High-protein, low-fat foods seem to be a common trend these days, promising to help you to both fat and gain muscle.
But just because protein is in a lot of foods, doesn't always mean they are a great (or even adequate) source of it. Let’s take a look at what makes a quality protein food, and which choices can maximize your health benefits and help you smash your fitness goals.
How to Find High-Protein Foods
Protein is a macronutrient that's 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. But luckily, only those containing the nine essential amino acids are vital for us to eat.
Proteins are considered high-quality when they provide the amino acids that you 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 intake is from meat, fish, and animal-based products like milk, eggs, and dairy, protein can also be found in plants and grains.
Determining the Best Quality Proteins for You
Protein is essential for our bodies. Being thoughtful about which proteins you choose to include in your meal plan 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 automatically mean that it's good for you. And just because a food label is advertising “a good source of protein” doesn’t necessarily mean that 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). (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 the item is worth eating. So when it comes to finding the best proteins on the market you’ll want to consider the following:
- Your total calorie needs
- Protein density
- Overall nutrition
Here’s your go-to guide for finding the most balanced options.
Know Your Total Calorie Goals
Eating more protein is thought to support fat loss, muscle gain, and improved health in 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.
Take your total calorie needs and divide that number by the typical number of meals you have each day. If you need 2,000 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. Use this amount to judge whether 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 look at your nutrition labels. Multiply the grams of protein by four and then divide by total calories to calculate the percent of protein density.
Without a doubt, animal protein sources (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 provide only 17%, and high-carb options like quinoa provide 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. You should also be considering the essential nutrients that 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, while plant-based protein can include fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and 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:
- 12 pure protein foods
- 12 lean proteins
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 to greater nutritional 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 nutritional needs is an efficient way to get better balance overall. This is especially true forvegans and plant-based eaters who rely on plant-based proteins that tend to also be a source of fat or carbohydrates.
Here are 26 additional good protein sources to consider:
- 8 proteins that are high in healthy fats
- 10 high-carb proteins
- 8 protein supplements
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 with 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 (9 calories per gram) 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 provides 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 12 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, you can get more calories in a smaller portion size. This is why a littlehealthy 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 that 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, which 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.
Quality proteins that are higher in fat and lower in carbs include nuts, seeds, nut butters, fatty fish, full-fat dairy, and somemeat alternatives.
High-fat proteins work especially great for keto dieters or those looking to gain muscle.
Here are eight options to try:
- Chia Seeds
- Beyond Meat
- Whole Eggs
While many nuts and seeds may seem like they have a higher carbohydrate content at first glance, their net carbs are actually low when you consider their high-fiber content.
10 High-Carb Proteins
Proteins that provide a source of carbohydrates include mostplant-based protein sourcesand some dairy, like milk.
The best of these options are also rich in fiber, reducing total net carb counts and providing potential health advantages, such as supporting heart health and proper digestion.
These choices tend to work great for pre- and post-workout nutrition, as they provide a good balance of fuel and muscle support.
Here are 10 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. If you're using protein powder for muscle-building purposes after a workout, research suggests that 20 grams or more of just about any complete protein is sufficient.
Whey, soy, and casein are often all popular choices.Casein, unlike whey, is a long-acting protein, meaning that it is absorbed more slowly over time. Some research suggests that casein may be effective in promoting muscle growth when taken before bed.
But these should be utilized as supplements, not as a replacement for a healthy meal plan. 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
This article was originally published on TrifectaNutrition.com.