Ranking The Best (And Worst) Protein Sources...and The Inevitable "Meat Question"

  

Athletes know, if you want to get stronger and faster and perform better, you'll need to support your muscles by giving them the proteins they need to rebuild after a training session. If anything, athletes as a group probably over-emphasize the importance of protein at the expense of other aspects of nutrition.

Yet for your average person in pursuit of health and well being, protein intake and quality tends to get a bit de-emphasized.  Most people eat what I believe to be too little protein, and even fewer people get protein of the quality needed for optimal well-being.  Our goals are to look and feel amazing and perform at a high level physically and mentally - there's no understating the importance of a strong, lean, healthy body in that aim.  If you're getting low quality or inadequate protein, it will be nearly impossible to achieve and maintain the strong body we're seeking.  

Any discussion of protein sources naturally will have to include a discussion of meat and other animal-based sources of proteins.  It's a reflection of how screwed our food system is that I consider 95% of meat products to be legitimate hazards to your health to eat.  Thankfully, there are a few animal-based protein sources that escape the evils of conventional meat production and are actually quite valuable nutritionally.  I'll go into depth with this issue in the last part of this article.

What We'll Cover In This Article:

  • What Makes "Quality" Protein Source
  • Grading Common Protein Sources
  • How Much Protein Should I Be Eating?
  • The Problem With Most Meats + The Only Meat Worth Eating

What Makes A "Quality" Protein

  • Amino Completeness - Once in the body, our digestive system breaks down proteins into amino acids, which are then re-purposed to build proteins and other tissues in our own bodies.  There are 21 amino acids commonly used by the human body, and 9 of them are considered "essential" as our bodies cannot synthesize them.  We ideally want a protein source to contain all 21 of these amino acids and certainly all of the 9 essentials.  The relative amounts of amino acids in a protein source is also important, as some are used frequently by the body (like glutamine), while others are used infrequently (like tryptophan).  The highest quality protein sources will have a broad spectrum of amino acids in relative amounts that approximately match what is used by the body.
  • Digestibility - What many people overlook is that just because you've eaten an adequate amount of protein, doesn't mean your body gets all of that protein in a usable form.  Some proteins are very easy to digest and the body is able to use nearly all of what is eaten.  Others digest poorly and the body will be able to use as little as half of what's eaten.  Digestibility is measured as a percentage of protein consumed that makes it into the bloodstream as free aminos.  Proteins like the Pea Protein used in Synchro Genesis have a digestibility of over 95%, while protein from beans, rice and nuts can be as low as 50%.
  • Non-Inflammatory - This is a huge problem with proteins.  A large number of proteins are quite inflammatory, and trigger all of the usual problems that come with inflammation.  Nutrients aren't absorbed properly, metabolism slows, joints hurt, you look like crap, etc etc.  (for more on why inflammation is your enemy, check Synchro Life Design #4).  Top offenders in this department are hands-down gluten (wheat protein) and casein (a milk protein).  
  • Low-Toxin - This tends to be a problem mostly with animal-based protein sources, but some conventionally-grown plant sources will have issues as well.  Protein sources higher up the list (below) will have less risk of exposure to toxins.
  • Nutrient Density - We want everything we eat to be loaded with nutrients, and our protein sources are no exception.  Vitamin, mineral or quality-fat content are a big plus.

Grading Protein Sources 

*Synchro* (grade A) Protein Sources (best at the top of the list)

    • Yellow Pea Protein - Perfect amino acid profile, a digestibility of over 95%, completely non-inflammatory and free of toxins...no surprise this is the main protein source in Synchro Genesis.
    • Wild-Caught Sockeye Salmon - All salmon is not created equal.  You'll notice salmon appears again further down the list.  Wild Sockeye Salmon is almost always caught in Alaska or other relatively toxin-free waters.  Salmon also exist relatively low on the food chain, so they don't accumulate toxins through bioaccumulation the way larger fish do.  Sockeye salmon is highly digestible, non-inflammatory and very low in toxins if sourced properly.  Unlike farm-raised salmon, Wild Sockeye Salmon is very rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
    • Hemp - Excellent amino-acid profile, good digestibility, very low-toxin, good source of Omega 3's and an excellent source of several essential minerals.
    • Fermented Rice Protein - While normal rice protein has poor digestibility and lacks several essential amino acids, fermented rice protein addresses these issues.  Contains all 9 essential amino amino acids, but is not as amino-complete as hemp of yellow pea protein.
    • Organic and Pastured Eggs - A complete protein, very digestible and has some vitamin and mineral content.  The risk for mycotoxin contamination is less than with meat because the hen diverts toxins in her body from the egg.
    • Other Low-Toxin Wild-Caught Fish - Here's the list: Wild Salmon, Wild Sardines, Wild Anchovies, Wild Tilapia, Wild Pollock, Wild Haddock, Wild Freshwater Trout.  If it is not on this list, do your research carefully.  Farmed fish are out of the question as they are way lower in nutritional quality and can be quite contaminated with toxins from being given poor-quality food.

Grade B Protein Sources

    • Organic Grass-Fed, Grass Finished Beef - I don't eat beef myself, but I have no fundamental issues with diligently-sourced quality beef.  As I'll explain below, the difference between this type of high-quality beef and anything else on the market is night and day.  This beef is quite nutritionally valuable, while other meats can be borderline-dangerous to eat.   The reason organic grass-fed, grass-finished beef doesn't make it to the top-tier of proteins because even high-quality beef takes far too long to digest and can hang around your GI tract for days sometimes.  Not good if the goal is a clean, vibrant body.
    • Low-Toxin Nuts and Seeds - Almonds, Walnuts, Cashews.  Incomplete amino acid profile and low digestibility, but usually supply trace minerals and are not inflammatory.
    • Protein-Rich Greens - Kale, Chard.  Incomplete amino profile and not a particularly high in protein content compared to other things on this list, but eating kale is always a good thing.

Grade C Protein Sources

    • Organic Whey Protein - Great amino acid profile and high digestibility are great.  But whey is more inflammatory than comparable plant-based proteins and can trigger digestive issues in a lot of people.  Even with organic there is always the risk of contamination with mycotoxins, as even organic cows are fed low-quality grains.  It is essentially impossible to find whey protein from grass-fed cows.  The risk of mycotoxin and other forms of contamination goes way up with non-organic whey protein, so don't even bother with it.
    • Organic and Pasture Raised Fowl Meats - Chicken, Turkey.  If you source your fowl meats carefully, you will reduce the risk of contamination.  Unfortunately, unlike cows, birds don't get fat enough eating just grass.  This means diets are always supplemented with grains and even the best-quality fowl are at risk for mycotoxin contamination.  On top of that, fowl meats don't provide nearly the same nutritional quality that top-quality beef does.  So you end up exposing yourself to risk of mycotoxin contamination for very little benefit.
    • Legumes - Incomplete amino acid profiles.  Low digestibility.  There is also a bit of concern over natural plant toxins in almost all legumes.  Not an issue with occasional consumption, but if you consume legumes frequently, these natural toxins can accumulate and have an effect on metabolism.
    • Organic and Pastured Dairy Products - Complete proteins with good digestibility.  Unfortunately, the proteins (specifically casein) are quite inflammatory.
    • Other Wild-Caught Fish - The quality of the protein can be good, but the exposure to toxins (specifically heavy metals) can be quite high.  Do your research and avoid bigger fish that are higher on the food chain (tuna, swordfish), as they present the greatest risk.
    • Farm-Raised Fish

Grade F Protein Sources

    • High-Toxin Grains, Nuts, Seeds - Wheat, Corn, Oats, Peanuts, Brazil Nuts.
    • Conventionally-Produced Meats - Beef, Chicken, Pork, Etc.  Off-the-charts risk for exposure to toxins, hormones and antibiotics.  Conventionally-produced meats come from unhealthy animals, plain and simple.  They're fed foods (i.e. grains) that they're not intended to be eating and this has disastrous effects on their health and the quality of the nutrition the meat provides.  More on this below.
    • Conventionally Produced Dairy, Eggs - See Above.

How Much Protein Do I Need?  

As I mentioned in the introduction, it is my opinion that most people are getting too little protein on a daily basis. For your body to maintain lean muscle, particularly if you are active and working out, you need to consume a reasonable amount of protein to ensure your body always has free amino acids available for muscle repair and building.  The intention here is not necessarily to be adding significant muscle mass, but rather to be supporting your body with the nutrients it needs to be strong and vibrant.  There is also very little reason not to eat larger amounts of quality proteins, as they don't have any undesirable consequences until you get to very high levels of protein consumption (like 300g/day).

My general rule of thumb is that we should be getting a minimum of 1g protein per kg of body weight per day.  On days when your body is recovering from a hard workout or activity, that figure should be closer to 1.5-2g protein per kilogram.

My best recommendation, and the one I've followed for 3+ years with great success, is to consistently give yourself 2-3 Servings of Synchro Genesis per day (I almost always do more).  In addition to giving your body the high levels of antioxidants, minerals and phytonutrients, you'll also be getting ~15g of high-quality protein in each serving.  This allows you to be a bit less diligent about getting protein in the rest of your meals during a day and still be confident you are hitting your desired daily protein consumption.  

The Problem With Almost All Meats

Well, in truth, there is a long list of issues.  Animals raised for conventional meat production are deeply unhealthy, and this is reflected in the quality of the meat they produce.  The hormones and antibiotics they are routinely given is a well-known issue, but these are perhaps not even the most damning issue.

The animals we raise for meat production have digestive systems intended to handle grasses and foraged foods.  Conventionally-raised animals are instead fed grains, and very low-quality grains at that.  As I covered in Synchro Life Design #7, corn and wheat (common animal feeds) are almost guaranteed to contain mycotoxins.  The low-quality grains animals eat have even higher levels of mycotoxins than the grains designated for human consumption.  Compounding the problem is the fact that toxins accumulate in animals over time, meaning adult animals will have dangerously high levels of these toxins.  Bottom line is, conventionally-raised animals are seriously unhealthy, and eating the meat they produce should be considered the same. 

Why Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished Beef Is Different

First, I need to make the point that unless a piece of meat is explicitly grass-fed and grass-finished, you should assume the cow was fed grains at some point in it's life cycle.  Almost all of the "grass-fed" beef available in stores unfortunately falls into this category, as it is common practice to "finish" a cow on grains.  This means that the first 2/3 of the cow's life it is allowed to eat the pasture grass it is designed to eat.  The final 1/3, however, it will be fed grains just like conventional cows so as to add weight to the animal and make the fatty cuts look more desirable (grass-finishing a cow produces yellow-orange fat due to the tannins in grass).  Here in the SF Bay area we have a few local producers that supply us with beef of this quality.  You may want to do a bit of research to see if there is a farm producing grass-finished beef in your area.  If not, it is available (if expensive) through a number farms that sell via their websites.

Apart from the mycotoxins issue discussed above, here is the problem with feeding a cow grains.  Cows are ruminants, meaning they have several stomach compartments that each process foods in differently.  When a cow is eating grass, the cow's stomach acids and digestive enzymes do not do the majority of the digesting (in the way that our own stomach does).  Instead, gut bacteria break down the grass and in the process produce many valuable nutrients including many vitamins, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids.  When a cow is fed grains, this process is starved and the cow becomes very unhealthy.  The nutritional content of a piece of truly grass-fed, grass-finished beef will be radically different than that of a piece of conventional beef.  So much so that I consider grass-fed, grass-finished beef to be a very high-quality, nutrient-rich food - while even organic grain-fed beef is borderline dangerous to consume.  Do yourself a favor: if you're going to choose to eat meat as part of your diet, start being very particular about the quality of the meats you eat.

 

Stay Synchro, 

     Graham Ryan

      

 

Looking For More On Choosing The Best Foods?

Choosing Your Carbs Intelligently (And The Problem With Fruit)

Why Chocolate Is The World's Greatest Food

Get Rid Of Chronic Inflammation (and pain) With Turmeric

 

 

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Graham Ryan is the creator and lead writer for Synchro Life Design.  Biochemist and nutritionist by training. Athlete, yoga teacher and integral thinker by passion. Google




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