You know that protein is an essential part of a healthy diet. You’re determined to fuel your body with the best sources of protein. But do you know which proteins should be at the top of your to-eat list? Comparing protein sources is trickier than it looks, as there are so many different factors to consider: the ratio of protein to calories, the quality of the protein, the availability of that protein to the body, etc. Plus, you may wish to explore the amount of fat, fiber, salt, and nutrients present with or in addition to the protein source. To decide which options should have a regular presence in your diet, use the information below to begin comparing protein sources.
Comparing Protein Sources
First, it’s important to note that some foods are more likely to cause allergic reactions than others. As identified by law, the eight most common food allergens (which account for 90 percent of food-related allergic reactions) are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans (source). Thus, all of the proteins listed below except chicken, beef, and non-peanut legumes can cause allergic reactions in affected people. If you suffer from any food allergies, keep this in mind as we begin comparing protein sources.
Legumes are a class of vegetables that includes beans, nuts, peas, and lentils. They are generally low in fat and cholesterol and good sources of fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, and folate (source). They’re also a good way to get phytochemicals, compounds that may help fend off health issues like cancer and cardiovascular disease (source).
However, as a source of protein, legumes have a major downside. They are incomplete proteins, which means that they lack one or more of the essential amino acids that the body needs (source). They also aren’t a particularly efficient source of protein. When proteins are ranked by their biological value (BV)*, a number that represents how well a protein food is absorbed in the body, legumes tend to be found at the bottom of the list. For example, beans have a relatively low biological value of just 49 (source). Protein’s contribution to their composition is also relatively low. For instance, just 27 percent of the calories in lentils come from protein (source). This means you may need to eat 2 to 3 times as many as animal protein to get an equal amount of essential amino acids.
*Biological value is one of several measurements of protein quality and indicates how well a protein’s amino acids are absorbed and assimilated by the body.
Soy is actually a legume, but while we’re comparing protein sources, we’re going to look at it separately because it’s also one of the few plant proteins that is actually a complete protein, offering all of the essential amino acids (source). It’s believed that consuming soy can help lower your cholesterol due to the phytosterols it contains, which are natural and produce a similar effect to statin drugs. In addition, the isoflavones found in soy can act as antioxidants, potentially reducing the risk of certain cancers (source). Soy is also a more efficient source of protein than other legumes, which is reflected in its higher biological value: 74. However, just 33 percent of the calories in soybeans come from protein, and there is some concern that soy’s isoflavones might cause issues in sensitive individuals since they can mimic estrogen (source). In side-by-side feeding tests, soybean protein is about 70 percent as efficient for growth as animal protein.
Milk is a rich source of many nutrients, including protein; its biological value is 91 (source). In fact, two of the proteins in milk, whey and casein, are often isolated and used to make protein powders for people who want a convenient way to add extra protein to their diet. Unfortunately, many people cannot tolerate dairy products because of another component found in them: a natural sugar called lactose. It’s also worth noting that just 21 percent of whole milk’s calories can be attributed to protein. Fat can be a major problem with milk and other dairy products. Why is fat in milk a problem? It is high in saturated fat and also a source of cholesterol. There are also concerns that hormones used during milk’s production process might negatively impact human health (source).
Whole eggs are an amazingly efficient source of protein with a perfect biological value of 100. Amazingly nutritious, they are full of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, antioxidants, and other valuable nutrients. While they’re nutritionally rich, just 35 percent of the calories in a whole egg are from protein. Eggs are also rather high in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol, so experts generally recommend limiting how many of them you eat, especially if you suffer from diabetes, heart disease, or high cholesterol (source).
When you talk about protein, steak is often the first thing that comes to people’s minds. Beef is stuffed with highly bioavailable iron, zinc, vitamin B12, a multitude of other nutrients, and a hefty serving of protein that the body can readily use, as its biological value of 80 reflects. In fact, more than half of the calories in a serving of lean beef come from protein. However, red meats are also known for containing saturated fats, which can increase blood cholesterol levels and adversely affect lipid profiles (source).
Choosing lean cuts with minimal marbling can help, but it is always something to be mindful of, especially since there is a leaner option available that can deliver more protein ounce for ounce. While a 3-ounce serving of steak has 158 calories and 26 grams of protein, a 3-ounce serving of skinless chicken has 141 calories and 28 grams of protein (source). Currently, the USDA recommends that males over the age of 14 consume approximately 26-34 ounces of protein per week (dependent on age), and females over the age of 14 consume approximately 24-31 ounces of protein per week (also dependent on age).
Fish is another option to consider when comparing protein sources. With a biological value of 83, fish tends to be high in protein and hearty-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also low in saturated fat and cholesterol. The exact protein content varies depending on the type of fish. Protein is responsible for 93 percent of the calories found in tuna canned in water (source), and it provides 62 percent of the calories in salmon (source). While it’s always a good idea to be aware of where your food comes from, it’s vital with fish and sushi. Mishandling fish can make it unfit for consumption, so you should always purchase fish from a reputable source. Issues such as the potential for mercury contamination should also be weighed when selecting which types of fish to consume and how often to eat them.
Quite a few people consider chicken the perfect protein, and it’s hard to argue with their reasoning. A top choice for both people trying to lose weight and competitive athletes, chicken is a tasty lean meat that packs a protein-filled nutritional punch without a lot of undesirables like fat or sodium. It’s a very efficient source of protein with a biological value of 79, which means the bulk of the protein in chicken is readily available for the body’s use. Nearly 90 percent of calories in a skinless chicken breast can be attributed to protein, so consuming chicken is an excellent way to provide your body with plenty of protein without taking in a lot of extraneous calories (source). In addition, it’s affordable and easy to prepare. Is convenience a major factor in your protein choices? It’s hard to beat the convenience of protein powders, and using a chicken protein powder is a fantastic to way to increase your protein intake.
When comparing protein sources, it’s important to take some time to consider the quality of the protein and its bioavailability. It’s also important to think about both the positives that a particular protein offers (like vital amino acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients) and the less desirable elements (like fat and cholesterol). The best sources of protein will provide more of the things that you want and less of those that you don’t.
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