Protein-Rich Foods: Health Benefits and Best Sources

By , Category : Diet Food and Nutrition

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protein-rich foodsEvery health expert has an opinion on food these days. Some will talk about the benefits of low-carb diets. Others promote a particular diet like vegetarian, vegan, or Paleo. But they all seem to agree that protein-rich foods should be an important part of every diet.

The body absolutely needs protein. The health benefits of protein allow us to control blood sugar, keep metabolism running, and build critical muscle mass. Protein is also necessary for digestion, neurological function, hormonal balance, preventing weight gain, and supporting an upbeat mood.

Why is Protein Important?

What is protein exactly? It was the first substance recognized as a vital living tissue. The word protein comes from the Greek word proteos, which means “taking first place” or “primary.” This indicates the importance of protein in the function of the body. In fact, protein accounts for around 17% of our body weight, and is a necessary component of enzymes, body tissues, and immune cells.

Proteins are considered long-chain amino acids that can be found in various foods like vegetables, seeds, and legumes. However, the highest sources of protein come from animal, including eggs, fish, dairy, and meat. Amino acids are separate chemical compounds stored in various foods, but in the body, peptide bonds hold them together.

Without enough diverse protein in the diet, amino acid deficiencies may result. Some of the most common symptoms of eating too little protein include:

  • Trouble losing or maintaining weight
  • Problems building muscle mass
  • Mood swings and moodiness
  • Poor concentration and memory problems
  • Trouble building muscle mass
  • Low immunity
  • Fatigue and low energy levels
  • Unstable blood sugar that can lead to diabetes
  • Slow wounds healing
  • Joint, bone, and muscle pain

What Makes Some Protein-Rich Foods Better Than Others?

Although the body makes certain amino acids, others must be obtained from protein-rich foods in the diet. There are 20 amino acids, and nine are essential because we cannot make them in the body. Some others are non-essential amino acids because they are created through synthesizing other amino acids.

That is why it is important to consume various protein-rich foods: to make sure you aren’t lacking certain amino acids. Even non-essential amino acids are beneficial to obtain from food because this process is less work for the body.

Although protein deficiency is rare, many people eat the same high-protein foods daily. This makes it difficult to obtain all essential and non-essential amino acids on a regular basis.

While eating lots of protein is important, consuming a variety of protein-rich foods is even better. This is where vegetarian and vegan diets are at risk of missing certain amino acids. This is because certain animal foods are considered “complete proteins,” and will contain all essential amino acids that plant-based foods do not. Although combing different plant foods to obtain all the essential amino acids, many believe that animal foods provide higher amounts of amino acids. As a result, animals are thought to be a more complete protein source.

5 Health Benefits of Protein

The health benefits of protein cannot be understated. For example, certain amino acids from protein-rich foods are necessary for naturally balancing hormones and controlling mood. Proteins are needed for neurotransmitter function, while synthesizing serotonin and dopamine to help keep us positive. As a result, people that lack certain amino acids often experience depression, anxiety, or moodiness.

Protein foods also contain the powerful glutathione, which helps the body maintain a balanced state of homeostasis. Glutathione deficiency also contributes to oxidative stress, which can lead to age-related diseases like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and liver disease.

High-protein diets may also help lower high blood pressure and heart disease overall. This is likely because protein diets could help control blood sugar, and prevent other heart disease-related risk factors like diabetes and obesity. The following is a more detailed description for five benefits of getting protein-rich foods in the diet.

1. Improves Muscle Mass

Eating enough protein is absolutely necessary for building muscle mass, especially for the elderly and young adults. Protein also supports ligaments, tendons, and other body tissue. Muscle wasting will take place when the diet is low in amino acids. This is where muscle fibers break down to support the energy needs of the body. Consuming protein after a workout is also important because strength training damages muscle tissue for the purpose of repairing and growing stronger. Extra protein is needed for this repair process. A study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness in 2008 showed that branched-chain amino acid supplements promote muscle synthesis, increases muscle recovery, and treats muscle aches after a sports-related activity.

2. Stabilizes Blood Sugar

The hormone insulin is needed for protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism. However, carbs will require more insulin than protein or fat. As a result, high-carb and high-sugar foods will produce blood sugar fluctuations, whereas protein will help balance blood sugar. Protein consumption has a small blood sugar effect, and this can slow down sugar absorption during a meal. This is important for preventing type 2 diabetes, improving energy levels, and stabilizing your mood and appetite.

3. Maintains Strong Bones

A high-protein diet from whole nutrient-rich foods may help prevent bone fractures, weakness, and osteoporosis, and heal broken bones. It reportedly does this through improving bone metabolism and increasing calcium absorption. A study published in the journal Current Opinion in Lipidology in 2011 found a positive link between better bone health and consumption of more protein foods. Other studies show that the greatest bone loss occurs in the elderly with a protein intake as low as 16 grams daily.

4. Promotes Learning and Brain Function

Protein makes hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes necessary for cognitive function. Eating a high-protein breakfast can help set the tone for your day. Eggs or a protein smoothie are great ways to begin your day. Amino acids help with energy, focus, and concentration. When the body is deprived of amino acids, coordination and learning suffer. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that once amino acids are reintroduced into the diet, motor skills and learning improve.

5. Helps Manage Weight

There is a lot of research indicating that protein prevents overeating by making you feel full. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008 suggests that a moderately high protein diet can be a practical weight-loss strategy. Another study published in the journal Obesity in 2011 found that protein-rich foods can increase satiety, therefore preventing snacking and overeating. You are less likely to overeat healthy protein foods than you are carbohydrates.

Recommended Daily Intake of Protein

How much protein does the body require? Protein requirements are based on gender, body weight, age, and activity level. For instance, athletes need more protein for performance and energy. Also, people with certain health conditions require more protein-rich foods, including those trying to lose weight, people with metabolic and blood sugar problems, and people under lots of stress. The elderly and chronically ill also need more protein to prevent muscle wasting.

That being said, according to the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, the following is the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein on a daily basis:

  • Infants and babies 0 to 6 months: 9.1g
  • Infants and babies 6 to 12 months: 13.5g
  • Children 1 to 3 years: 13g
  • Children 4 to 8 years: 19g
  • Children 9 to 13 years: 34g
  • Men 14 to 18 years: 52g
  • Men 19+ years: 56g
  • Women 14+ years: 46g
  • Pregnant and lactating women: 71g

Best Sources of Protein/Complete Protein

Some of the best complete protein foods include free-range eggs, wild-caught fish, raw organic dairy, and grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef in particular contains saturated fats and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and better nutrition than conventionally raised beef. Other good choices include lamb, bison, and venison. Wild-caught fish is also a complete amino acid food, while additionally it features heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

What is a high-quality protein food? This is where buying animal proteins that are organic, grass-fed, free-range, and antibiotic-, hormone-, and chemical-free is very important. Raw unpasteurized dairy and wild-caught fish also fit into the realm of high-quality protein. Better quality animals are also fed a more nutrient-dense diet, so they are usually healthier than conventionally raised animals. High-quality proteins also contain fewer heavy metals and pollutants.

The following is a protein food chart that can help you identify excellent quality, protein-rich foods.

Food Serving Size Amount (g) Daily Value %
Venison 4 oz. 34.3 68.5%
Tuna 4 oz. 34.0 68.0%
Turkey 4 oz. 32.6 65.1%
Lamb 4 oz. 30.2 60.3%
Salmon 4 oz. 29.1 58.3%
Soybeans 1 cup 28.6 57.2%
Cod 4 oz. 26.0 52.1%
Calf’s liver 4 oz. 24.5 49.1%
Grass-fed beef 3 oz. 19.0 46.0%
Sardines 4 oz. 22.7 45.3%
Bone broth protein powder 1/4 cup 20 N/A
Organic chicken 1 breast 16.0 38.0%
Lentils 1 cup 17.9 35.7%
Tofu 4 oz. 9.2 18.3%
Natto 1/2 cup 15 N/A
Raw milk 1 cup 8 16.0%
Yogurt or kefir 6 oz. 6-9 16.0%
Free-range eggs 1 large 7 14.0%
Raw goat cheese 1 oz. 7 14.0%
Spinach 1 cup 5.4 10.7%
Broccoli 1 cup 4.7 9.3%
Asparagus 1 cup 4.7 9.3%
Collard greens 1 cup 4.0 8.0%
Cremini mushrooms 5 oz. 3.5 7.1%
Swiss chard 1 cup 3.3 6.6%
Cauliflower 1 cup 2.3 4.6%


Can You Eat Too Much Protein?

Although not getting enough protein can be harmful, eating too much can be just as bad. Sometimes liver or kidney function can suffer when the diet contains too much protein. Very high-protein diets may lead to blood sugar changes, digestive problems like constipation, and yeast and bacteria overgrowth in the gut. Consumption of excessive protein while neglecting other nutrients can also put stress on your organs as they attempt to the body’s pH levels. This is because animal foods can be quite acidic.

In summary, protein is very important for overall health; however, the quality of protein is key. Animal sources should be grass-fed, free-range, and free of antibiotics and other chemicals. It is also best to consume protein-rich foods with lots of vegetables and healthy fats. Animal foods are best, but some quality plant sources include lentils, beans, and spinach. Whole food protein powders like brown rice or pumpkin seed protein are also great for smoothies.



Sources:
Mateljan, G., The World’s Healthiest Foods: Essential Guide for the healthiest way of eating (Seattle: George Mateljan Foundation),778-779.
“Health Benefits of Eating More Protein Foods,” Dr. Axe; https://draxe.com/protein-foods/, last accessed April 12, 2017.
Gunnars, K., “20 Delicious High-Protein Foods to Eat,” Authority Nutrition; https://authoritynutrition.com/20-delicious-high-protein-foods/, last accessed April 12, 2017.
Kresser, C., “5 Reasons You May Need More Protein – Even on a Paleo Diet,” Chris Kresser, May 23, 2014; https://chriskresser.com/5-reasons-you-may-need-more-protein-even-on-a-paleo-diet/.
Osterweil, N., “The Benefits of Protein,” WebMD; http://www.webmd.com/men/features/benefits-protein#1, last accessed April 12, 2017.
Kerstetter, J.E., et al., “Dietary protein and skeletal health: a review of recent human research,” Current Opinion Lipidology, February 2011; 22(1): 16-20, doi: 10.1097/MOL.0b0133283519441.
Luft, A.R., et al., “Motor skill learning depends on protein synthesis in motor cortex after training,” Journal of Neuroscience, July 21, 2004; 24(29): 6515-6520. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15269262.
Paddon-Jones, D., et al., “Protein, weight management, and satiety,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2008; 87(5): 1558S-1561S. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18469287.
Leidy, H.J., et al., “The effects of consuming frequent, higher protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss in overweight/obese men,” Obesity, April 2011; 19$): 818-824, doi: 10.1038/oby.2010.203.
Negro, M., et al., “Branched-chain amino acid supplementation does not enhance athletic performance but affects muscle recovery and the immune system,” The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, September 2008; 48(3): 347-351. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18974721.




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Jon Yaneff is a holistic nutritionist and health researcher with a background in journalism. After years of a hectic on-the-go, fast food-oriented lifestyle as a sports reporter, Jon knew his life needed a change. He began interviewing influential people in the health and wellness industry and incorporating beneficial health and wellness information into his own life. Jon’s passion for his health led him to the certified nutritional practitioner (CNP) program at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. He graduated with first... Read Full Bio »