Choosing Healthy Protein Sources


Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Making healthy protein choices is more about the fats that accompany the proteins and the preparation methods than it is about the actual proteins themselves. Look for protein sources that are lower in saturated fats, a little higher in mono and unsaturated fats, and prepared in healthy ways.

A fish fillet baked with lemon and almonds is an example of a healthy protein choice. Roasting a chicken breast and topping it with salsa would also be another healthy example. A porterhouse steak is full of protein and tastes delicious. Finally, you have plant-based proteins such as tofu, soybeans, legumes, and beans.

Processed meats, like lunch meats, are sources of protein too, but have higher associations with cancer and heart disease. If you decide to eat these foods, do so on rare occasions.

Of course, fish and chicken may not always be healthy. Consume fried fish sticks or breaded and fried chicken infrequently, because of the extra calories. 

Meats may be cooked on a grill. This method of cooking can be healthy as long as you take care not to char the meat. Use indirect heat and choose cuts of meat lower in fat to prevent charring.

Other healthy protein sources include legumes, nuts, and seeds. Vegetables and grains also contain some protein. These plant sources contain polyunsaturated fats, some of which are beneficial to your health.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

In a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, about 200 to 600 calories should come from protein. One gram of protein has four calories, so that means you would need 50 to 150 grams of protein each day. One ounce of cooked protein from meat is about 7 grams, so you need about 8 ounces of protein each day. One cup of diced chicken breast meat has about 38 grams of protein. Three ounces of canned tuna has 24 grams of protein.

To turn this into the right number of portions: One 3-ounce serving of protein is usually about the size of a deck of cards. One cup of low-fat milk has about 8 grams of protein. Twenty-three almonds have about 6 grams of protein.

Vegetarians and Incomplete Proteins

Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, and incomplete proteins have low amounts of one or more of the individual essential amino acids. Proteins from animal origin contain all of the essential amino acids, but proteins from plants have some that are not abundant. This means that a diet based on plant protein requires the right combinations of protein sources to get enough of all of the essential amino acids.

People who regularly eat meat, dairy and eggs don't need to be concerned with combining proteins since meat, eggs, fish, poultry and dairy products all contain complete proteins. Vegetarians and vegans may choose complementary proteins to get all the essential amino acids.

For example, grains are very low in the essential amino acid lysine, but legumes contain large amounts of lysine, so grains and legumes are considered complementary. When you eat both grains and legumes during the day, you will consume the lysine you need.

Complementary Plant Proteins

These plant proteins don't need to be combined at every meal as long as you get enough of the various proteins each day:

  • Grains plus legumes. Try black beans and rice.
  • Nuts and seeds plus legumes. Lentil soup with a serving of almonds on the side.
  • Corn plus legumes. Try pinto beans in a corn tortilla.

There are lots of possible combinations.

  • Try whole grain pasta tossed with peas, almonds, and Low-Fat Vegan Alfredo Sauce.
  • Whole wheat toast with peanut butter will give you a complete protein.
  • Bean soup with whole grain crackers.
  • Corn tortillas with refried beans and rice.

A vegetarian or vegan diet that includes legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds will supply all of the essential amino acids. Soy protein is a complete protein, and eating soy will provide you with all of the essential amino acids.

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