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Eating enough protein is essential for maintaining a strong immune system, bones, tendons, and it helps you build muscle, lose weight, and improve aging. In other words, everyone can benefit from more protein. To keep your body healthy, make sure you consume high quality protein sources, which means eating foods that contain all of the essential amino acids. This primarily includes animal-based protein sources, or a few select plant proteins such as pea protein.

Not all proteins are created equal. That's the first thing you need to know before you start adding protein to your diet. 

Protein-infused cereal? High-protein bread? No, they're not "bad," but they are also misleading when you consider how much that protein might be improving your diet. 

Confused? Don't be. Understanding the difference between high-quality protein and lesser-quality protein is easier than you might think, and can make all the difference in ensuring that the protein you eat both improves your health and helps you achieve your goals.

What is a High-Quality Protein?

A high-quality protein really is a function of three things: your bodies ability to break down protein (and put it to good use), the amount of amino acids in the protein (a complete protein, like chicken, beef, dairy, pea, or whey contain all of the essential amino acids, which your body can't create on its own), and if your body can use the amino acids. 

Once you eat protein, your body breaks the protein down into their fundamental building blocks, and these are your amino acids. Each of these amino acids is separated and set to "amino acid pool." At that point, your body can take those amino acids and put them to work as needed. 

Need help building muscle? Your body will funnel the amino acids required and supply them. Want to improve the quality of your skin? More amino acids to the rescue. 

And this is why all proteins aren't created equal. Some don't have all of the amino acids you need. And other -- like many forms of collagen -- can't survive the digestion process, meaning the amino acids never make it to the amino acid pool. 

In general, animal proteins — such as dairy, eggs, and meat — are considers high-quality sources of protein. Vegetarian proteins typically score lower, with pea protein being the exception.

High-Quality Protein Sources

The top sources or protein are:

  • Dairy products; milk, whey powders, cheese, and cottage cheese, yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Seafood and fish
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Bison
  • Pork
  • Pea Protein
  • Soybeans
  • Blended meals (beans and rice)
  • Vegan protein powders with multiple protein sources

Why Amino Acids Are So Important

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and protein is essential for every cell in your body. Just as not all protein is created equal, neither are all amino acids. Each one plays a different role in your body, and, in some cases, they combine to serve specific benefits. (For example, the BCAAs -- branched chain amino acids -- are a combination of 3 amino acids that play an important role in building muscle).

Most importantly, there are 9 amino acids (the essential amino acids) that your body can't produce on their own. In other words, you need to get them from your diet or else you are deficient. Those amino acids are:

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

A "complete protein" is anything that contains all essential amino acids. It's why many plant-base sources of protein, like brown rice or hemp, while healthy, is not a complete source of protein and needs to be combined with other plant-based sources.

On the other hand, almost every source of animal protein is not only complete, but it's also very bioavailable, meaning your body can easily put it to use (the opposite of collagen protein). 

Building A High-Quality Protein Diet

Because of the way amino acids work, it's important to include protein in as many meals as possible (but don't sweat it if you miss a meal). Your amino acid pool is always refreshing throughout the course of the day, so the more you consistently supply your body with what it needs, the greater it's ability to break down those amino acids into the usable components you need to build muscle, tame your hunger, support fat loss, and build healthier hair, skin, and nails.

Determining how protein you need really depends on the size of your body. A good goal is eating 1 gram per pound of your goal bodyweight. So, for a 180-pound male, the goal would be 180 grams of protein per day. You don't need this much (research shows about .7 grams per pound of goal weight is a good lower range). Another way to think of it would be aiming for approximately 20-30 grams of protein per meal, which is the equivalent of a palm-sized chicken breast, a piece of red meat, or filet of fish, about 3 eggs, 1 cup of Greek yogurt, or 1.5 cups of quinoa.

The exact amount of protein you need will depend on the quality of the protein you eat. If you consume a lot of plant-based protein or are exclusively plant-based, you may need to eat more protein to ensure you are getting all of the essential amino acids. (Or, you can supplement with a complete plant-based protein, like Ladder Plant Protein.)