Posted on 05 July 2024

​Protein is an essential part of your diet: playing a vital role in building and repairing muscle and other bodily tissues, keeping your immune system functioning properly, and serving as a crucial building block for enzymes and hormones. However, not all protein sources are created equally, and understanding the differences could help you be more mindful about what you’re eating and make more informed dietary choices that support your health and wellbeing.

Often, people opt for products with the highest protein content – especially if the goal is to build up muscle – and what is packed with more protein than all those protein powders, bars and shakes you see advertised everywhere? However, other than astonishing amounts of protein (and often sugar), these kinds of foods tend to lack other key nutrients that your body needs to function optimally either 1) altogether, 2) in any significant amount, or 3) in a form that is easily absorbed into your body. Too much protein over a long period of time can cause symptoms like stomach issues, dehydration, headaches and kidney damage, while not taking in enough vitamins, minerals, fibre or even variety of protein can put you at risk of a deficiency and its associated effects – from the minor, such as bloating, constipation, muscle ache and fatigue, to the major, like hair loss, infertility, poor immune response, bleeding and bone issues, mood changes, increased risk of heart disease, and more.

But enough of the horror stories! There is no need to worry, as the solution is simple: by focusing on a balanced diet and making sure gym-bro protein products aren’t the only food you’re eating for months on end, you can meet your muscle gain / weight management / healthy lifestyle goals without compromising your health in the long-term.

To give you some ideas of some easy changes you could make to your meals, here are a few good sources of protein you can add into your diet or exchange for less recommended sources:

  • Lean meats - lean meats, such as poultry and lean cuts of beef and pork, are excellent sources of high-quality protein and have an added benefit of providing essential amino acids necessary for muscle repair and growth. Additionally, lean meats are low in saturated fat, making them a cardiovascular friendly choice when consumed in moderation. For instance, a 3-ounce serving of chicken breast offers about 26 grams of protein with minimal fat content. This is the group of protein sources that often have the highest amount of protein per mass.

  • Fish and seafood - fish, especially fatty varieties like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, are not only rich in protein but also in omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for heart health. A regular serving of salmon, for example, provides approximately 22 grams of protein along with significant amounts of omega-3s, which have anti-inflammatory properties and support brain function. Shellfish like shrimp and scallops also provide lean protein and essential nutrients such as zinc and iodine.

  • Eggs - eggs are one of the most complete protein sources available, containing all nine essential amino acids. A single large egg provides about 6 grams of protein. In addition to their protein content, eggs are also rich in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, vitamin B2, and selenium. Eggs can be incorporated into various dishes, making them a versatile protein option. Eggs have been the friend of boxers and athletes alike for decades as being an easy option in an omelette to get high protein in to their diets.

  • Dairy products - dairy products like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk are not only good sources of protein but also provide calcium and vitamin D, which are important for bone health. Greek yogurt, for example, contains around 10 grams of protein per 100 grams. Dairy is often the base of many protein powders like whey and casein.

  • Legumes and beans - for those following a plant-based diet, legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and black beans are excellent sources of protein to supplement with other sources, but require a large amount to reach a good level. A small serving of lentils offers about 18 grams of protein along with fibre, which aids in digestion and promotes satiety. These protein-packed plant foods are also low in fat and rich in essential nutrients like iron and potassium.

  • Nuts and seeds - Nuts and seeds, including almonds, chia seeds, and flaxseeds, provide a good amount of protein along with healthy fats, fibre, and essential vitamins and minerals. For example, a 1-ounce serving of almonds contains about 6 grams of protein. Incorporating a variety of nuts and seeds into your diet can help ensure a balanced intake of nutrients, although they will likely not be enough on their own.

Other foods can be high in protein too but are considered less healthy because of other factors like high levels of salt and saturated fat, which have been associated with higher risks of certain diseases in later life (such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease). However, once in while is fine – again, risk is only significantly increased with a consistently high intake over a long period of time, and as they often 1) have a high amount of protein per weight and 2) taste great, they can still be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. Here are some examples that we should think about eating in moderatProcessed meats - processed meats, such as bacon, sausages, and deli meats, are often high in salt, saturated fats, and preservatives, which can increase the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and gastrointestinal cancers. While they do contain protein, the negative health impacts of consuming these meats outweigh their benefits. Specific items, like salami, are a great source of protein but have nitrites in them that are known to be carcinogenic with prolonged exposure.

  • Fried protein foods - foods like fried chicken, fish sticks, and deep-fried tofu are poor protein sources because the frying process adds unhealthy trans fats and a significant number of calories. These fats can lead to increased cholesterol levels and a higher risk of heart disease. Opting for grilled or baked versions of these foods is a healthier choice.

  • Sugary protein bars and shakes - many commercial protein bars and shakes contain added sugars and artificial ingredients, which can contribute to weight gain and other health issues. While they may provide a very quick protein boost, health experts say the high sugar content can negate the benefits.

  • Low-quality plant-based proteins - some plant-based protein products, like certain veggie burgers and meat substitutes, can be low in protein and high in fillers, salt, and unhealthy fats. It's important to read the ingredient list and nutritional information to ensure you're getting a product that offers a substantial amount of protein without unnecessary additives. Again, a large amount of these is required to reach the threshold to be adequate protein.

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