Higher protein intake seems to be a common thread in trend diets these days - promising to help you to both lose weight and gain muscle. But just because protein is in a lot of foods, doesn't always mean they are a great source of it.
Let’s take a look at what makes a quality protein food and which choices can maximize your health benefits and best help you meet your fitness goals.
What Foods Contain Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient made up of varying combinations of amino acids and can be found in nearly all types of food.
There are actually hundreds of thousands of different types of protein, which are made up of amino acids. Luckily only those containing the 9 essential amino acids are vital for us to eat!
Proteins are considered high quality when they provide us with the amino acids each of us need to function every day.
When a food item contains all of the essential amino acids we need, it’s called a complete protein. Complete proteins are found in meat or animal products like eggs and dairy.
When two different foods combined meet all of our essential amino acid needs, they’re called complementary proteins.
While the most common source of protein in the diet is from meat, fish, and animal based products like milk, eggs, and dairy, protein can also be found in plants and grains.
How to Find the Best Quality Proteins for You
Protein is essential for our bodies. Being thoughtful about which proteins you choose to include in your diet can help you optimize your health and fitness goals.
With an endless array of food companies advertising the impressive protein content and health benefits of their products to appeal to consumers, learning who can be trusted and which products are actually worth your dollars can feel like a challenge.
Just because something contains protein does not mean it's good for you. And just because a food label is advertising “a good source of protein” doesn’t necessarily mean it is.
Legally, any food that contains at least 10 grams of protein per serving can be labeled as an excellent source (per FDA guidelines). And a good source would contain 5 grams or more.
But this advertising law does not consider the other nutrients or total calories of the food, which give you a much more well rounded picture of whether or not this item is worth its salt.
So when it comes to finding the best proteins on the market you’ll want to consider the following:
Here’s your go-to guide for finding the most balanced options.
Know Your Total Calorie Goals
Eating more protein is thought to support weight loss, muscle gain, and improved health a number of different ways, but if you aren’t eating the right amount of calories protein intake isn’t going to make much difference.
In other words, the first step in evaluating your food choices is calorie content. Learn how many calories you need to eat each day and then find foods that help you hit that goal consistently.
The easiest way to determine if a meal or snack is the right calorie fit is to plan out your day in advance. This is much easier than it sounds.
Take your total calorie needs and divide by the typical number of meals you have each day. If you need 2000 calories and eat three times a day, you’d need roughly ~600 calories per meal with 200 calories to spare. Then use any remaining calories to account for snacks and wiggle room as needed.
Then use this amount to judge whether or not that high protein food is actually benefiting your overall diet.
Calculate Protein Density
Calories have to be considered in your diet plan, so it’s worth paying attention to how many grams of protein per calorie you are actually getting from your choices. You can figure this out by calculating the protein density.
Each macro provides a different amount of calories per gram and foods that contain more of their calories from protein compared to other macros are more protein dense.
One gram of protein provides roughly four calories.
So take a peek at your nutrition labels. Multiply the grams of protein by four and then divide by total calories to give you % protein density.
Without a doubt animal sources of protein (meat, fish, eggs, and dairy) are going to provide the most grams of protein per calorie - plants just can't compare to meat when it comes to protein density.
For comparison sake, meat, fish, and low fat dairy will get you roughly 70% or more of your calories from protein. Whereas high fat options like peanut butter provides only 17% and high carbohydrate options like quinoa provides only 14%.
Of course, this is not to say that nut butters and whole grains are bad. They just aren’t as protein dense as other foods.
When looking at the protein content of your nutrition choices you can follow the rule of tens.
For the most nutrient dense choices, look for at least 10 grams for every 100 calories.
Evaluate Overall Nutrition and Health Benefits
The type of protein you eat also matters and good nutrition is about more than hitting your daily macro goals. Meaning you should also be considering the essential nutrients the food may or may not provide, along with less desirable components like saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugar.
Each type of protein can vary widely in the nutrients and potential health benefits it provides.
Meat and poultry can contain some saturated fat, but they also provide iron, zinc, and B vitamins.
Fish and seafood contain healthy omega-3 fats, and can also increase your intake of zinc, iodine, vitamin D, and magnesium.
And lastly plant based protein can include fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and much more!
Including a variety of protein options is your best bet for getting the most well rounded nutrition.
50 Good Protein Sources to Try
Ultimately, the best protein sources provide high amounts of protein and beneficial nutrients per calorie.
This includes the following:
These options are your best bet to hit your daily protein macro goals and achieve higher protein intake regularly.
However, there are still some serious benefits to other proteins that provide a mixed macro ratio. While they may not be the most protein dense overall, they can still contribute nutrition and health benefits.
Not to mention, your overall diet is not designed to be pure protein, and finding macro balanced foods and meals that match your nutrition needs is an efficient way to get better balance overall.
This is especially true for vegans and plant based eaters who rely on plant based proteins that tend to also be a source of fat or carbohydrates.
It is a balancing act, figuring out what macro ratios work best for you.
Here are 30 additional good protein sources to consider:
12 Pure Protein Foods
Certain foods are so rich in protein content, that they come pretty close to being considered pure protein in our diet. This mainly includes white fish, shellfish, and some game meats.
The options below are packed in protein, with little to no carbohydrates or fat, making them great options to boost your protein for the day without adding extra calories or unwanted carbs.
Pure proteins include the following:
- Skinless Chicken Breast
- Red Snapper
- Egg Whites
12 Lean Proteins
Lean proteins are essentially protein options that are lower in fat. This matters because fat is calorically dense and can add a significant amount of calories to your food choices if you aren't paying attention.
When looking at animal proteins in specific, opting for lean is also a way to cut out more saturated fat from your diet, with the exception of fatty fish that provide a valuable source of omega-3 fatty acids. Increased intakes of saturated fat may contribute to increased risk factors for heart disease.
Some of the best sources of lean proteins include low fat and fat free dairy, skinless poultry, grass-fed meat, game meat, and a few low carb plant based foods.
Here are twelve lean options to reach for:
- Lean Beef
- Lean Pork
- Lamb (certain cuts)
- Fat Free/Low Fat Greek Yogurt
- Skinless Chicken Thigh
- Low Fat Cottage Cheese
- Low Fat Cheese
8 Proteins High in Healthy Fats
Even though they aren't as protein dense, or often as low in calories, nutritionally speaking, higher-fat proteins can be just as good for you as low-fat protein options. It all depends on your personal nutrition needs and dietary goals.
Because fat is more calorically dense - providing twice as many calories per gram as other macronutrients - you can get more calories in a smaller portion size. Which is why a little healthy fat, like plant based fat from nuts and seeds, can be a great addition to help add calories when trying to gain muscle.
But this also doesn't mean eating high fat foods will make you fat! Some fatty foods can be satiating - keeping your appetite in check when trying to cut calories. Fat can also slow the absorption of protein and carbs. This may be beneficial if you are looking for long-lasting energy.
Additionally, fatty proteins from fish and plant based sources are associated with heart health benefits and support good nutrition overall (1).
Quality proteins that are higher in fat and lower in carbs include nuts, seeds, nut butters, fatty fish, full fat dairy, and some meat alternatives.
High fat proteins work especially great for keto dieters or those looking to gain muscle.
Here are eight options to try:
While many nuts and seeds may seem like they have a higher carbohydrate content at first glance, their net carbs are actually low when consider their high fiber content.
10 High Carb Proteins
Proteins that also tend to provide a source of carbohydrates include most plant based protein sources and some dairy, like milk.
These choices tend to work great for pre and post nutrition as they provide a good balance of fuel and muscle support.
Here are eight options to try:
- Black Beans
- Green Peas
- Protein Pasta
- Soy Milk
8 Protein Supplements
Protein supplements and protein powders are an easy way to get an extra protein boost.
Whey, soy and casein are often all popular choices. Casein, unlike whey, is a long-acting protein – meaning it is absorbed more slowly over time. And some research suggests that casein may be effective in promoting muscle growth when taken before bed (8).
But these should be utilized as supplements instead of replacement for a healthy diet. It’s recommended to get more nutrients from foods where you can.
Whole food proteins provide more volume and might be more satiating than in liquid or powder form. In other words, you probably won't feel as full adding a 20-gram protein scoop to your drink or food, compared to a 4-ounce portion of meat or fish.
When it comes to which is best, most options come close to pure protein, with slight variations in carb and fat content.
For the purest protein powders, look for protein isolates without any added sugar or extra ingredients.
Here are the eight most popular types of animal and plant based protein powders on the market:
- Brown Rice
High Protein Meal Prep Toolkit
Emphasizing more protein dense options can help make hitting your daily protein goals easier, however, it won't solve all your nutrition needs.
Learning how to meal plan and prep your food choices is one of the best ways to take control over your diet and make sure you get plenty of protein and good nutrition regularly.
Learn exactly how to stick to your calorie and protein goals with this free meal prep toolkit for weight loss. An RD-written guide complete with macro meal planner, food lists, and expert advice to help you lose weight quickly.