Everyone wants to know about healthy protein foods.
So we decided to dedicate a page to that topic! On this page, you’ll discover:
- exactly what is protein, and what are complete and incomplete proteins?
- how much protein per day you need
- a list of healthy protein foods – what are the good sources of protein?
- a list of high protein vegetables (great for vegetarians).
What is protein? Protein facts.
Protein is a nutrient that your body needs. It’s made up of smaller molecules, called amino acids.
Amino acids are used to build all sorts of tissues in your body, including muscle.
Amino acids are classed as either:
- essential – your body can’t make these, so you must get them from your diet
- non-essential – your body can make these.
There are 9 essential amino acids, and 12 non-essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids keep your body functioning properly by providing the right balance of ‘fuels’ to make enzymes, transport molecules and tissues like muscle, skin, hair and nails.
Both essential and non-essential amino acids are important for immune health.
So, it’s pretty important to eat enough healthy protein foods, and to get good sources of protein.
These are foods that contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
They are usually animal sources, but there are also some vegetable sources:
- meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy foods
- chickpeas, quinoa, black beans, black-eyed peas, pumpkin seeds, cashews, cauliflower, soy
These are foods that lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids.
- most vegetables
- most nuts
Benefits of healthy protein foods
This sense of ‘satisfaction’ helps you avoid two common weight loss pitfalls:
- cravings, and
Getting enough protein is an important part of healthy weight loss.
Other benefits of eating healthy protein foods include:
- building and maintaining muscle mass
- helping maintain digestive health
- supporting immune health
- providing about 20% of our dietary energy intake
- maintaining healthy skin, hair and nails
- making hormones, and DNA.
Protein of all types seems to confer a range of health benefits.
How much protein per day?
We are all different, so our basic needs vary according to our:
- activity levels
- state of health/sickness
- amount of lean muscle tissue.
For example, research in 2013 indicates that older adults may need more protein than is currently recommended.
General dietary recommendations for protein intake (Australian data) are:
- Adult women – 0.7 – 0.94g per kg body weight per day
- Adult men – 0.84 – 1.07g per kg body weight per day.
- Adult women – 46g per day
- Adult men – 54g per day.
- 100g of animal protein e.g. beef, chicken, fish etc, contains roughly 20 – 30g of protein.
So a 70kg woman needing 46g protein per day, would need to eat two servings of animal protein.
These amounts help us to avoid protein deficiency diseases and to meet the daily needs of the average person.
One USA study indicates that a significant number of young and older American women are not eating enough protein, whereas men tend to eat enough.
Higher protein needs
Some people may need more healthy protein foods than others. These may include people who:
- Are athletes
- Are chronically stressed
- Are bodybuilders
- Have low stomach acid or problems with digestion
- Take a medication that affects stomach acid (e.g. antacids or histamine blockers, anti-inflammatory medication)
- Have medical conditions that affect the function of the stomach, pancreas or liver
- Have bacterial or viral infections
- Are diagnosed with autoimmune disease
- Are overweight, particularly if they have a problem regulating insulin (e.g. metabolic syndrome, syndrome X, pre diabetes, diabetes) or
- Have experienced severe physical trauma.
Some people need less
But be careful – high protein diets can be harmful for some people. Too much can over-stress your kidneys, or may limit calcium absorption.
While healthy protein foods are essential for everyone, some people can suffer health problems by eating too much and/or the wrong type of proteins.
People who may need less in their diet include those with:
- Kidney (renal) problems
- Blood pressure problems
- Osteopenia (accelerated bone loss) or osteoporosis or
- Acute liver failure.
Some people need to choose foods with a low purine content.
These may include people with gout, a condition indicated by excess uric acid levels in the blood.
Some people need to avoid certain types of protein like gluten (found in grains) or casein (found in milk).
However, it’s an important nutrient that we all need. There are many healthy whole food sources and supplements available to boost your diet.
You can use a variety of plant and/or animal sources to get some complete protein at each meal and snack, for optimum health and to maintain a healthy body weight.
Our ancestors certainly ate more wild, lean meats than we do today.
Healthy animals usually means healthier proteins.
It’s important that we also choose sources with the highest biological value which give a broader range of essential amino acids.
Good sources of protein are listed below.
List of high protein foods
High protein foods contain more than 15% (15g) per 100g food:
- Chicken, most white fish, eggs, cheese
- Almonds, pistachios, walnuts
- Pumpkin seeds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, whole spelt grain
- Turkey *, shark *
- Whey protein isolate *, pea protein isolate *, hemp protein powder *, soy protein isolate *
- Lamb +, rabbit +, beef +, pork +
- Tuna +, sardines +, octopus +, peanuts +
- Kidney ++, liver ++, kangaroo ++, venison ++, buffalo ++
- Caviar ++, scallops ++, anchovies ++, shellfish ++
* Indicates high protein low fat foods, where low fat = less than 3g fat per 100g food.
+ Indicates moderate purine foods (75 – 150mg purines per 100g food).
++ Indicates high purine foods (>150mg purines per 100g food).
Healthy protein foods are free of marbling and most visible fat (mainly saturated fats), but may contain high amounts of healthy omega 3 fatty acids (e.g. fish and seafood).
Based on this definition of ‘high’ as 15g protein per 100g food, there are no high protein vegetables, as such.
However, healthy protein foods also include high fibre, medium protein vegetables like legumes.
Vegetables that contain the highest protein include (* numbers in g protein per 100g food):
- Soy beans (10)
- Most other beans (8 – 9)
- Tofu (7)
- Sprouts – all types (4)
- Rocket (3)
- Mustard greens (3)
- Zucchini (3)
- Brussel sprouts and broccoli (3)
- Bamboo shoots (3)
- Water chestnuts (3)
- Green beans (2)
* Source: Food Pharmacy Macronutrient Reference Tables
List of moderate protein foods
Moderate protein foods contain 5% – 15% (5 – 15g per 100g of food):
- Beans (all kinds) *
- Peas, (all kinds) *
- Lentils *
- Oysters +*
- Yoghurt (low fat) *
- Most whole grains except rice and millet
* Indicates low fat sources, where low fat = less than 3g fat per 100g food.
+ Indicates moderate purine foods (75 – 150mg purines per 100g food).
This list includes high protein vegetables. Most other vegetables contain less.
Low protein foods
Many foods contain less than 5% (5g per 100g of food):
• Vegetables and fruits
• Millet and rice
For people needing to reduce protein intake, these foods can form the basis of a low protein diet.