High protein foods are at the center of every well balanced meal and healthy diet, or at least they should be.
There are few other nutrients that get as much focus as protein. Whether you are a parent of a growing child, a pro athlete, weekend warrior or keeping strong as you age, getting enough protein is always a hot topic. There is plenty of scientific research on the benefits of protein to warrant the attention.
Understanding why we need high protein foods and the difference between the proteins found in animal, plant and soy based foods is key to getting the nutrients you need in a well balanced diet.
Why Eat High Protein Foods?
Protein is vital for your health. Protein is important to build lean body mass and is essential for repairing damaged cells. It transports other nutrients throughout the circulatory system and serves as an energy source when carbohydrate intake is low. Muscle, bone, skin, hair and virtually every other body part or tissue uses protein.
Are All High Protein Foods the Same?
For the body to use the protein you eat, it must be broken down into individual amino acids. These amino acids are the building blocks of protein as they are absorbed into the blood and transported to different tissues where they are then made into proteins needed by the body to maintain muscles, bones, blood, and body organs.
Essentials and Non-Essential Amino Acids from Protein
In this building process, amino acids are classified as essential and non-essential. While both types of amino acids are needed, there are 9 essential amino acids that must come from the food you eat. Your body cannot make them – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Non-essential amino acids can be made as needed by your body.
When all of these essential amino acids are present in a food, it is referred to as a complete protein. Animal based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products are considered a complete protein as they contain all of the essential amino acids in one protein source that can be easily used by the body.
Examples of High Protein Foods from Animal Sources
Lean Beef – 36 grams in 100g
Cheese – 32 grams in 100g
Pork – 30 grams in 100g
Tuna/Salmon – 26 grams in 100g
Chicken – 18.3grams in 100g
Yogurt/Milk – 6 grams in 100g
Eggs – 13grams in 100g
If you do not eat animal products then you must get your protein from plant sources. Most plant-based proteins such as nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, grains, fruits and vegetables are not complete proteins as they lack one of more of the essential amino acids. A few other plant choices such as quinoa and chia are also considered complete but their total protein amount or amino acid profile is low. This means that you must consume a variety of plant protein in adequate amounts throughout the day to get all of the amino acids to make new protein.
In addition, plants also contain less concentrated protein, so you will have to increase your volume of plant-based foods to meet your protein requirements. Including a good variety of plant-based proteins is key to a healthy vegetarian diet.
Examples of High Protein Foods from Plant Sources
Quinoa – 14 grams per 100g
Beans – 8 grams per 100g
Peas – 5.4 grams per 100g
Spinach (cooked) – 3 grams per 100g
Corn – 3.3 grams per 100g
Broccoli – 2.8 grams per 100g
Brussel Sprouts – 2.6 grams per 100g
Asparagus – 2.4 grams per 100g
Soy, a popular plant based protein, is an exception. Soy is a complete protein containing all of the essential amino acids. Popular foods contain soy protein include Edamame beans, tofu, miso, soymilk, soy nuts and tempeh.
Examples of High Protein Foods from Soy Sources
Tempeh – 19 grams per 100g
Miso – 12 grams per 100g
Edamame – 11 grams per 100g
Tofu – 7 grams in 100g
Soy beans – 17 grams in 100g
Nuts/Seeds – 33g in 100g
As always, including a variety of foods in your diet ensures you are getting all nutrients you need such as iron, B vitamins, minerals, omega 3s, calcium, fiber and vitamin D. Swap out beef for tempeh one night during the week or add black beans to your next casserole and experiment with the different types of high protein food sources for maximum health benefits.