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Red meat, a category that includes cow, bison, lamb, and pork (not a “white meat,” as the slogan implies), is high in iron, B vitamins, zinc, and animal protein, which speeds muscle growth and recovery. But despite its reputation as a protein superfood, red meat receives only a “good” score in our ranking, because it’s lower than other foods in the amino acid tryptophan, which helps regulate appetite. Plus, meat can also be high in hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals, so prioritize grass-fed or organic when possible, and limit consumption to three times a week.
Choose a half-pound burger made from lean, grass-fed meat for 42 grams of protein, plus less saturated fat and more omega-3s than grain-fed chuck. Top round, flank, and trimmed sirloin are also lean. Protein Power: Good*
*Rankings are Excellent, Good, and Fair, based on the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), which rates foods’ amino acid profile.
One egg packs 6 grams of protein into only 70 calories. But don’t toss out the yolk. Nearly half an egg’s protein, as well as iron, vitamin A, and phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, are in the yolk. Studies show that eating eggs doesn’t adversely affect bad LDL cholesterol levels, while eating some cholesterol is necessary for healthy testosterone production.
Choose organic, free-range eggs for fewer pesticides and more omega-3 fatty acids than eggs from caged birds. Protein power: Excellent.
All fowl is rich in protein, with as much of the nutrient as red meat – around 40 grams per six-ounce serving. Breast meat is the leanest part of a bird, with fewer calories than thigh or wing meat and only 6 grams of fat. Darker thigh meat has more iron and zinc – and, arguably, more taste – but slightly less protein and more saturated fat. To reduce your toxic load – we’re talking hormones and antibiotics – buy only organic, cage-free, or pastured poultry.
Choose skinless organic chicken breasts, which contain 54 grams of protein per six ounces, more than the same cut of turkey breast (48 g), duck breast (36 g), or chicken thigh (42 g). If you opt for thigh over breast, add another 12 grams of fat to every six-ounce serving. Protein power: Excellent.
One ounce of nuts – roughly 24 almonds or 48 shelled pistachios – delivers approximately 6 grams of protein, along with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. But because nuts are an incomplete protein, with fewer essential amino acids than all high-protein foods, including beans, they nab our lowest protein score. Also, nuts have more calories per ounce – approximately 150 – while those roasted in oil can easily surpass the 200-calorie mark.
Choose a handful of shelled walnuts (about 1/4 cup) for 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and 2,500 milligrams of alpha-linolenic acid, shown to reduce heart disease risk. Recent studies have also found that walnuts lower bad LDL cholesterol. Protein power: Fair.
Beans boast an average of 15 grams of protein per cup. Though they don’t contain all nine essential amino acids – the reason for their “good” score – beans have something that animal products don’t: fiber, with 11 grams per cup. Chickpeas have a little fat, but it’s polyunsaturated, shown to help prevent heart disease. Choose lentils, with 18 grams of protein per cup – more than any other bean. Lentils also have twice as much iron. What’s better, dried or canned? There’s no nutritional difference between them, but since canned beans can be high in sodium, rinse and drain them before use. Protein power: Good.
On-the Go Protein
Protein powder is science’s gift to overscheduled people. One scoop has 20 to 25 grams – the equivalent of a half breast of chicken. Simply blend with water or milk, or make smoothies by blending with fruit, juice, ice, or vegetables. Just avoid protein powders with artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors.
Whey is separated from milk for a high-quality, fast-burning protein that gets to muscles quickly. Look for a pure powder like Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Natural 100 Percent Whey ($40 for 80 servings ) or Trader Joe’s Whey Protein ($11 for 15 servings ), which contain nothing except whey protein. Pair with 25 grams of carbs, like a banana or a handful of whole-wheat pretzels, for recovery after weight training.
Casein is a slow-burning protein, so it takes longer to get to muscles, but it’s ideal to prevent tissue breakdown. Whey is better post-exercise, but casein can be used to increase overall protein intake or before bed to help repair muscle. We like Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Natural 100 Percent Casein ($29 for 24 servings ), which provides amino acids over a longer time period than whey. Casein and whey are combined in some products for a fast, slow-burning mix, like Dymatize Elite Gourmet Whey and Casein Blend ($35 for 27 servings ). Blend with water; drink half after weight training and the other half before bed.
Soy, a fast-burning protein, isn’t as effective for muscle building as whey or casein but is an alternative for vegans or people with lactose problems. GNC Natural Brand Soy Protein ($10 for 30 servings ) contains soy protein isolate from non–genetically modified beans.
Foods made from whole soybeans, like tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk, and soy nuts, are low in saturated fat and high in protein, with 22 to 40 grams in every cup. Studies show soy protein can help build muscle almost as effectively as the protein found in animal foods and dairy, but unlike red meat, soy provides high levels of all nine essential amino acids, giving it a higher score.
Choose extra-firm tofu, ideal for stir-fries, chili, or baking with barbecue sauce. Extra-firm tofu has the most protein of all soy foods, with 40 grams per cup, but soft tofu – a non-dairy alternative in smoothies – still delivers a good amount with 32 grams per cup.
Soy also fights cancer: Studies show that eating more of the antioxidant genistein, found in soy, may lower your risk of prostate cancer. Protein power: Excellent.
Work out regularly? Eat dairy, which contains casein, the optimal protein to prevent muscle breakdown, and whey, which helps promote muscle growth. Whole milk, yogurt, and cheese are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, so opt for 1 percent or skim, and low-fat or non-fat yogurt. Look for reduced-fat varieties of cow and goat cheeses, and stick to one ounce – about the size of two nine-volt batteries. Choose nonfat Greek-style yogurt, which has 18 grams and a consistently high dose of probiotics to help promote digestion and gut health. A six-ounce container of plain, low-fat yogurt has only 9 grams of protein and, on average, fewer probiotics. Protein power: Excellent.
No matter which type you choose, six ounces of seafood delivers about 40 grams of protein. All seafood contains omega-3 fatty acids, but fatty fish like salmon and mackerel have more of these fats, crucial to heart health and brain function. Since fish can carry high levels of mercury and PCBs, it pays to be conscious of which type you eat and how often. For a full breakdown on healthy seafood varieties, visit the EDF’s site on seafood alerts.
Choose wild Alaskan salmon for 42 grams of protein and 2,400 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per six-ounce serving. An equal portion of tilapia has the same amount of protein but only 400 mg of omega-3s. Protein power: Excellent.
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