Protein is a macronutrient that is vital to every cell in your body and is required for building and maintaining your bones, muscles and skin. All food contains protein, with animal based and plant-based sources, like fruit, featuring some differences in quality and quantity. Learning which are the best protein-rich foods may help ensure you meet the recommended daily amount for good health.
Your body makes protein from a combination of various amino acids, some of which you need to get from the food you eat. Many foods, including meat, contain all nine amino acids that your body cannot make on its own. These foods are known as complete proteins.
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Most plant-based protein sources do not contain every amino acid, so it's important that you eat a variety of foods. Including protein from all the food groups will ensure your body gets all the building blocks it needs to keep it functioning properly.
How Much Do You Need?
How much protein you need depends on your age, gender and level of physical activity. Dietary Guidelines recommends that your daily intake should be 10 to 35 percent of your total calories. The suggestion is 46 grams of protein daily for women and 56 grams for men. A 50-gram average has been set for the daily value (DV) for protein to help compare foods by percentage of daily ingestion.
Read more: How Much Protein Is Right For You?
Protein From Animal Sources
Protein from animal sources is the only group of foods that contain cholesterol. Although the USDA has not set an upper limit for the amount of cholesterol you should consume in a day, the American Heart Association recommends that all adults over age 20 have their levels of cholesterol checked every four to six years to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Animal protein also contains saturated fats. Dietary Guidelines recommends that less than 10 percent of your daily caloric intake come from saturated fat. Consuming protein foods high in cholesterol and saturated fats may raise "bad" LDL cholesterol levels in your blood, which may be a problem if you have high blood pressure or have a cardiac condition.
The only protein source that supplies vitamin B12 is from animal-based foods. Vitamin B12 is important for your body's nerve and blood cells. A deficiency could result in anemia.
1. Meat Protein
Proteins from meat sources are complete proteins and generally contain the highest content of protein among the food groups. Meat sources include beef, pork, bacon, lamb, poultry and organ meats, as well as foods made from meat such as sausages, hamburgers, hot dogs and luncheon meats.
The top protein sources from meat, per 3.5-ounce serving, are:
- Chicken, lean breast: 32.1 grams, 64 percent DV
- Pork: lean chop: 31 grams, 62 percent DV
- Beef: skirt steak: 28.7 grams, 57 percent DV
Eating red meat, such as beef, can increase your risk for heart disease, as shown in a study reported by the National Institutes of Health in 2018. The study recommends that you limit your consumption of red meat and choose an alternative protein source when possible.
2. Dairy Protein
Protein in dairy comes from milk and all products made from milk, including condensed milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese and butter. Some top protein sources from dairy, per 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces, unless otherwise indicated, include:
Evidence suggests that consuming your protein from dairy products may protect against many chronic diseases with very few adverse effects. A meta-analysis was conducted in 2016 that reviewed dairy intake and its effect on health. The conclusion of the study, published in Food and Nutrition Research, suggests that milk and dairy products are associated with reduced risk of childhood obesity.
Additional findings showed that dairy products reduce risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease — particularly stroke — and several types of cancer. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that milk has a positive effect on bone mineral density.
3. Egg Protein
Another high-quality protein, eggs have traditionally been used as the standard of comparison for measuring protein quality and high digestibility, according to the American Egg Board. Because eggs are a nutrient-rich source of several B vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, folate, B12 and B6, they are a good protein source of energy for your body.
Eggs are beneficial to athletes as a protein source due their high content of leucine, an amino acid that helps prevent muscle loss and promotes muscle recovery.
The protein content of eggs, per 100 grams (about two eggs) is:
Read more: The Best Morning Protein
4. Protein From Fish and Seafood
Fish and shellfish are complete proteins. They are typically low in fat, while providing a variety of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and D, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium and iodine. In addition to being an excellent source of protein, fish provides the benefit of important omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Omega-3s are important for brain development. A 2017 mega-analysis, published in Nutrition Journal, found that eating fish might be associated with a lowered risk of brain cancer. Furthermore, the American Pregnancy Association advises that pregnant women get adequate omega-3 fatty acids for optimal fetal brain, eye, nervous system and immune development.
Depending on the species, the protein content of fish varies. For example, haddock contains 16 grams of protein per 100 grams, and bluefin tuna contains 30 grams of protein, which supplies 60 percent of your DV. Shellfish also varies in protein content, with mollusks containing as much as 48 grams of protein to certain crustaceans that contain 14 grams per 100 grams.
The FDA recommends that you eat two to three servings of fish per week from the "best choice" list, which includes smaller fish such as:
- Atlantic mackerel
- Canned tuna
- All seafood such as crabs, clams, shrimp, squid, scallops
The RDA suggests that you limit your serving of fish on the "good choices" list to one serving per week, including fish such as:
- Mahi mahi
- Some tuna fish
- Chilean sea bass
- Tuna, yellowfin, white albacore
Fish to avoid altogether because of the potential of a high mercury content, are the larger predator fish, including:
- King mackerel
- Orange roughy
- Bigeye tuna
5. Protein From Vegetable Sources
Vegetables that contain protein consist of all raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, canned or dehydrated types. Eating a combination of vegetables provides all the amino acids your body needs to build protein. They are vital to your health, especially because of the fiber they provide. In addition. vegetables are a low-calorie source of important nutrients not found in meat, such as vitamin C and isoflavones, both anti-inflammatory compounds that help your immune system.
The USDA has recommendations for the amount of vegetables you should eat each day, based on your age, gender and level of physical activity. The average daily amount is 2 1/2 to 3 cups daily for ages 9 and older. Some common vegetables highest in protein per cup include:
- Lima beans: 11.6 grams, 23 percent DV
- Peas, green:
8.6 grams, 17 percent DV
5.3 grams, 11 percent DV
- Sweet corn:
4.7 grams, 9 percent DV
4.3 grams, 9 percent DV
- Brussels sprouts:
4 grams, 8 percent DV
- Broccoli, cooked:
3.7 grams, 7 percent DV
Getting your protein from vegetables may have the beneficial effect of reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and lowering lipid profiles more than compared to animal sources. A study compared plant-based food sources with animal-based foods for their effect on the heart. The report, published in Advances in Nutrition in 2015, noted that evidence supports a dietary pattern containing more plant sources for protein to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Read more: 3 Easy Ways to Get Enough Protein Throughout the Day
6. Protein From Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are high in calories but a good source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Snacking on nuts and seeds can provide up to 18 percent DV for protein per ounce, or 28-gram handful. Eating tree nuts, including walnuts, almonds and pistachios, may reduce the risk of heart disease by helping to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, according to research published in a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015.
Foods highest in protein content in the nuts and seed group, per 1-ounce handful, include:
- Hemp seeds: 9 grams, 18 percent DV
- Pumpkin seeds: 8.5
grams, 17 percent DV
- Almonds: 6 grams, 12 percent DV
- Pistachios, dry roasted: 5.5 grams, 11 percent DV
- Sesame seeds: 4.8 grams, 10 percent DV
Read more: What Are the Health Benefits of Eating Nuts & Seeds?
7. Legumes and Soy-Based Protein
Soybeans are a member of the legume family and are one of the best sources of protein in the plant kingdom. You can benefit from the protein in soy in many forms, such as whole soybeans, tofu, edamame, tempeh and soy chips, or eat them raw, boiled, sprouted, fried or roasted.
Other legumes include chickpeas, peanuts, lentils and pulses. All legumes are not only a good protein source but are loaded with fiber, which can help lower your blood cholesterol levels. The Dietitians Association of Australia recommends legumes as an ideal food for preventing and managing diabetes.
Depending on the form, the protein content of soy and legumes differs per 100-gram serving:
- Dry-roasted soybeans: 43.3 grams, 87 percent DV
- Raw peanuts: 25.8 grams, 52 percent DV
- Peanut butter, chunky: 24 grams, 48 percent DV
- Boiled soybeans (edamame): 18.2 grams, 36 percent DV
- Tofu, firm: 17.3 grams, 35 percent DV
- Red kidney beans: 9.5 grams, 19 percent DV
- Pinto beans: 9 grams, 18 percent DV
Read more: Should I Be Eating Soy?
8. Protein From Fruit Sources
The fruit food group consists of fruits that are fresh, canned, frozen or dried as well as 100 percent fruit juices. Although fruit is not the best source of protein, it provides dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin C and folate. Fruit supports your immune system to help prevent disease.
A study published in Nutrients in 2017 reported evidence that consuming fruit reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as having a positive effect on hypertension, diabetes and obesity.
The USDA recommends consuming 1 1/2 to 2 cups of fruit per day, depending on your age, gender and level of physical activity. One-half cup of dried fruit can be considered comparable to 1 cup of fruit. Some fruits with the highest protein content per cup are:
- Guava: 4.2 grams, 8 percent DV
- Avocado: 4 grams per avocado, 8 percent DV
- Apricots: 2.2 grams, 4 percent DV
- Kiwifruit: 2.1 grams, 4 percent DV
- Blackberries: 2 grams, 4 percent DV
9. Protein From Grains
Any food made from wheat, cornmeal, barley, rice, oats or another cereal grain is a member of the grain group. All types of grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates and some key vitamins and minerals, but whole and unrefined grains provide the most protein. The USDA suggests you consume 3 to 6 ounces of grains per day, depending on your age and gender, and at least half should be whole grains.
Grains are a rich source of carbohydrates and fiber, which help you feel full longer and may help you eat less if you are trying to lose weight. Whole grains may also lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Grains with the highest content of protein per 3.5 ounces are:
- Kamut wheat: 5.7 grams, 11 percent DV
- Teff: 3.9 grams, 8 percent DV
- Quinoa: 4.4 grams, 9 percent DV
- Whole wheat pasta: 6 grams, 12 percent DV
- Wild rice: 4 grams, 8 percent DV
- Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020: Daily Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations
- MyFoodData: The 10 Best Foods Highest in Protein
- John Hopkins Medicine: 2018 Cholesterol Guidelines for Heart Health Announced
- American Heart Association: Saturated Fat
- National Institutes of Health: Study Links Frequent Red Meat Consumption to High Levels of Chemical Associated With Heart Disease
- Food & Nutrition Research: Milk and Dairy Products: Good or Bad for Human Health? An Assessment of the Totality of Scientific Evidence
- American Egg Board: Real Eggs Make a Difference
- Nutrition Journal: Fish Intake and the Risk of Brain Tumor: A Meta-Analysis With Systematic Review
- American Pregnancy Association: Consider Omega-3 Supplementation for the Health of Your Baby
- FDA: Eating Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know
- Advances in Nutrition: Plant Protein and Animal Proteins: Do They Differentially Affect Cardiovascular Disease Risk?
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Effects of Tree Nuts on Blood Lipids, Apolipoproteins, and Blood Pressure: Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis, and Dose-Response of 61 Controlled Intervention Trials
- MyFoodData: 16 Nuts and Seeds High in Protein
- Dietitians Association of Australia: Diabetes
- MyFoodData: 78 Beans and Lentils Highest in Protein
- MyFoodData: Top 10 Fruits Highest in Protein
- Nutrients: Fruits for Prevention and Treatment of Cardiovascular Diseases
- Mayo Clinic: Whole Grains: Hearty Options for a Healthy Diet
- MyFoodData: Top 10 Grains Highest in Protein
- USDA ChooseMyPlate: What Foods Are in the Vegetable Group?
- USDA ChooseMyPlate: What Foods Are in the Fruit Group?
- USDA ChooseMyPlate: What Foods Are in the Grains Group?
- MyFoodData: Top 10 Vegetables Highest in Protein
- USDA Food Composition Databases: Finfish and Shellfish Products
- SELFNutritionData: Milk Nutrition Information In Dairy And Egg Products
- Dr. Axe: Leucine: The Muscle-Building Amino Acid Your Body Needs
- SELFNutritionData: Cheese, Cheddar
- SELFNutritionData: Mozzarella Cheese
- SELFNutritionData: Milk, Reduced Fat, Fluid, 2% Milkfat, Protein Fortified, With Added Vitamin A
- SELFNutritionData: Yogurt, Nonfat
- SELFNutritionData: Egg, Whole, Raw, Fresh
- SELFNutritionData: Egg Yolk, Raw
- SELFNutritionData: Egg White, Raw
- USDA: National Nutrient Database: Fish, Haddock, Raw
- USDA: National Nutrient Database: Fish, Tuna, Fresh, Bluefin, Cooked, Dry Heat
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Mollusks, Whelk, Unspecified, Cooked, Moist Heat
- USDA: National Nutrient Database: Crustaceans, Shrimp, Mixed Species, Raw
- SELFNutrition Data: Cheese, Cottage, Creamed, Large or Small Curd