Healthy eating is high on the agenda for those who want to equip their bodies with what’s needed to function optimally. Protein is an essential nutrient that is further classified according to the specific amino acids supplied by various foods. Animal proteins consist of all the essential amino acids, but you can still get the full set from vegetable protein sources as long as you consume a variety of foods containing the relevant amino acids.
In general, 46g of protein per day is recommended for adult women and 56g for men although this can be debated and may vary according to the metabolic requirements of an individual’s body and according to lifestyle.
Types of Amino acids
Amino acids are classified into three groups. Essential amino acids are the ones we have to consume in order to maintain our bodies. There are nine essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. In addition to these, there are the so-called ‘non-essential’ amino acids. These are amino acids that our bodies can synthesize for themselves if needed as well as the ‘conditional’ amino acids that you usually won’t need unless you’re ill or suffering from stress.
Protein rich foods to include in your diet
Vegetarian / Vegan foods
Because those of us who don’t eat animal products have to balance their plant based amino acid intake, we’ll list not only the protein-rich plant based foods, but also the amino acids they will supply.
This super-food will give you 26g of protein per 100g consumed. Two amino acids are lacking: methionine (essential) and cysteine (conditional), but if you consume lentils in the form of sprouts, this deficiency is remedied.
This highly nutritious food offers you 8.86g of protein per 100g. It delivers 16 different Amino acids including all nine essential Amino acids. However, the concentrations of lysine and methionine are a little on the low side- unless you want to eat black beans at every meal to get enough lysine. Adding grains like quinoa will help you to get enough methionine.
Kidney beans will give you 9g of protein per 100g, but do be cautious regarding preparation as this type of bean is more toxic than others and requires cooking at high temperature for at least 30 minutes in order to destroy the toxin. The set of amino acids delivered is very similar to that of black beans.
Other beans with a similar profile
Small red beans, pinto beans, navy beans and black-eyed peas are among the most nutritious and protein-rich plant-based foods you can get. Beans offer still more nutritional benefits, not least a good dose of fibre – something that is lacking in the diets of most people in first world countries.
You’ll get 25g of protein per 100g of peanuts and this is made up of 14 Amino acids, but peanuts are low in the essential Amino acid methionine. Foods that are rich in methionine such as almonds and rice will give you the methionine you need.
Almonds will give you 21g of protein per 100g. Although they contain all the essential amino acids, the levels of three of these: lysine, methionine and cysteine are too low for almonds to be considered as a complete source of protein.
100 g of walnuts will give you 14.8g of protein. The only amino acid that is deficient is lysine. Eating grain-based proteins like quinoa will give you the lysine you need.
Oats do not contain the essential Amino acid tryptophan and the concentrations of lysine and phenylalanine are a bit on the low side. Adding beans or nuts to your diet will make provision for this. They deliver 2.4g of protein per 100g.
You’ll get 4g of protein per 100g of quinoa – pretty good for a grain and it also contains all the essential amino acids.
You’ll get all the essential amino acids in brown rice, although it’s a bit low on lysine. However, you’ll get less protein per 100g than what you’ll get from quinoa: 2.5g per 100 g.
This super-food contains a good balance of all the essential amino acids as well as a host of other nutritional benefits. You’ll get 33 g of protein per 100g consumed along with antioxidants and much more. It’s not always that easy to get hold of as a whole food, but there are also good Spirulina supplements available.
Popeye’s favourite supplies 3g of protein per 100g consumed raw and the balance of essential amino acids is complete, however, it does look a little bit puny when compared with spirulina.
Broccoli is often touted as a super-food and the figure for protein content (by no means the only nutrition it supplies) is 2.5g per 100 g (raw). It’s a fraction low on leucine, but that’s easy to make up for with a combination of other protein-rich foods.
Meat, fish, eggs, poultry and dairy
Let’s compare the above results with the traditional animal-based sources of protein. Animal proteins have the full range of essential amino acids.
Meat: Lean beef delivers 36g of protein per 100g. Pork tenderloin will give you 32g of protein per 100g and lamb gives you a boost of 36g protein per 100g.
Fish: This depends on the type of fish. Cod is the richest, weighing in at a hefty 63g of protein per 100g.
Organic chicken breast: Be careful of intensively farmed chicken, it’s much lower in nutrients than it should be. Good chicken will give you 33g of protein per 100g.
Dairy: Regular milk gives you 3.3g of protein per 100g, cottage cheese offers 12g per 100g, parmesan cheese has a nifty 42g per 100g while ordinary gouda and cheddar weigh in at 24.9g protein per 100g.
Eggs: you can’t forget eggs as a source of protein, but you might be surprised to find that 100g of egg only gives you 13g of protein.
If you’re a vegan, you have a slightly more complex balancing act in order to get the right balance of Amino acids, but if you combine nuts, pulses (beans) and grains, you can easily get all the protein you need. It’s a bit easier for those who eat meat, fish and dairy, but if you’re looking to eat in a healthy way, take cholesterol counts into account and remember that organic or free-range is better than intensively farmed items.