What are the best sources of protein? The short answer is … it depends.
We know, we know! It might be easier if there was a plain-and-simple answer, but there isn’t.
Here’s why: What’s best for you really depends on your own nutritional needs and health goals. A list of the best sources of protein may differ from one person to another.
Here’s what we mean:
- An omnivore trying to manage their weight might look to lean animal protein sources like fish.
- A family eating on a budget would find legumes and lean red meat to be affordable options.
- Someone looking to gain muscle may consider adding protein powder to their diet.
- A vegetarian can find protein in low-fat dairy products and eggs, but a vegan would stick to plant-based protein sources.
As you can see, what works for one person might not be suitable for someone else.
Lucky for all of us, we have a wide variety of tasty, protein-rich foods to choose from. Your go-to sources of protein and your daily protein intake should be catered to your own nutritional needs.
What’s so Special About Protein?
Derived from the Greek word prōtos, meaning “first,” protein sits right at the top of the list of essential nutrients. Alongside carbohydrates and fats, it’s one of the three macronutrients our bodies need to function at 100%.
If you think back to biology class, you’ll remember that protein molecules are made up of amino acids. These are known as the “building blocks” of the body. We can’t produce them all ourselves, so it’s crucial to get them through our diets.
Our bodies rely on 21 amino acids and at least 10,000 different proteins to get a variety of jobs done. Protein molecules — and the amino acids they leave behind — are found in our blood, muscles, hair, connective tissue, enzymes, antibodies, and bones.
Since the neurotransmitters that make connections in our brains are made up of amino acids, protein plays an important role in cognitive processing and productivity, too.
It also keeps us full and energized. When included in a balanced meal, protein helps regulate our blood glucose levels so we don’t crash right after eating. Plus, when we’re satiated, we don’t feel the urge to overeat. This is why protein is so important for those trying to manage their weight.
It’s also a favorite of fitness gurus since it helps our muscles grow. When we work out and push our muscles to their limits, our muscle fibers actually experience microtears. (That’s why our muscles ache after an intense workout session.) But protein comes in to repair these tissues and eventually leads to increased muscle mass.
Getting Protein in Your Diet
Whether you’re looking for top-notch brain food or fuel for your bodybuilding regime, you know you need protein to come to the rescue! But where does it actually come from?
Protein can be found in two types of sources: plant products and animal products.
Animal-based proteins are known as complete proteins since they include all nine essential amino acids, plus others. Plant-based proteins are lacking one or more essential amino acids — but anyone on a plant-based diet need not worry.
The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises varying your protein routine and focusing on quality before quantity. This is a great way to get all the essential amino acids as well as important vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and good carbs. It helps make meals more interesting and flavorful, too!
Higher-quality protein sources give your body a lot more of what it needs. Real, unprocessed foods deliver whole food protein in an all-in-one package of micro- and macronutrients. Mechanically and chemically processed foods may be stripped of vital nutrients; you might be getting protein, but little else.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Once again, this really depends on your own dietary needs and goals; there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. But, you can start by referencing the recommended daily amount (RDA) for your age, weight, gender, and activity level.
Here’s what the National Academies of Medicine suggests for daily protein intake:
- Infants: 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
- Toddlers: 1.1 grams per kilogram
- Children: 0.95 grams per kilogram
- Teens: 0.85 grams per kilogram
- Adults: 0.8 grams per kilogram
- Pregnant and lactating women: 1.1 grams per kilogram
So, for an average adult, this would be about seven grams of protein for every 20 pounds. A 130-pound adult, then, would need just over 45 grams; a 200-pound adult would need 70 grams, and so on. This equates to about one 5-6 oz. portion per day, although folks with more active lifestyles or higher calorie limits may need more.
Most Americans actually get enough protein in their diets without thinking too much about it. But the USDA notes that consuming a wider variety of leaner protein sources should be our primary focus.
While you might think eating a lot of protein will help you build muscle or slim down more quickly, a more-is-more mentality isn’t necessarily accurate. If your body gets more protein than it needs, it will store the extra as fat.
These are some of the best sources of protein in that they’re protein-dense. Plus, they’re real, well-rounded foods that are great sources of other macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, too.
If you eat eggs for breakfast, you’ll feel full until it’s time for lunch. One large egg contains roughly six grams of complete protein — 12% the RDA based on a 2,000-calorie diet. They also provide healthy fats and Vitamins A, D, and B-6. Just keep an eye on your cholesterol levels as one egg delivers nearly two-thirds of the RDA.
Milk, yogurt, sliced cheese, and other dairy products are all good sources of complete protein and calcium. Four ounces of cottage cheese will get you one-quarter of the way to your protein RDA. Stick with the low-fat or skimmed versions; avoid products with growth hormones and antibiotics.
Lentils, black beans, peas, chickpeas, you name it — all of these legumes are protein-rich. One cup of chickpeas contains about 15 grams of protein! You can also try soy products like edamame, tempeh, and tofu or opt for organic, non-GMO pea protein as an alternative to dairy and soy.
Nuts and Seeds
Tree nuts and peanuts (which are technically legumes) are loaded with about 6 to 7 grams per ounce. They also deliver healthy unsaturated fats and loads of flavor. This is why you’ll see organic nut butter at the top of our Perfect Bar ingredient list! You can also find protein in seeds like quinoa and chia; per 100-gram serving, these deliver 14 and 17 grams, respectively.
Containing omega-3 fatty acids and a variety of vitamins and minerals, fish is a nutritious and lean source of complete protein. There are 24 grams of protein in 100 grams of shrimp, and 20 grams in the same quantity of salmon. Tilapia, cod, canned tuna, and sardines are other protein-rich options to try.
Soy Milk or Pea Protein Milk
If dairy isn’t a part of your diet, opt for enriched plant milk instead. There are eight grams of protein in an 8 oz. glass of soy milk or pea protein milk. But, oddly enough, almond milk and cashew milk don’t contain as much protein as their crunchy whole-nut counterparts.
Whole-Food Protein Bars and Shakes
Super convenient and often super delicious, protein bars and shakes can be great for on-the-go. For the average adult, a protein bar delivering about 10 to 15 grams of protein can make a great snack.
When you’re looking at protein bars and shakes, be wary of high sugar and sodium levels. To get the most bang for your bite, check the ingredients list to confirm that the sources of protein are whole foods. Whey protein is a highly processed dairy milk derivative and weird words like “protein isolate” signify processing, too.
In each Perfect Bar, you’ll only find at least 10 grams of whole-food protein derived from creamy, organic nut butter and 20 superfoods.
Go ahead and vary your protein routine with delicious flavors like Mocha Chip, Coconut Peanut Butter, and Dark Chocolate Almond, or unwrap one of our Peanut Butter Cup duos for seven grams of protein wrapped in a perfect layer of smooth dark chocolate.