by animals. This includes the items you mentioned, and I know many vegans who abstain from eating honey.

    Ash wrote on April 20th, 2011
  6. Mike: You are a great at stirring the pot (provoking anger)… only those incapable of thinking and defending their opinions make comments like yours…you lower yourself…(only my opinion)…and I am too old to use all those lol’s and such…you are NOT credible to me…if you have nothing better to offer why don’t you give us all a break and crawl back into your hole.

    Pat wrote on January 9th, 2011
  7. You and Mike should get together..

    Pat wrote on January 9th, 2011
  8. FYI, Chimps and some monkeys, esp. baboons, have been observed to hunt and eat other species including other primates. Many primates eat insects. There are many articles on this topic since Goodall first observed it in the wild.

    Mander wrote on April 8th, 2011
  9. what proof do you have for a much lower rate of cancer? and also there are much more diseases vegetarians can suffer from than people who eat meat, as to a deficiency of vitamins such as B12 which can result in greater risk of cardiac diseases, and vegetarian diets may be low in calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, iron, zinc, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and iodine

    jeff wrote on May 11th, 2011
  10. If the suggestion is that because primates eat meat, we also should, then we should follow primates on other matters as well ? Lets jump out of our house and start climbing any random tree and make some random calls.

    vegetarian wrote on July 27th, 2011
  11. “how patronising”…followed by one of the most patronising sermons I’ve read by a fellow vegetarian in eons.

    I’ve personally watched a troop of vervet monkeys track, kill and eat a dassie (an enormous rodent). Amazing what you see if you keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.

    The militants on this website take their eggs seriously! I particularly enjoyed the prophets of doom, and their Greek Chorus of “just wait…” regarding milk. Tré amusing.

    I understand Keith’s point regarding feeding the world, as I live in South Africa. But, at the same time, I know how easy it is to grow your own vegetables, and isn’t that a good start? Seriously, a few spinach plants, some butternut, cucumber and squash climbers, and a few tomato plants, and that’s the majority of your diet sorted for the entire family. Well…mine, anyway.

    Lindsay wrote on October 20th, 2011
  12. well her point still stands tho, who cares how many kingdoms there are. “they havent believed in two kingdoms for centuries….a new one was added 20 years ago” your logic makes no sense

    jeff wrote on May 11th, 2011
  13. anyone who does not get that the difference in life between swatting a mosquito and killing a bull needs to wake the fuck up- how about eating kitty cats and puppies? same thing as picking some kale leaves? give me a break -that Veggie Myth woman was one of those kind of Eco-martyr types…man-made aglobal warming and all that BS..

    madhava wrote on June 8th, 2011
  14. @madhava I actually see nothing wrong with eating cats and dogs. I wouldn’t eat someones pet but I feel that whether it is funghi, vegetables, fruits, seeds, grains or meat they are all living but die to sustain us.

    Part of life is death and consuming living things to sustain ourselves. That’s why I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan. It’s healthy to eat a well balanced diet including meat. We actually get more protein out of meat than non-meat sources of protein. My husband is a biologist and he told me that studies show that our brains produce a chemical when we eat meat that alerts the rest of our body so that it will get more protein out of the meat. Our brains don’t do this for other protein sources because we evolved to eat meat. Yes you don’t need to eat meat but as long as it is organic, not overly processed, not full of synthetic nitrites / nitrates and feed a more natural diet like worms and bugs for chicken or grassfed for beef then you’ll actually get a lot more out of a small amount of meat in your diet than not having the meat. Also it’s better to not cook your meat too much. I especially eat my beef very rare.

    I had a lot of stomach problems. I changed my diet to eat no meat, no dairy and no grains because some friends suggested it years ago and it just made things worse. I take probiotics and eat an extremely varied diet. My tummy almost never has problems now except if I eat something that is too spicy.

    Avi wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  15. not to mention egg yolks are extremely high in cholesteroil which ages you much faster i usualy use 4 egg and 1 sometimes 1 1/2 yolks

    mayna wrote on July 14th, 2011
  16. Lamb AAAAGGGHH! Said like Homer simpson. Lamb is the meat of the Gods. Literally, see Bulfinch’s Mythology.

    Joshua wrote on November 6th, 2011
  17. Seriously? You must be on the wrong page. Completely inappropriate. Whoever wrote this sounds uneducated.

    heidi wrote on June 10th, 2012
  18. You need to read this:

    Cholesterol in our food does not translate to cholesterol in our blood stream.

    Annie Sires wrote on September 9th, 2012
  19. Cholesterol is the body’s fire department. It is (80%) manufactured in the body by the body. It is the foundation for hormones. If you are trying to stop the cholesterol, it’s like stopping the fire department from responding to a full house fire. You have to stop the CAUSE of the cholesterol buildup (usually dietary inflammation often caused by wheat and sugar in the diet), not stop the cholesterol.

    Eggs also contain healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and proteins. It is one of the earliest foods and one of the healthiest. Eggs from commercial sources are filled with problematic balances of nutrition whereas pasture raised chickens who lay eggs are the way that god intended (with a little help from man).

    WeAllWantJustice wrote on November 27th, 2013
  20. Actually, Kylie, you are wrong. There are 100% animal diets. The masai, the inuits, and others. There is ample information out there that shows this.

    AND you can not survive on a solely vegetarian diet without B12, which is only made in animal sources. I was vegetarian for 17 years.

    Annie S wrote on March 8th, 2014
  21. Neither the Inuit or Masai ate an animal exclusive diet. Both consumed gathered grasses, tubers, roots, stems, berries, fireweed and/or seaweed. As far I have seen there has never been an indiginous human diet that was carnivorous. I don’t find a diet completely void of animal products to be optimal, but neither is a diet void of plants. The latter would most likely be more problematic with modern availability.

    I have a hard time comprehending why humans appear to have a need to vilify certain food groups. Possibly its the desire to obtain a simple answer to what is healthy, and what is not. Unfortunately, we are not a machine, we are a dynamic organism. When dealing with living organisms, there are rarely absolutes concerning nutrition.

    I agree some grains may be problematic in certain forms, to certain individuals. However, some animal foods may be as well.

    This article was written years ago, and the argumentative comments continue. This should be an indicator that there is no “right” answer. Never trust your health to the internet.

    James IV wrote on July 15th, 2014

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2015 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!