Choosing High-Quality Protein: 7 Nutrient-Rich Sources

Out of all three macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats often get the spotlight. But protein is a crucial nutrient that many people simply aren’t eating enough of.

beef salad in bowl, fork

Like other topics in the nutrition world, choosing protein foods can be confusing. Should you avoid animal proteins? Choose grass-fed only? Supplement with protein powder?

When it comes to choosing any food — but especially protein — quality should be your top priority. Sourcing (where the food came from) is one marker of quality, particularly for animal-based proteins. Another marker of quality is the amount of nutrition (like vitamins and minerals) present in the food, and for proteins, the composition of amino acids (the building blocks of protein).

Choosing high-quality sources of protein at each meal and snack will help you support your body in a number of ways. Protein is the most satiating of the three macronutrients, keeping you full longer. It helps build not only muscle tissue, but also other tissues such as skin and blood. Most of your body’s hormones are also made from protein.

Try to stick to protein from animals that are wild, grass-fed/pasture-raised and/or organic.

When it comes to animal protein foods, those that are wild, grass-fed/pasture-raised, and/or organic are going to have a better nutrient profile. Research has shown that there are significant and meaningful differences in nutrient composition between organic and non-organic meat and milk, particularly between animals who live on pasture and those who are fed grains and raised conventionally. This fact is particularly true for the fatty acid balance and antioxidants in those foods.

Plus, the healthier the animal, the healthier the food it provides to nourish our bodies. Choosing quality sources of healthfully raised animal products means limiting nasty additives like hormones and antibiotics.

The amount of amino acids a protein contains affects protein’s quality as well.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. All protein is broken down into amino acids in the body. These are then used by the body in various ways. Out of the 20 existing amino acids, nine are essential, meaning our bodies cannot make them and we must get them from the protein we eat.

Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, and these are primarily animal foods like beef, lamb, poultry and eggs, fish and seafood, bison and other wild game, yogurt and cheese. Some plant-based foods, such as quinoa and buckwheat, provide complete protein, but this quality is rare.

Incomplete proteins contain only a few essential amino acids. These substances are mostly plant-based sources like nuts, seeds, grains and vegetables. This trait doesn’t make them inferior foods — they still contains tons of nutrition — but they simply aren’t as good a source of protein as complete sources.

Nutrients in Protein Foods

It’s important to know that some protein sources do more than help us meet our needs for this specific macronutrient. The seven below foods provide tons of vitamins and minerals, in addition to protein..

1. Grass-fed beef: four ounces of cooked grass-fed strip steak contains 26 g of protein, along with 1.44 mcg vitamin B12 (60% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)), 1.1 mg omega 3 fatty acids, 7.6 mg vitamin B3 (niacin) (54% of the RDA), 240.4 mg phosphorus, 85 IU vitamin A, and 10.21 mg calcium.

2. Pasture-raised eggs: one pasture-raised egg provides just over 6 g of protein, but with 146.9 mg choline (at least 35% of AI (Adequate Intake)), 27 mcg iodine, 43.5 IU vitamin D, and 8 mcg vitamin B7 (biotin).

basket of white and brown eggs

3. Grass-fed liver: 100 g of cooked beef liver gives us 27 g of protein along with 26,091 IU vitamin A (over 10 times the RDA!), 3.4 mg vitamin B2 (riboflavin), 260 mcg vitamin B9 (folate), 83.1 mcg vitamin B12 (over 30 times the RDA), 418 mg choline (at least 76% of the AI), 14.6 mg copper, and 32.8 mcg selenium.

pieces of cooked liver with scallions

Note: Because liver is the organ that filters toxins, it’s imperative to prioritize quality sourcing.

4. Wild salmon: 100 g of cooked wild Atlantic salmon yields 25.4 g of protein with 2,586 mg omega 3 fatty acids (almost double the AI), 628 mg potassium, 256 mg phosphorus, 44 IU vitamin A, 37 mg magnesium, and 29 mcg vitamin B9 (folate).

raw salmon, lemon slices, knife, garlic, sauce on cutting board

5. Wild sardines: 100 g of cooked wild sardines provides 21 g of protein with 200 mg calcium, 100 IU vitamin A, 1.8 mg iron, and 1,480 mg omega 3 fatty acids.

bucket full of sardines

6. Chia seeds: This sneaky protein source provides 15.6 g in 100 ounces, along with 17,552 mg omega 3 fatty acids (over 10x the AI), 631 mg calcium (over half the RDA), 948 mg phosphorus, and 160 mg potassium.

jar with chia seeds and fruit

7. Buckwheat: Move over quinoa, there’s a new grain in town! 100 g of buckwheat provides 13.2 g of protein, as well as 231 mg magnesium, 78 mg omega 3 fatty acids, 460 mg potassium, and 30 mcg vitamin B9 (folate).

buckwheat pancake with blueberries and butter

Whether you eat meat or go with a vegan or vegetarian diet, there are plenty of ways to get lots of protein and nutrients every day. As long as the source is high-quality, you should be able to eat healthily and sustainably.

Bio: Kim Perez is a Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who practices an integrative approach to nutrition and wellness. She works as a nutritionist for Kettlebell Kitchen, a healthy meal delivery service. She is passionate about the health-promoting benefits of an individualized, whole foods-based diet. Kim specializes in women’s health, hormones, digestion, and stress. For more nutrition and wellness advice from Kim, check out Kettlebell Kitchen’s blog, The Leaderboard.

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