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. i m looking for a healthy diet mainly consisting proteins.i have come abroad for studies and its almost one year now i feel m lacking in proteins intake.plz advise me.

    Gaurav wrote on August 17th, 2010
  2. I noticed that in almost all cases, the “winner” food was far more expensive than the “loser” food. I’m very broke right now – is there any way I can still eat healthily?

    Cody wrote on August 18th, 2010
    • Im broke too but enjoy eating healthy as well, i cannot afford shopping at whole foods so I usually go to freshandeasy, food4less/smith’s, staying on the outside aisles where the fruits vegies, meats dairy and breads are, will benefit you alot more then going down the center aisles where all the processed foods are, frozen, chips, sugar, etc.

      JB wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • Yes. A balanced diet, excercise and multivitamin/mineral.

      Joshua wrote on November 6th, 2011
  3. Mark I’m quite surprised you’d list two items on there.

    The first one being tuna which is a high mercury content fish.

    The second being pasteurized milk, albeit cultured, in your yogurt listing.

    If you’re looking for a good protein source, and not afraid of saturated fats, then raw goats milk should be high on this list (and raw goat yogurt).

    This is a much more complete food than is grass fed beef.

    Tom Leser wrote on September 6th, 2010
  4. This article is trash. OH wow I never knew any of these products had protein in them? :O then this person just explains why the organic or “grass” fed option is better. Plus Buddy I don’t have the money to buy the more expensive products. I would never take this guys advice, his opinion is to blatant to get any use out of him. Living your lifestyle isn’t the only way to be healthy.

    James wrote on September 10th, 2010
  5. I studied yoga with an Enlightened yogi master from Japan. He always suggested that his American students avoid meat. He allowed his Japanese students to eat meat. Why??? Americans eat why more meat then we should. Our portions are wacky. Disease is more about portion size I believe.

    Lisa C wrote on September 15th, 2010
  6. While I agree with your choice of grass fed beef, organic eggs, wild fish, I cannot agree with all of what you say regarding vegetarians. I am one and have been for over 30 years and I believe you are incorrect on alot of what you say about being a vegetarian. I think you also need to become more knowledgeable on vegetarian products as there are good and bad just as there are good and bad non-vegetarian sources. The poor treatment of animals and what they are fed has a great deal to do with the unhealthy meat, chicken and egg products sold. Everyone goes to the supermarket and buys a package of meat etc. and does not even give a second thought as to how the animal was treated or what it was fed. Only when humans become sick is there concern.

    Susan Bologna wrote on October 5th, 2010
    • Have an agenda by chance? Ever read articles or ANYTHING w/out a vegtarian agenda? Try it. You may find your aganda-filled info is bullshit.

      Joshua wrote on November 6th, 2011
      • Sorry for typos.

        Joshua wrote on November 6th, 2011
  7. This list is obviously not for lower income individuals.

    Ryan wrote on October 12th, 2010
  8. I was dubious for most of the article, but you lost all credibility with me when you said,

    “Almond butter is less toxic […] than peanut butter”

    Really…? You think the word ‘toxic’ is appropriate to peanut butter?

    Ambientspark wrote on October 13th, 2010
  9. explain to me why i’m a raw vegetarian who is thinner than you and younger looking?

    and TAKE NOTE of this… you’ll always be a moron, i get fed up with preaching and lectures by people without a clue.

    been on this planet longer than you and probably long afterward.

    53 and you look older than me.

    have a nice life.. ‘expert’.

    now, get off the chair and walk for a change… we’re exhausted by your ‘methods’.

    namerequired wrote on October 16th, 2010
  10. Author is clearly blinded by “organic” and “natural” foods. Top 10 best/worst protiens article shouldn’t be the organic options and their non-organic counter parts. Rather listing high protien/low fat foods and high fat/low protien foods. Thanks for the waste of time on a crappy article title hippie.

    Not_a_hippie wrote on October 25th, 2010
  11. I’m going to bookmark this site because it’s got some GREAT info. I, however, have a personal problem I’m having trouble getting around.

    I’d like to start eating healthier and maybe even return to being vegetarian. I’m allergic to pretty much everything under the sun. Eggs, Lactose, Oats, Tuna, Shellfish, SOY… more so most things that are GREAT sources of protein! So what do I substitute?!? (besides just the catch all “protein shake”)

    Eggs are a popular recommendation for healthy diets but I CAN’T EAT THEM! HELP!

    Amanda=Frustrated wrote on October 28th, 2010
  12. I hope you have finally read the latest data on Diabetes and how Animal Protein has been PROVEN to DAMAGE the Kidneys. Or are you so biased that you refuse to believe the research? Furthermore, Animal protein does NOT help balance the blood sugars better! It was proven that on a VEGAN DIET most Diabetics were able to get OFF ALL diabeties meds, where as NONE of the Diabetic eating MEAT and CHICKEN were able to keep their blood sugars stable. Thus, I recommend ALL DIABETICS TO GO VEGAN! I have seen 2 people die from a healthy animal protein diet. I have seen 5 others have eye issues, kidney problems, gangrene (sp?), and other health issues because they followed YOUR advice to EAT MEAT in order to stabilize their blood sugars. Your advice is also followed by the American Diabetics Association. I refuse to advice a suicidal life style to anyone. I think its time you learned the truth.

    Read “Dr. Neal Barnard’s Plan to Reverse Diabeties”. Its very informative. And, its the truth! Even the diabetics I knew, proved its truth!

    signed, tired of society trying to murder diabetics with lies about Veganism and Diabeties

    Kyt wrote on November 4th, 2010
  13. Mark: The highest source of protein, gram for gram, no doubt about it, would be marine plankton. Blue Wales the largest animal to ever live on this planet do not eat organic chicken or beef. They get their protein from the best source and thus grow the largest- I might add Spirulina and chlorella as blue green algae too- all plant based. They are the protein choice of the future or for some now.-Charles G Jacques III.LPC

    Charles G Jacques wrote on November 9th, 2010
  14. I am 93 years old. I have plucked hundreds of chickens, tried every grain that passed my plate, sucked on mushrooms that would kill someone, I guess, have a bit of champange to ring in the new year, sip brandy when I feel like it, and eat fast food, prepared food, and whatever I like when I like to eat it. I think you young people will die young worrying about what you eat. Just exercise doing what you enjoy, eat what you enjoy, and you’ll live long, happy lives. Stop with all this intensity! When your number’s up, it’s up. Too much peanut butter isn’t gonna make that happen any faster. Trust me — I’ve been eating it every day for 87 years. RELAX! Geez….

    Mrs. Troutdale wrote on November 10th, 2010
  15. We’re all gonna die — what you eat is not what will kill you. Being hung up on it like you are WILL. Geez. Lighten up and enjoy your lives. EAT A CORN DOG, for once… :O I don’t like your site, I was looking for something else when I found it, something tells me I’ll outlive you all, and with more JOY. xo

    Mrs. Troutdale wrote on November 10th, 2010
    • My dad wanted a corn dog when he was suffering from terminal kidney failure…this due to the needing some very toxic heart medications during his last 10 years… protein (crappy, or whatever) wasn’t on his medical diet, but because his appetite was so poor guess what we got for lunch a few days during his last months on this earth…A CORN DOG….you are so right…use some common sense, and lighten up a bit people

      Pat wrote on January 9th, 2011
  16. Wow. why dont you basically say “If you cant afford to shop at whole foods or buy all your groceries from local small farms, then don’t even bother, losers.” Think I’ll go find a resource for a regular ol’ piece of Sh*t like myself.

    Birdy wrote on December 3rd, 2010
  17. Eileen, you don’t have to become a vegan after watching Food Inc. You just need to find higher-quality meat.

    Ronny wrote on December 10th, 2010
  18. Congrats you have made simple intellegant statement! Horay!

    Brian wrote on December 10th, 2010
  19. Winner: Shoppers who have enough discretionary funds to buy organic, wild or grass-fed proteins.

    Loser: The rest of us… who, realistically, have to buy enough to feed several (or more) people on a wimpy-ass budget.

    Thanks for those valuable insights. I’d have never guessed quality foods were better than inferior shit! Call me enlightened!

    PD wrote on December 13th, 2010
  20. My favorite protein source hands down is Walnuts. They are high in omega 3s, high in protein and low Carb. I wish Walnut butter was more common, it could totally replace peanuts.

    Jay wrote on December 22nd, 2010
  21. Hi, You completely miss the target when it comes to protein and amino acids you are completely wrong basically due to a total lack of understanding of the subject. Saying beef or any low quality protein source is better than a high quality protein source or combination of protein sources is just a basic ignorance of protein and the way amino acids are assimilated and used by the body. Beef is poor quality unless it is eaten at the same time along with other complementary proteins otherwise its protein is useless to the body. We cannot absorb / use any amino acid if other complementary amino acids are not present at the same time.
    Tofu which you say is poor is a complete protein! this means it has all the essential amino acids present, you cannot get better, no other protein source has a better amino acid complex mix than tofu. Eggs are good they too are a complete protein but not as good as tofu and they contain fat which you may wish to avoid or not.

    Allan wrote on January 1st, 2011
  22. I read from some1 who left a previous question asking “is death of animals necessarily bad?” wel the average human consumes 15 cows in his or her lifetime, even if the consumption of other things causes death of living things is a hell of a lot less animals….in a utilitarian point of view being vegeterian or vegan is for the greater good.

    Sheila wrote on January 3rd, 2011
  23. What a load of tosh. I cant believe what I’m reading. If everybody ate like this there wouldn’t be enough food to feed the nearly 7 billion people in the world. Get of your soap box and live like the majority, people have been eating worse processed foods in the 80s and 90s, probably the 70s, and nobody has died from eating it. We live in an over populated world where mass farming/producing is a necessity so that people can simply live.

    Think of it simply as this, if we all start eating “high quality” meat, you will be dead within a year or two because of the lack of food available.

    Mal wrote on January 4th, 2011
    • It’s reality…Thanks for your post

      Pat wrote on January 9th, 2011
  24. Best protein: Bee pollen (25% protein), Hemp seeds (33% protein), spirulina (70% protein), chlorella (60%). These are complete proteins. Beef, by comparison, is only 22% protein and harder to digest. The afore mentioned also contain numerous other elements that make them better choices. Bee pollen, for example, contains every known nutrient required for man except for water and oxygen.

    wdmorgan wrote on January 9th, 2011
  25. The gist of this article…
    “Good: Expensive food
    Bad: Cheap food”

    It was very enlightening… not.

    bill wrote on January 11th, 2011
  26. Hey Mark,

    Great article, but youre partly un-optimized on Youghurt or this is written only for Americans.
    In EU, Greek youghurt is only used for dips and such cause its 10% fat naturally and compares to sour cream in a natural light version though. We have better things over here, like Achidophilus culture youghurt with no sugar(organic ofc) and organic 0.5% fat youghurt with very little sugar as well.
    But the king of youghurts is Skyr from Iceland or Quark(Kvark) from Denmark/Germany/Poland which is 0.2% fat and 10% protein(11g pr 100g, not energypercentage).
    You should adjust the youghurt advice for this. And European Yoghurt certainly isnt Greek Yoghurt, that would be like saying Canadians dont play hockey!

    Rasmus wrote on January 15th, 2011
  27. one of the longest living people subsided on rice and rice alone for many many years. she was without a doubt much healthier than most people without having to resort to high protein foods.

    so i dont see the importance of promoting high protein foods.

    mr c wrote on January 21st, 2011
  28. Macadamia nut butter (unsalted). If we could get it into the Supermarket, a generation later no one would know what peanut butter is.

    Roland wrote on January 28th, 2011
  29. Thanks for the protein tips. Dude, I so eat all of these foods. Thats probably why I look so amazing! BTW- Which Quinoa do you prefer: white or red? Grass fed Kobe beef? Duuuuude, the best! Ever!

    Dan wrote on January 28th, 2011
  30. Thank you for the protein tips!! Dude, I so eat all of these foods now! Thats why I look so amazing! BTW- which quinoa do you prefer: white or red? Grass fed Kobe beef? Duuuude, the best! Ever!!
    – So do you want to be ordinary or do you want to be extraordinary??

    Dan wrote on January 28th, 2011
  31. I came here looking for extra tips on adding MORE protein to my diet. Instead I’m being entertained thoroughly by the comments here. People are getting all offended over an opinion piece. That’s right. OPINION.

    The grazers are standing on their soap boxes screaming, “meat eaters suck”!

    The meat eaters are telling people to “suck their dicks”.

    Both sides are correcting the others grammar when they don’t have a counter point.

    Everyone has their panties wadded up because Mark said their food choice wasn’t good. WAHHHHHHHHH!

    I just had a thought……..
    It must suck to date a vegan girl because she clearly cannot swallow.

    I digress….

    Eat what your body tells you to eat. If you pay attention it will tell you exactly what it wants/needs.

    Oh and veggie crowd…please, get off your pseudo-moral butt plug.

    kp wrote on February 1st, 2011
    • Thumbs up brother!

      RugbyGrok wrote on February 22nd, 2011
    • Why is it “pseudo-moral”? Because your morals aren’t the same doesn’t mean vegans and vegetarians have invented some sort of fake set of morals. Morals are something that scale with the individual.

      Well I was agreeing with your post until the end where you decided to simply pick on the “veggie-crowd” as those we’re one giant being all saying the same things. As though meat eaters aren’t consistently pulling out their own “facts” and things they’ve Googled over the years any less than veggie heads. Everyone is trying to justify their own choice but it comes down to one thing; the world will never eat uniformly and even if one person’s way is better than everyone else’s we wouldn’t know that unless we all tried it.

      Everyone’s different and I wish people would calm down, take a breath and realize their way isn’t the only way.

      Rebecca wrote on May 12th, 2012
  32. When studying protein content in food, which is the best to use? Beef? Pork? Bean? Soybeans?

    lenie wrote on February 8th, 2011
  33. I dont like how animals are raised and prepared now days, but u cant lie with facts.

    frozen chicken has 0 carbs 0 fats, and high in protein. sure maybe farm raised chicken is better, obviously, but its not like frozen chick is “bad” or not good. 0 fats, 0 carbs=lean and ideal for a dieter.

    eggs are the same, sure normal, natural farm raised eggs are probably “better” overall, but still 0 carbs, tons of protein, doesnt matter, u cant deny that fact.

    Scott wrote on February 9th, 2011
  34. What about Turkey…??

    Sammy da Bull wrote on February 18th, 2011
  35. any one reading this who hasn’t seen the documentary Food INC. NEEDS TO SEE IT. Its good insight (:

    lili wrote on February 20th, 2011
  36. Does anyone think it’s kind of weird that we are the only mammals that drink another animals milk…. especially after age like 10 months or so even with all the chemicals in the milk… i don’t trust milk lol

    lili wrote on February 20th, 2011
  37. Just briefly went through this thread. Great information, really sorry so many are skeptical. I guess they would rather trust…the government??? If you believe they are interested in putting out information that will help you maintain your health, you might as well go home and take a bullet. I have had my eyes opened. Keep informing people, it will save someone’s life one day. I know it did mine and I am so much more healthy for it!!!

    Kris wrote on February 22nd, 2011
  38. It seems a primary argument for being a vegetarian is that there is a 6:1 conversion ration of pounds of food consumed to pounds assimilated by cattle. So we’re burning up a considerable amount of food that could be used to feed people in countries that have severe hunger and starvation. Granted being vegetarian doesn’t help to solve the problem in the grand scheme…I still try to limit the amount of meat I eat.

    Aaron wrote on March 7th, 2011
  39. What about lentils and rice in combination? Hindus have been fine for centuries on this stuff, no?

    John wrote on March 8th, 2011
  40. You must be rich.

    Hugh J. wrote on March 8th, 2011

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