What is "high quality" protein?

You may have heard that you need more protein in your diet – and for good reason.

You can think of protein as the main building block for muscles, but it is much more.

Protein is also essential for maintaining a strong immune system, bones, tendons and is responsible for many metabolic reactions. There is also clear relationship between protein and weight loss.

Here's the thing:

Not all proteins are created equal.

Quality counts. But what is the difference between protein and high quality protein?

It can be a confusion that differs and does not receive enough attention.

Good news: High-quality protein discrimination of lower quality is easier than you think.

High quality protein sources

If you just want a list of high quality protein sources, we cover you. The top sources are:

  • Dairy products; milk, whey powder, cottage cheese and cottage cheese, yoghurt
  • Eggs
  • Seafood and fish
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Bison
  • Pork
  • Pea protein
  • Soy
  • Mixed meals (beans and rice)
  • Vegan protein powders with multiple protein sources

If you want to understand better why all proteins are not equal, then keep reading.

You may notice that the majority of high-quality choices come from animal sources. This is simple, because, in general, animal proteins are of higher quality than those derived from vegetables. Soon you will find out why.

But never fear, plant-based friends: you can still fill your diet with the protein you need even if you never want to put animals in your mouth. We'll show you how to later in this post.

What makes a "high quality" protein?

A high quality protein is really a three things operation:

  • (ie "Can your body break it?")
  • amino acid content (ie, "What is really inside the protein?")
  • the resulting amino acid availability to support metabolic function (ie, "Can your body use these amino acids as you want?").

The process of digesting any food starts in your mouth when you chew. But the protein is unique the three main macronutrients because digestion of your body really starts in the stomach and continues in the small intestine.

Within these organs, acid digestive juices, powerful enzymes and other ingredients completely destroy intact proteins in smaller amino acid chains, the structural elements of proteins.

Before a chain is absorbed into the bloodstream, it must be shortened to individual amino acids. Only then, when these amino acids fall into the bloodstream, can be transferred to working tissues, reassembled into larger proteins that the body needs.

They can also be maintained for a short time with other amino acids in what is referred to as the amino acid group. The body can turn to this pool and get the exact amino acids it needs to create a larger protein molecule that is required for one function or another and leave behind what is not needed right now.

More protein is not always better. Quality counts.

While the process may seem dry, it is not that simple. And as many procedures within the body, it is not 100 percent perfect. In other words, less than 100 percent of the protein you consume will be assimilated, absorbed and put into use.

Scientists can measure assimilation of protein in the laboratory by monitoring nitrogen absorption and excretion. (The protein is the only nitrogen-containing macronutrient, so this works.) The result of this test typically produces a digestive score.

Proteins that are highly digestible take up near 100% (digestible). The lower scores are less digestible. If you consume protein with a 90% digest score, then for every 10g you consume, you will absorb 9g and you will excrete 1g.

Generally, animal proteins – such as dairy, eggs and meat – scores a lot. Vegetarian proteins are usually scored lower.

But there is another wrinkle in the process. Your body's ability to absorb nutrients compared to its actual needs is not always aligned.

Amino Acids: What Is In Your Protein?

Each protein source has a different amino acid profile. These amino acids – or components that a protein will do when you digest them – are a major determinant of whether a protein is of high quality or not.

Your body can produce many amino acids on its own. But there are some who can not. They are:

  • histidine
  • isoleucine
  • leucine
  • lysine
  • methionine
  • phenylalanine
  • threonine
  • tryptophan
  • valine

These are the "essential amino acids" and you must take them through your diet.

Each food containing all nine essential amino acids is known as "full protein".

Because animal-based protein is the "easy button"

Animal protein sources mimic the protein composition of human tissue. That is why meat naturally offers an extremely usable mix of amino acids – including the nine basic amino acids (with a few exceptions, which we will get in one second).

As a result, we humans can use animal protein in a very effective way.

Animal proteins range from the obvious – beef, pork, chicken, eggs, and from fish to liquid sources such as milk. All of these are high quality protein sources that are highly bioavailable (your body can easily use them).

Almost all animal proteins are highly bioavailable – meaning your body can use them more easily.

This includes dairy products, which provide a number of amino acids, including a large amount of leucine. So that's probably not surprising studies which concern chronic practitioners have found that drinking milk based on milk after exercise has been promoting muscle protein synthesis, more muscle and less farce.

While collagen and bone broths are popular for their ability to support the health of joints and other tissue functions within the body, collagen protein is high in only 3 amino acids (glycine, proline and hydroxyproline) while it is fairly free of the other essential amino acids.

Bone broths can offer health benefits but only do not help in muscle building or fat loss (or meet your body's amino acid requirements unless you add chicken or beef to the broth, so you're ready.)

What is high quality plant protein?

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They say that the pea protein is the new whey.

In contrast, most plant sources (but not all) have an amino acid profile that differs drastically from that of humans.

Many (but not all) plant proteins are low in several essential amino acids, especially leucine. This is important to note because leucine plays a critical role in the activation of muscle synthesis protein (MPS), which is essential for the construction and repair of muscle tissue.

The big exceptions are soy and select pea protein sources (such as pea protein isolate). These vegetarian sources contain all or virtually all the essential amino acids you need.

In addition to these sources, most plant proteins are incomplete. All this means that eating a single source of plant protein can not support the development and maintenance of the body.

But there is a simple solution. If you combine different sources of plant proteins, then you can get enough quantities of all nine basic amino acids.

Examples of supplemental proteins include the combination of legumes and grains, such as red beans and rice or vegetables and pulses, as you will find in a vegetable soup of 9 beans.

When you eat complementary proteins, the combined sources equate to a full protein source.

You do not have to do this at the same meal. Your body will store the amino acids as these come along, and then resynthesize proteins as needed by pulling out body cells and blood later. So even if you had rice at breakfast and beans at dinner, you are covered.

Often you should eat more plant protein to get the corresponding amount of amino acids you would make from a smaller amount of animal protein.

So, your main guys are here:

  1. The exact amount of protein you need depends on the quality of the protein you eat.
  2. If you consume a lot of plant protein or are exclusively plant, you may need to increase even more the total daily protein intake to compensate for the lower protein quality.
  3. If you are vegetarian or vegan, eat a different food mix, and you may want to research the amino acid profiles of the foods you eat.


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Pamela Nisevich Bede, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a 21-year-old marathon, the Ironman triathlete and the mom who advises athletes and wellness lovers for optimal performance in Swim, bike, run, eat !, LLC, and is the nutritionist nutritionist at EAS Sports Nutrition. It has contributed multiple books and regularly seeks to provide information about multiple versions. Sign in with her @PamBedeRD