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. Thanks for the info on quinoa.

    louis wrote on July 28th, 2012
  2. It’s too bad we have web sites like this that. The truth is that beef is an excellent source of essential amino acids, not the best but excellent nonetheless. Moreover, beef is rich in heme iron – the very best source of iron (20% absorption). Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the US – up to 25% of menstruating women are iron deficient. Men, however, get too much iron and should avoid beef. Calories? Compare calories for 25 grams or protein:
    Peanut butter – 7 tablespoons – 670 calories
    Black beans – 1 1/2 cups – 374 calories
    Tofu – 1 1/4 cups – 236 calories
    Lean beef – 3 ounces – 180 calories.
    So please stop publishing bull!

    Richard McCabe, PhD wrote on July 30th, 2012
  3. I stopped reading on salmon. Junk science at its best ( worst ). Just ignorant ramblings of an uneducated person.

    John wrote on July 30th, 2012
  4. Which would be a non animal source of protein that could be a substitute to soy protein in terms of protein content and maybe in the same levels of cost ?

    PETER wrote on August 2nd, 2012
  5. I would say a head of Romaine Lettuce. 7.7 grams of protein, w/only 100cal, and only 1.9 grams of fat!

    Tim wrote on August 3rd, 2012
  6. Not so sure about the soya. I do believe that too much will give you cancer. My sister-in-law who is a vegetarian ate copius amounts of soya and soy milk and has cancer and has just had to have a masectomy. She doesn’t drink alcohol and it is not genetic in her case. Makes you think doesn’t it that the reports about soya not being all that good for you may be true!

    Ruth Jerrard wrote on August 4th, 2012
  7. what about soy milk?

    sarina wrote on August 4th, 2012
  8. quinoa is a seed

    vince wrote on August 18th, 2012
  9. You forgot about Kefir! Even better than yogurt!

    Michelle C wrote on August 25th, 2012
  10. The article is titled best ‘protein’ sources, yet some of your listings do not really reflect that.
    I really like most of your choices, and for the most part agree with them. I also like the ‘good vs bad’ listings layout. I would have liked to have seen more on the facts and specifics with respect to protein however – the article shows a bit of bias to personal opinion (no hate from me here – we all have slightly differing views – even experts disagree on things).
    I would like to have seen more detail on the bio-availability factors, and complete chain factors. An incomplete protein source is not a top choice ever as you must ensure you eat other foods containing this missing essentials or your diet will become deficient (easy enough to do sure, but still it should affect its standing as a ‘best’ source.) If this is truly about ‘best protein’ sources then a source that has protein with the highest bio-availability and most complete profile per overall Calorie consumed would be the best choice. I would have added Dry curd/whey, and from strictly a protein perspective – egg whites. Yes a whole egg is a good healthy choice for food, but strictly for protein – it is the white you want. I also like pork tenderloin personally – it is one of the leanest options for meat rivalling chicken breast. For red I stick to eye of round.

    Marty wrote on August 25th, 2012
  11. This article = [citation needed]

    John wrote on August 25th, 2012
  12. As a side note, it is very supported by research that regular interpersonal activity is beneficial to longevity and also heart health. There are various psychological and physiological benefits of regular interpersonal sexual activity such as the increase of endorphins. Is it not obvious then, that when one cannot find a willing partner for sexual intercourse, he/she should engage in forceful sexual assault. Your body can definitely deal with a little rape, in fact, in much of the animal kingdom rape is very regular and healthy. This is why i choose to take the natural path in my life to rape and torture animals, the air and all of the environment instead of switching to plant based protein.

    Oh wait, you’re all sick in the brain.

    Bstry wrote on August 31st, 2012
  13. I’m 65 tears old. For a decade I had terrible heartburn mainly associated with exercising, mowing the yard etc. 6 months ago I became a vegan but not with my heartburn in mind, it was because of other issues. Anyway within 48 hours of being a vegan my heartburn was and continues to be 95% improved. For me this has been a miracle and a blessing now I can walk and ride my bike and even run without a crippling burning in my chest. Also since being a vegan I feel that I have never eaten so good I only wish I had grown up a vegan and never eaten all that nasty meat, dairy, fish etc. The way animals are killed for food is really immoral and disgusting if one takes the time to think about it.

    obscura wrote on September 6th, 2012
  14. Worst list ever. As a vegan, protein is a non issue. Anyone ever heard of hemp seeds!!! 9-12 grams of protein in only three tblspoons ..what about all other nuts and seeds?? Meat protein is a joke. Animal fats no thanx 😉 wake up meatheads

    Dirka wrote on September 11th, 2012
  15. One thing I have not seen mentioned as yet about Soy products.The great Monsanto Company has taken over all soy and genetically modified it,so it is not a food to be eaten in any form.I don’t feel an Organic farmer could protect his soy from this in any way.They have done it to corn and cotton also.Check out GMO foods and have your eyes opened to this nightmare.

    Barb Adele wrote on September 11th, 2012
  16. Almond butter tastes a whole lot better than peanut butter, so it’s good to know that it wins the nutritional battle too.

    Quinoa is finding its way into the mainstream and isn’t just something that vegans eat anymore. I’m looking at growing some next summer as it seems pretty easy to harvest too.

    Jack wrote on September 16th, 2012
  17. I’m a meat eater, but I eat a lot less meat than is average. I’m not into vegetarianism at all, but I really like the idea of cutting down meat production because it’s so excessive. Sometimes, people just don’t have the money, time or resources available for substitutes. Emphasis on time, I bet you hate cooking when you’re tired.

    The amount of people on here getting all judge-y over other peoples diet choices is pretty sad, people are pretty aware of what feels good and bad to them; some people can drink milk and it’s fine with their body, personally I just don’t like it. I don’t eat bread very often either, I just don’t feel like I’m getting anything out of it, it makes me feel like an emaciated model stuffing cotton wool down her gullet; but I’m not going to tell other people not to eat it.

    I’m experimenting at the moment with sources of protein because I’ve started ballet and want quick muscle repair. I tried a vegetarian approach at first, but feel more comfortable now I’m back with meat and the food quality seems higher. I tried beef and chicken, and now mussels. I’m also going to try protein shakes out of curiousity eventually.

    I think I’m going to have to get some almond butter! Never heard of that before, was just about to buy another pot of peanut butter.

    Bronwen wrote on September 17th, 2012
  18. The article was very informative. What I’m laughing at is, if we all took each other’s advice and compiled it into one diet we would all starve and die, lol. It’s amazing how every protein source has some really good or really bad reason to eat/not eat it. Eat what makes you feel good! If your diet allows your body to run optimally and energetically you must be doing something right no matter which protein source you decide to eat.

    Sarah wrote on September 27th, 2012
  19. I actually agreed with this article. Thank you. My favorite protein BY FAR is EGGS, EGGS, EGGS! I’m allergic to soy, dislike wheat and, no, I am not a vegan! I love meat. LOL

    Thanks again. Off to buy greek yogurt.

    Chris wrote on September 29th, 2012
  20. Tofu has been eaten for AGES in asian cultures, especially Japanese, who are considered to have one of the world’s healthiest diets. It is not meant to be eaten as a meat substitute and there are plenty of types of tofu that are not heavily processed, though they are harder to find in the west.

    Anonymous wrote on October 8th, 2012
  21. I have a problem with the eggs. The nutritional part is ok, however, telling people it’s a “baby chick in the making” is absalutely wrong. All chickens lay eggs wether they were fertilized or not. Just like Iguanas. Heck, even humans have the eggs and if not fertilized it just passes through. It’s the unfertilized eggs that we eat from the chicken. Do you really think the farmers have the time or do you think they want to wsste money on feeding the roosters just so that they can make eggs. No, they already know these chicks can do it without the males.

    Vicky wrote on October 10th, 2012
  22. TL;DR: Expensive food is better than cheap food.

    Who’d’ve thunk it?!

    Mitt wrote on October 15th, 2012
  23. I take exception to your comment about poor grain killing calves in six months that’s why they’re slaughtered!!! I’m a farmer and I know better! This is a terrible lie! Only a moron would think that this is true most of the calves that are killed in that time frame are considered as veal! Get off the band wagon and come out to the farm….

    Marlene Aubrey wrote on October 22nd, 2012
  24. Everybody is different. What works for one
    doesn’t mean it will work for another.
    My Grandad is 87 and of sound mind and body. He puts an incredible amount of salt on his meals and has done all his life.
    I’m sure he has never concentrated on what foods he was eating for even 1 day.
    The best thing you can do for your health is to get off your arse and exercise. A 30 min walk a day can match 2 hours in a gym lifting weights.

    palo wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  25. I feel that is among the such a lot vital information for me. And i’m satisfied reading your article. But wanna observation on some basic issues, The site style is great, the articles is in reality excellent : D. Good task, cheers

    moss estate agents mansfield wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  26. What about undenaturated whey protein from grass fed cows? It is so healthy for the heart, digestive since there are live enzymes, and much more cleansing for the body. Any thoughts?
    Better than organic grade too!

    Teddie wrote on November 30th, 2012
  27. You should check out canihua/ kanihua.

    magnus wrote on December 8th, 2012
  28. Organic or not, meat contains cancer causing/inhibitors…..It truly is no wonder this country has the highest rate of illness’s in the world,all due to diet.

    mar wrote on December 21st, 2012
  29. I was told that a combination of beans and nuts makes a good protein. Is this true?
    My doctor told me to take Keratin. I can’t find it.
    I substituted ground beef with Kidney beans in my spaghetti sauce. It’s delicious and less fat. Do you think the exchange gives me enough protein?

    Marya Hart wrote on December 26th, 2012
  30. Hey guys i have tested the bcaa profile of almost all the proteins on the market today and for a while gold standard has come out on top but the problem with this was the price as which gold standard sells for..
    I continued researching a brand more affordable and i come across impact whey protein, not only is it the cheapest powder ive found it is also the best quality protein!

    If any of you are interested here is the link to their website– myprotein.com I have a code that i’m allowed to give to anyone too that allows you to get 10% off each order but you have to use the code when you sign up.
    The code is ——- MP480455
    This website has a very wide range of product so i recommend checking their products out just for interest.

    joe wrote on January 7th, 2013

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