The Best and Worst Proteins That You Can Eat

by Marixie Ann Obsioma
Published on October 20, 2021 and last updated for accuracy on December 11, 2021

What Are the Healthiest and Worst Protein Sources?

Protein is essential, yet not all proteins are made equal.

It’s critical to consume adequate protein throughout the day because it aids in muscle healing and repair, as well as boosting your metabolism and staving off hunger. It is, however, all about quality, and different forms of protein provide varying nourishment.

“I consider bioavailability, which is the percentage of a nutrient that is absorbed in the digestive tract, important amino acid composition, and digestibility when deciding which types of protein are the best. However, we must also examine the source’s long-term viability and other nutritional benefits “Nicole Magryta, RDN, author of Nourish Your Tribe: Empowering Parents to Raise Strong, Smart, and Successful Children, advises this.

And that includes thinking about whether it’s a whole food with decent components, a high protein content per serving, and (of course) tastes as wonderful as it is beneficial for you. According to dietitians, these are the greatest and worst protein sources for your health.

Proteins That Are Good For You

Here are good sources of protein you can add to your diet.

Chicken

In 3 ounces of chicken, there are 21 grams of protein, making it a great source of lean protein. “It’s also high in selenium, phosphorus, and B vitamins,” Magryta adds, “all of which are essential building blocks for a healthy body and have a direct impact on energy levels and brain function.” She also mentions that selenium is beneficial to thyroid function. Chicken can be used in a variety of dishes, including soups, salads, stir-fries, simple and roasted or grilled chicken, tacos, and more. Organic chicken may be more ethically raised and have a smaller environmental impact than conventional chicken raised on a huge scale. Choose organic if it is within your budget.

Eggs

One egg contains 6 grams of protein, as well as a complete amino acid profile, healthy omega-3 fats, B vitamins, selenium, Vitamin D, and choline, making them extremely nutritious (here are 10 foods with more protein than an egg). “Clinical trials have also showed that they lower the risk of heart disease. In addition, two egg yolks contain about 250-300 mg of choline, a potent brain nutrient “Magryta expresses her opinion. Remember to eat the yolks because they contain practically all of the other nutrients, though the whites do provide protein. If your budget allows, go for organic or pasture-raised eggs, just like you would with chicken. They might be able to help you reduce the amount of energy and resources you put on your plate.

Seeds of hemp

3 tablespoons provide 10 grams of protein. “These seeds are high in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and dietary fiber, and they contain all nine essential amino acids,” Magryta notes. This is a terrific plant-based source of protein that is suitable for vegetarians and vegans, as well as being delicious and versatile in the kitchen. “Antioxidants and unsaturated fats are also abundant in hemp seeds, which are beneficial to heart health,” she says. Smoothies, yogurt, vegetables, and salads are all good places to start.

Salmon

When it comes to being a great source of protein, fish is anything but fishy. A 3-ounce fillet contains 22 grams of protein. “It’s one of the richest providers of omega-3 fats, as well as B vitamins and selenium,” Magryta explains. “Salmon is also a wonderful anti-inflammatory meal due to the omega-3 fatty acids,” she continues, “which helps minimize chronic disease.” Eat fish at least twice a week.

When purchasing fish, one consideration is whether to purchase farm-raised or wild-caught seafood. Though it may appear to be a straightforward question, the answer is more nuanced than you might imagine. Check out SeafoodWatch.org to make more climate-conscious seafood selections. They grade fisherman and fisheries holistically on their environmental and health implications. Check out our Clean Eating Buyer’s Guide to Seafood for more information about seafood labelling.

Seeds and Nuts

Nuts and seeds are good sources of plant-based protein. “Depending on the type of nut or seed, 2 tablespoons of nut butter will provide 4 to 8 grams of protein. These nutritious nuts and seeds are high in protein, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and fiber “According to Randy Evans, MS, RD, LD, a Fresh n’ Lean consultant. Spread over toast or use as a garnish on salads, soups, and smoothies. Try these 6 Nuts for a Healthy Snack.

Lentils with beans

A half cup of beans or lentils has approximately 7-8 grams of protein. “Beans and lentils are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, in addition to being a good source of protein,” Evans explains. They’re also fantastic for people who don’t eat animal meat as a source of protein. Don’t forget about soybeans, such as edamame. “A 3-ounce serving of soy contains 12-15 grams of protein,” Evans explains.

Bison

Bison is underappreciated in a world where beef is the preferred meat. In 3 ounces, most meats contain roughly 17-27 grams of protein. Bison, on the other hand, provides 17 grams of extremely lean protein per 4 ounces. “It’s high in lean protein, B vitamins, zinc, selenium, and iron,” Magryta says. Many people are deficient in iron, which can result in disorders such as anemia. Adding bison or lean ground beef to your meal can help you achieve your iron and protein requirements.

Proteins That Aren’t Good For You

Although all foods can be included in a balanced diet, some of the protein sources listed below appear to be healthier than they actually are. Don’t count on them to meet your protein requirements on a regular basis.

Yogurt with added sugar

“Because it contains protein, many individuals choose store-bought yogurt as a quick meal. While there are some nutritious yogurts on the market, most commercial yogurts are poor in protein and high in sugar, even if they state low-fat on the label “Evans agrees. Our list of 10 foods with more sugar than a glazed doughnut includes sweetened yogurt. So, don’t be deceived. Instead, he recommends choosing nutritious Greek yogurt with few ingredients and a probiotic culture on the package.

Protein Bars and Powders with a High Sugar Content

According to Evans, “Protein and meal bars should be avoided because they can include a lot of sugar and other ingredients. Check the label if you have to use them as an emergency ration.” Instead of a list of chemical dashes and slashes, he recommends looking for simpler lists of substances and things you can understand. “Many protein bars [and powders] on the market are more like candy bars, full of highly processed protein, sugar, and high-glycemic carbs,” Magryta continues. When foods have a high glycemic index, it implies they swiftly elevate your blood sugar and can cause an energy drop. Low-glycemic index foods provide energy as needed without causing a rise and collapse in blood sugar levels.

“Artificial sweeteners can interfere with our appetite hormones and stimulate the growth of harmful bacteria in our stomach,” she adds. According to a recent study published in Current Gastroenterology Reports, alteration of your gut flora may be linked to an increased risk of obesity. In order to choose an excellent product, you must consider the source and quality.

Plant “Meat” Substitute

Some plant-based burgers, sausages, and deli meats can be tasty, but it all depends on the brand and label. These are frequently highly processed goods that have a long list of unfamiliar ingredients, preservatives, and additives. “They’re also heavy in salt,” Magryta says, which can have a negative influence on heart health if ingested in excess. Many people are sensitive to soy, and they may be concerned about the link between soy and the risk of reproductive cancer. However, the verdict is still out on how soy affects breast cancer risk in particular. There are studies that suggest it can be beneficial and others that claim it can be dangerous. Age may also be a factor to consider. Whole food types of soy, such as edamame and tofu, may be a safer bet if you eat it. Beans, lentils, and other whole-food meat substitutes, such as seitan, can also help you avoid unnecessary sodium and additives.

Cheese that has been processed

To artisan cheese connoisseurs, the dish may appear to be treasonous. “While real cheese is a healthful animal food with a high protein content, most Americans eat processed or artificial cheese,” Evans explains. “Because real cheese is expensive—especially range-fed, organic real cheese,” he says, “manufacturers develop cheese that contains little cheese and is primarily made from processed oils and tinted to seem like cheese.” Instead, opt for the genuine article. It’ll also taste better. Make a list of the six healthiest cheeses to buy.

Finally, there are numerous ways to consume protein in a healthy manner. The majority of Americans consume enough protein on a daily basis, but they may benefit from focusing on other nutrients such as fruits and vegetables. However, not all proteins are made equal, so it’s critical to prioritize quality. That said, just because a dish is on the “worst” list doesn’t mean you have to give it up cold turkey; it may be something you can enjoy in moderation.

Top 13 Lean Protein Foods

Protein is vital in a balanced diet, yet it can come with unwanted fat and calories.

Fortunately, there are many of lean animal and plant protein sources to choose from.

The RDI for protein for an adult eating 2,000 calories per day is 50 grams, however some people can benefit from eating much more. Age, weight, height, sex, and activity level determine calorie and protein needs (1Trusted Source).

Beyond its critical roles in muscle and tissue maintenance and regulation, protein increases satiety (fullness) and may assist manage weight (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source).

Consider these 13 lean protein foods.

1. Whitefish

Per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) plain, cooked serving of white-fleshed fish, there are less than 3 grams of fat, 20–25 grams of protein, and 85–130 calories (4Trusted Source, 5).

Cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, halibut, tilapia, orange roughy (6).

These white fish have 10–25% less omega-3 fat than darker-fleshed fish like coho or sockeye salmon. So consume both types of fish (6, 7Trusted Source).

Plain fish fillets can be found in the frozen food area of your shop. Moving the fillets from the freezer to the fridge first thing in the morning will help them thaw and be ready to cook later.

Summary:

Diet-friendly white-fleshed fish like cod and halibut are high in protein but low in fat and calories.

2. Yogurt (plain)

Greek yogurt has 15–20 grams of protein every 6-ounce (170-gram) serving, while normal yogurt has only 9 grams (8Trusted Source).

This is because Greek yogurt is created. The liquid whey is strained out, producing a more concentrated protein product that is thicker and creamier (8Trusted Source).

Plain, nonfat Greek yogurt offers 100 calories per 6-ounce (170-gram) cup and is low in fat (9Trusted Source).

A 6-ounce serving of low-fat plain Greek yogurt has 3 grams of fat and 125 calories. Plain means no additional sugars and you can add your own fruit (9Trusted Source).

Summary:

Plain nonfat or low-fat Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt per serving.

3. Legumes

Dry beans, peas, and lentils are all legumes. 8 g protein per 1/2 cup (100 g) cooked portion, low fat, high fiber (10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).

Pulses are satisfying because of their high fiber and protein content. If you eat pulses regularly, the fiber may help lower your cholesterol (11Trusted Source).

According to a meta-analysis of 26 trials involving 1,037 people, eating 2/3 cup cooked pulses daily for three weeks resulted in a 7 mg/dL reduction in “bad” LDL cholesterol (12Trusted Source).

Notably, pulses lack crucial amino acids, the building blocks of protein. You can make up for the lack of plant protein by eating whole grains or nuts throughout the day (11Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source).

Beans, peas, and lentils provide lean protein. Fiber and frequent consumption may help decrease cholesterol.

4. White-Meat Poultry

About 30 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) roasted chicken or turkey breast (15, 16).

Aim for light meat cuts like drumsticks and thighs. This includes the white meat of the breast and wings.

The skin adds calories and fat to the dish, while the skinless chicken breast adds 165 calories and 3.5 grams of fat (15, 17).

The fat savings are nearly the same whether you remove the skin before or after cooking. Cooked fowl with skin on is moister (18Trusted Source).

Summary:

Skin-on chicken and turkey breasts are high in protein and low in fat if cooked without the skin.

5. Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese is a low-fuss protein food.

The 97 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, and 13 grams of protein in 1/2 cup (4 ounce) of low-fat (2 percent milkfat) cottage cheese (19).

New cottage cheese trends include single-serve packaging, flavors, and live and active probiotic organisms.

1/2 cup cottage cheese provides 10–15 percent of the RDI for calcium. Not long ago, several food scientists suggested manufacturers add vitamin D, which helps calcium absorption (19, 20Trusted Source).

One disadvantage of cottage cheese is that it contains 15–20 percent of the daily sodium intake (salt). One study found that rinsing cottage cheese for three minutes reduced its sodium content by roughly 60%. (21Trusted Source).

Summary:

Low-fat cottage cheese is a great source of protein and is now available in single-serve containers. It’s high in calcium.

6. Tofu

If you forgo animal products, tofu is a great protein source. Tofu includes 45 calories, 1.5 grams fat, and 7 grams protein per 3-ounce serving, with adequate levels of all necessary amino acids (22).

Tofu comes in various textures, depending on how it will be used. Bake, broil, or sauté firm tofu instead of meat, but use soft tofu in creamy soups or desserts.

The Soyfoods Association of America has several healthful tofu recipes and recommendations online.

Note that 95% of US soybeans are GM (GM). If you want to avoid GM foods, you can buy organic tofu (23Trusted Source, 24, 25).

Summary:

Lite tofu is a good source of plant protein that contains all essential amino acids.

7. Beef

Less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per 3.5 ounce (100 gram) cooked portion of beef (26).

If you buy fresh beef without a nutrition label, certain terms indicate leanness. These are “round” and “loin.” For example, sirloin, tenderloin, eye of round roast, and round steak are all lean (27).

Lean flank steak and brisket flat-half (leaner half of full brisket) (28, 29).

Choose 95 percent lean ground beef. It has 171 calories, 6.5 grams of fat (3 grams saturated), and 26 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked hamburger patty (30).

Moreover, lean beef is high in B vitamins, zinc, and selenium (27).

Summary:

“Loin” or “round” denote lean beef. It’s high in protein, B vitamins, zinc, and selenium.

8. Peanut Butter Powder

Peanut butter’s natural oil is heart-healthy yet high in calories. Peanut butter contains 190 calories, 16 grams of fat, and 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons (32 g) (31).

An alternative is unsweetened powdered peanut butter. It loses most of its fat during processing. A 2-tablespoon portion includes 50 calories, 1.5 g fat, and 5 g protein (9Trusted Source).

To use the powder as peanut butter, combine it with water until it resembles ordinary peanut butter. Remember that it won’t be as creamy.

Powdered peanut butter is great for dipping apples, bananas, or even dark chocolate. Add the dry powder to smoothies, drinks, porridge, or pancake and muffin batter.

It’s a convenient protein source with half the calories and fat of conventional peanut butter.

9. Fat-Free Milk

Low-fat milk is a simple method to get protein, whether you drink it or cook with it.

8 g protein, 2.5 g fat, and 100 cal in 8 oz (1 240 ml) low-fat milk with 1 percent milkfat Similar protein content but 150 calories and 8 grams of fat in full 3.25 percent milkfat (32, 33).

Clearly, low-fat milk saves calories and fat. Recent research suggests that whole milk may not cause heart disease as previously thought (34Trusted Source).

The research isn’t all good. For example, whole milk consumption — but not skim or low-fat milk — has been associated to an increased risk of prostate cancer (35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).

While scientists continue to study this, most experts still recommend low-fat or skim milk over whole (37Trusted Source).

Summary:

Low-fat milk is a good source of protein and can save you a lot of fat and calories compared to whole milk.

10. Pork Loin

The USDA defines lean as having less than 10 grams of fat and 4.5 grams of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (38).

“Loin” and “chop” denote lean pork. Pork tenderloin, pig loin chops, and pork top loin or sirloin roasts are lean cuts (39).

Lean pork tenderloin includes 143 calories, 26 g protein, and 3.5 g fat per 3-ounce (100-gram) cooked dish (40).

Use low-fat cooking methods like grilling or broiling to conserve fat and calories when preparing pork (39).

Like lean beef, lean pork is high in B vitamins, selenium, and zinc (39).

Summary:

Look for the words “loin” or “chop” to find lean pork. Still, trim surplus fat from meat to avoid unneeded fat and calories. Pork also contains B vitamins, selenium, and zinc.

11. Shrimp Frozen

Frozen, unbreaded shrimp are a practical option for low-calorie protein. 99 calories, 21 grams protein, and 1 gram fat every 3.5 oz (100 g) serving (41).

However, experts have discovered that cholesterol in a healthy diet has no impact on heart health (42Trusted Source).

However, the high salt content in processed shrimp may alarm some. 900 mg sodium per serving in certain brands of plain cooked shrimp, according to USDA data (9Trusted Source).

Sodium tripolyphosphate, which helps maintain moisture, and sodium bisulfite, a preservative, provide the majority of this sodium.

A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion of frozen shrimp has naturally occurring sodium of 120–220 mg (9Trusted Source, 41).

SUMMARY Frozen unbreaded shrimp are a low-fat, high-protein snack. When purchasing, look for brands with low sodium counts.

12. EGG WHITE

You can consume whole eggs (cholesterol and all) as part of a heart-healthy diet, but the whites are much lighter (43Trusted Source, 44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source).

A large egg white provides 16 calories, which is less than a fourth of a complete egg’s calories. Also, one egg white contains less than 0.5 gram fat but 3 gram protein, roughly half of an egg’s protein (46, 47, 48, 49Trusted Source).

Soups, salads, and muffins are all great ideas for egg whites. You can also use egg whites and veggies to fill or top wraps, tostadas, or toast.

You can also buy egg white protein powders with few or no additives. These goods are pasteurized, therefore no cooking is required (50).

Use powdered egg whites in place of fresh egg whites. It’s also great in protein shakes and homemade protein bars.

Summary:

Egg whites have half the protein and barely a fourth of the calories of whole eggs.

13. Bison

It’s a healthy, lean protein source that may outperform conventionally reared beef.

It is leaner than beef. When compared to bison meat, sirloin steak and chuck roast from grain-fed cattle had more than double the fat (51Trusted Source).

Also, unlike cattle, bison are more likely to be grass-fed than grain-fed.

There are 3–4 times more anti-inflammatory omega-3 lipids in bison, especially alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Consumption of bison may have health benefits (51Trusted Source).

The beef-rich diet elevated C-reactive protein (CRP), a sign of inflammation, by 72% in healthy men who ate 12 ounces of beef or bison six times weekly for seven weeks. But the bison-rich diet only slightly raised CRP (51Trusted Source).

That doesn’t mean you should eat that much red meat, but it does show bison is a good meat to add in your diet.

Summary:

Bison has a lower inflammatory fat profile than beef.

Takeaway

There are plenty of lean protein sources. So you don’t need to go over your daily fat or calorie restrictions to get enough protein.

These leanest proteins are white-fleshed fish and skinless white meat poultry. Look for the phrases “loin” and “round” to discover lean red meat.

Low-fat cottage cheese, yogurt (particularly Greek yogurt), and milk are all high in protein and low in fat.

Beans, light tofu, and powdered peanut butter are all high in protein.

Look around your kitchen – you probably already have some lean proteins.

References:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/lean-protein-foods
  2. https://www.eatthis.com/worst-proteins/
  3. https://www.eatingwell.com/article/2052965/the-best-and-worst-protein-sources-to-eat-for-your-health-according-to-dietitians/
  4. https://www.forkly.com/food/26-best-and-worst-sources-of-protein/
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