Whether it’s to repair and build muscle tissue after a workout, or to manage blood sugar levels or other dietary concerns, finding the best sources of protein can be tricky.
Many proteins are ranked according to how much our bodies can utilize and absorb the amino acids, which form the building blocks of protein in everything from not only our muscles, but also our skin, teeth, hair and nails.
Because every person has a unique biochemistry, and therefore different dietary needs, presenting a one-size-fits-all list of the best protein sources should be taken with a grain of salt.
Many bodybuilders’ protein standard is the Biological Value (BV) scale. Unlike dietary fats and carbohydrates, proteins contain nitrogen. The BV scale measures protein quality by calculating the nitrogen used for tissue formation divided by the nitrogen absorbed from food.
A whole egg ranks 100 on the scale. But don’t jump to conclusions assuming that you will digest 100 percent of the protein in an egg; it’s just a base number with which researchers compare other proteins.
Not all BV scales are the same. There are dozens of factors which could influence outcomes of how high a protein ranks.
According to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, researchers Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo from the College of New Jersey rank the following sources of protein on their BV scale, with BV scores in parenthesis:
- Whey protein (104)
- Whole chicken egg (100)
- Milk (91)
- Beef (80)
- Casein (77; Casein is the second primary protein milk besides whey, it’s processed into curds and cheese.)
- Soy protein (74)
- Wheat gluten (64)
According to Wikipedia’s entry on Biological Value, other sources of protein on the scale include:
- Rice (83)
- Fish (76)
- Tofu (74)
Yes, for a variety of reasons. Whey protein products have the highest ranking on the BV scale — up to 150 on some scales — making it the best source of protein, but not necessarily for everybody. Just because a certain food ranks tops on the scale doesn’t mean that everybody can easily digest the protein. Millions lack the lactase enzymes needed to absorb one of the highest-ranked items on the BV scale: milk.
Another problem with the BV scale is that it doesn’t take into consideration how the foods, specifically animal proteins, are raised. Although beef ranks high on the scale, research is hard to come by in determining if, for example, grass-fed, pasture-raised beef has a different score than feed-lot, factory-farmed beef.
Why are vegetarian sources of protein on the bottom of the scale?
It’s not because the bioavailability scale was funded by a pro-carnivore lobbying group. It’s because vegetarian sources of protein are almost always incomplete proteins. Not getting all nine essential amino acids from foods can potentially cause serious health and developmental problems.
There’s a good reason that you don’t see bodybuilders chugging wheat protein smoothies (which don’t exist) after a workout, or pea protein shakes (which do exist).
Vegetarians need to learn how to combine foods to ensure they are getting the complimentary proteins. Beans and rice is the most common example. Some others include:
- Macaroni and cheese (not a good idea if you already have a pasta belly)
- Spaghetti and broccoli (same caution as above; opt for quinoa spaghetti instead)
- Yogurt and granola (eat only full-fat, preferably plain-Greek yogurt so you won’t get a blood sugar crash)
- Toast and almond butter (try a gluten-free bread, which is better for reducing bloating)
Consider the source of your protein. Opt for grass-fed beef and cheese sources; wild-caught cold-water fish; blended, pre-digested whey; fertile organic eggs; and organic chicken. Vegans would do well to get lots of supplemental vitamin B12 and rice protein and/or hemp protein shakes. Unless you’re doing hardcore bodybuilding, you don’t need triple-digit-level grams of protein because excess protein can lead to unhealthy levels of ammonia in the urine.
Judd Handler is a health and lifestyle coach and certified Functional Diagnostic Nutritionist in Encinitas, Calif.