Guide to Healthy Protein Sources

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Guide to healthy protein sources
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Second to fat, protein is one of the most misunderstood and sometimes vilified sources of nourishment. Protein can be obtained from a large variety of foods, but many disagree as to the healthiest sources of protein and how much we really need. Some prefer to get their daily allowance from meat, others from soy, others from dairy… and the list goes on. (Some even prefer to get protein from a powdered concoction of dried whey and chemicals… but I digress…)

All of these conflicting (and sometimes counterintuitive) perspectives can make choosing healthy sources of protein difficult. In this post, I’ll go over which foods are a healthy protein source and how much we should include in our diets.

Warning: As with most things in health, it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer…

What Is Protein?

Proteins, on a strictly molecular level, are made up of amino acids in a linear chain. The sequence of amino acids in a protein molecule is defined by the sequence of the gene for that protein.

While many plants and microorganisms can create all 20 proteins “in-house,” animals (including us) must get some of them from diet. The proteins we can’t create ourselves and must get from diet are called essential amino acids. We obtain these amino acids from different types of proteins in our diet.

There are 20 standard amino acids specified by the genetic code (as Dr. Ben Lynch explains in this podcast). Proteins are absolutely essential to every cell function within our bodies, many as enzymes that are catalysts for metabolic reactions.

Why Is It Important?

Through digestion, proteins are broken down for use in all parts of the body. Protein can be broken down into glucose if the body is in need of it, but it is the least preferable source of fuel for energy as it is difficult to convert (unlike carbohydrates). This is also the reason that, contrary to popular thought, we don’t need to eat constantly to “keep our metabolism burning.” The body naturally uses other forms of fuel first, breaking down muscle last.

That being said, a long-term, low-fat, restricted-calorie diet will lead to muscle burning.

The human body needs a diet that contains adequate amounts of proteins from the right sources (we will get to this in a minute). This is the reason a vegetarian diet can (but not always) cause problems within the body. (Vegetarian diets, in general, also tend to be higher in carbohydrates and lower in fats, and both of these factors contribute to the potential problems with a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle).

Adequate protein is absolutely vital, especially in growing children, as the body uses it for:

  • immune function and support
  • the building of cell membranes
  • cell and tissue creation and repair
  • transporting oxygen and nutrients throughout the body
  • producing hormones and enzymes

Clearly, protein is an important part of the diet, but not all proteins or sources of protein are equal.

Complete vs. Incomplete Protein

There are two categories of protein sources. Complete proteins are high-quality proteins that contain the essential amino acids we need for basic body function. These proteins are more easily absorbed by the body and are found in meats, eggs, fish, poultry, and dairy.

Incomplete proteins are a lower quality protein that do not contain all the necessary amino acids. These are found in grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.

If you’ve been around my blog much, you know I personally don’t consume many grains or high carbohydrate foods. My stance on this has softened over the years as research increasingly shows health (and the ideal diet) is highly individual according to our genetics. Instead, I opt plenty of vegetables with seafood, grass-fed meats, vegetables, and the other healthy protein sources below.

Is Meat the Best Source of Protein?

Without diving into all of the controversy, I will say: not all meat is healthy or a great choice for protein. The old saying “You are what you eat” rings true here. The confounding factor is that your dietary protein (meat) is what it eats, also. Besides the extra body fat caused by these grain foods, these poor animals get really large doses of toxins to store in this fat from all the pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics used on these grains. It’s just one reason why regenerative agriculture is so important.

If grains are bad for us (and I suspect many modern ones are), it isn’t the best idea to eat a bunch of animals that have been fattened up on genetically modified corn or soybeans in an attempt to get health (according to Dr. Zach Bush in this podcast and other experts I’ve interviewed).

Let’s look at beef for an example. Cows were meant to eat grass (they are ruminants). When cows do eat grass, they function largely without disease and when slaughtered, have over five times the nutrients of grain-fed cows. The problem is that cows who eat grass don’t gain weight and don’t sell for as much. In the name of fast profit, we have converted entire species of animals to diets they were not meant to eat.

Grass-fed and free-range meats can often be found at farmers markets or through local farmers. (Just be sure to check that they are truly eating only grass and truly have room to run.) Some farmers offer cow-sharing or cow-pooling, which allows you to purchase 1/4 or 1/2 of a cow when it is live and then receive the meat after it has been butchered. Similar arrangements often exist for chickens.

I personally buy our meat from local farmers through cow-sharing, but there are also online options for those who don’t happen to live down the street from a grass-fed beef ranch. If buying at stores that carry these options, look for labels like “organic,” “exclusively grass-fed,” and “free-range pastured.” Beware of labels like “all-natural,” “hormone and antibiotic-free,” and simply “free-range,” which carry no real weight and are not monitored.

Healthy High-Protein Food Sources

It’s not always easy to know which proteins are good for the body and which ones aren’t. So, I’ve compiled a list of the best protein sources so you’ll know what to look for. To find healthy sources of protein, you will have to get a little creative, but it is possible!

Grass-Fed Beef

Beef is an excellent source of many nutrients including:

  • Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is important for red blood cell formation and healthy brain function.
  • Vitamin B3 – This vitamin is important for a wide range of processes in the body from the skin to the nervous system.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – These essential fatty acids are important for balancing inflammation in the body and supporting heart health.
  • Vitamin B6 – One important function of vitamin B6 is in helping the body produce melatonin. Melatonin is crucial for healthy sleep and circadian rhythm.
  • Selenium – This nutrient plays a part in many functions in the body including reproduction, thyroid function, DNA production, and immune function.
  • Iron – Iron is another essential nutrient that helps make red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body. There are a few different kinds of iron, but animal sources contain the most bioavailable kind, heme.
  • Zinc – This mineral is important for the immune system. It helps the body fight infections and heal wounds. It’s also important for optimal growth.
  • Phosphorus – This nutrient works with calcium to build bones and plays a part in energy production. Phosphorus also plays a structural role in cell membranes.
  • Choline – This nutrient is needed to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for brain and nervous system functions including memory, mood, and nerve impulse transmission.
  • Pantothenic acid (B5) – This vitamin is incredibly important. It helps build red blood cells, and like other B vitamins, helps convert food into energy.
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)This fatty acid is important for a healthy immune system and metabolism.

While conventional beef may have the same nutrients, grass-fed beef is much higher quality and includes higher quantities of many nutrients including omega-3 fats and CLA. Many studies have been done and support the health benefits of grass-fed beef over conventional. For example, a reputable 2010 study covering 3 decades of research that found grass-fed beef has a healthier lipid profile, higher CLA, and has a better omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

If you don’t prefer to eat meat, but still appreciate the benefits of meat, consider using Equip Prime protein powder (made with beef protein) and it comes in a wide variety of flavors (and even an unflavored).

Organ Meats

Organ meat isn’t most people’s first choice for dinner, but maybe it should be! This unpopular protein doesn’t deserve its bad rap as it is incredibly healthy and nutrient dense. In traditional cultures organ meat was the most desired meat and muscle meat was often fed to the dogs.

Liver, for example, contains:

  • Vitamin A – Vitamin A plays an important role in healthy vision, and healthy heart and kidney function. It’s also important for immune support and reproductive health.
  • Riboflavin (B2) -Riboflavin helps synthesize food into energy and is important for cellular development and function.
  • Folate (B9) – Folate is an important nutrient for pregnant women (it helps avoid birth defects) and is an important part of rapid cell division and growth and the formation of DNA. Unfortunately, many of us get a lot of folic acid, the synthetic version of folate, which is not as well absorbed and can be problematic.
  • Copper – Copper plays a part in regulating energy production, iron absorption, and brain function. It’s also important for healthy bones, blood vessels, nerves, and immune function.

Other organ meats are similarly high in nutrients. For example, beef heart contains many of these same nutrients plus lycopene. Organ meat is relatively inexpensive, so if you couldn’t buy all high quality organic meat, organ meat would be the best one to choose to buy organic and pastured. I don’t have a local farm that is a good choice, so I get mine from Wellness Meats or ButcherBox.

Free-Range Pastured Chickens and Eggs

Research published in 2012 shows that pastured poultry (not cage-free or other labels that don’t mean anything) are healthier and produce healthier meat.

Chicken contains many necessary nutrients including vitamin B3, selenium, vitamin B6, phosphorus, choline, vitamin B5, and vitamin B12>

Eggs are a budget-friendly and healthy source of protein, if you tolerate them. Choose eggs from free-range or pastured chickens as they contain more vitamin D, an essential vitamin important for bone growth, immune function, and inflammation regulation. A 2010 study found that eggs from pastured hens were higher in omega-3 fatty acids as well as some other nutrients.

Wild Game

Meat from wild game like deer, elk, turkey, etc. is a healthy source of protein. Wild game will contain many of the same nutrients as farm-raised beef and chicken, but may also include other nutrients. This is because, in theory, wild game has access to a wide variety of their natural diet. With wild game you don’t have to worry about what it is fed because it feeds itself (its natural diet)!

Healthy Seafood

Sadly, our manipulation of the food chain doesn’t stop with cows and chickens. We are now commercially farming fish like salmon and also catfish, which are almost completely raised in farms.

The same rule applies here–we are feeding animals foods they were not meant to eat, and their health suffers because of it. These fish suffer from disease and have much fewer nutrients than wild-caught varieties.

Wild-caught fish and other seafood, on the other hand, have a much higher nutrient/trace mineral profile and are much healthier for human consumption. Look for labels like “wild-caught” on fish. Avoid fish that doesn’t specifically say it is wild-caught, and avoid farm-raised. Wild-caught sources are more likely to be eating their natural diet.

Other healthy seafood tips:

  • Opt for oily fish like salmon or sardines, which are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. They are also a good source of calcium and magnesium.
  • Shrimp is also a unique source of the carotenoid astaxanthin, an antioxidant linked to improved blood flow and lower oxidative stress.
  • Don’t forget lobster! It contains contain selenium, vitamin B12, phosphorus, copper, and iodine.

For more tips on selecting seafood, see this post. I have several local sources for fresh seafood, but also order some frozen seafood from this company and stock the pantry with Thrive Market sardines or tuna (a real budget saver… more on this next).

Canned Fish/Sardines

If you have to opt for conventional fish, go for cans of wild-caught chunk-light (not albacore) tuna or sardines (in water, not vegetable or soybean oil!). While this may seem weird, these fish contain the smallest amounts of mercury because they are low on the food chain. Canned salmon is also a decent choice as it’s usually wild-caught (always double check the label though!). I love the Thrive Market brand.


Foods like raw nuts or seeds (note: peanuts are not nuts) and organic high-fat unsweetened plain yogurt also contain adequate amounts of proteins and are acceptable options (though in lesser amounts). Here’s what to look for:

These are incomplete proteins, so you won’t get the same nutrient-bang for your buck, but they do contain some good protein and are a good way to mix-it-up once in a while.

Proteins to Avoid

There are many sources of quality protein, but there are also some that are not healthy and should be avoided if possible:

  • conventionally raised beef and organ meats
  • conventionally raised chickens and eggs
  • farmed seafood
  • sweetened or processed dairy sources
  • nuts cooked in hydrogenated vegetable oils (most of them!)
  • beans and legumes (unless you tolerate them well)
  • fermented soy (read more about I choose not to eat most soy products here)

It may not always be possible to eat 100% organic, pastured, or grass-fed protein, but it’s still good to know which ones are best avoided if possible.

How Much Protein Do We Need?

According to the official Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) recommendation, we should eat at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. I used their online calculator (which takes into account things like gender, pregnancy, weight and height, and activity level) and found that my RDA recommend amount of protein is about 60 grams per day. (For reference, a 3 ounce piece of chicken breast has about 26 grams of protein, so 6 ounces would bring me to my full requirement for the day!)

While my body may be able to function on 60 grams of protein a day, many sources suggest we actually need more protein. Let’s look at some of the opinions:

  • A 2015 document published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recommends at least twice the RDA amount of protein, based on the conclusions of more than 60 health and nutrition experts in an international summit. (This is echoed by Harvard Medical School, although they warn against overconsumption of red meat, a point I agree with if not grass-fed.)
  • This blog post from weighs the evidence for consuming around 100 grams of protein per day, on average.
  • Chris Masterjohn, a PhD in Nutritional Sciences, aims for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, as a man with the goal of building lean muscle.

What I take from this as a general rule is that most adults need upwards of 50 grams (many need closer to 100 grams) of protein a day. Pregnant women and many men need to consume the higher range of this scale.

This protein can come from beef, chicken, organ meats, wild game, eggs, nuts, seeds, yogurt, and other healthy sources, and even 100 grams really isn’t much when you cut the processed foods and carbs. Check out my food page for some recipe ideas!

Bottom Line

Conventional wisdom tells us that all protein is created equal. But in reality there are some sources that are better than others (sometimes by a lot). Choosing protein sources that come from healthy animals first is always the best way to get good quality protein that will nourish the body.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

What is your daily protein intake? What is your favorite source? Tell me about it below!

  1. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  2. Research shows eggs from pastured chickens may be more nutritious. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. The grass is greener: Farmers experiences with pastured poultry. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  4. MacLachlan D. J., Bhula R. (2008) Estimating the residue transfer of pesticides in animal feedstuffs to livestock tissues, milk and eggs: a review. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 48, 589-598.
  5. S. M. Waliszewski, S. Gomez-Arroyo, R. M. Infanzon, O. Carvajal, R. Villalobos-Pietrini, P. Trujillo & M. Maxwell (2004) Persistent organochlorine pesticide levels in bovine fat from Mexico, Food Additives & Contaminants, 21:8, 774-780, DOI: 10.1080/02652030410001712736
  6. Nancy R Rodriguez, Introduction to Protein Summit 2.0: continued exploration of the impact of high-quality protein on optimal health, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 101, Issue 6, June 2015, Pages 1317S–1319S,
Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


89 responses to “Guide to Healthy Protein Sources”

  1. Kelly Avatar

    You mention processed dairy as not being a good protein source but how do you feel about Greek yogurt like Fage? Do you considered that processed?

  2. Catherine Datta Avatar
    Catherine Datta

    Hi! What about vegetarians? Our chief source of protein is beans and lentils. And, then diary and nuts/seeds.

  3. Jennifer G Miller Avatar
    Jennifer G Miller

    I know this is an older post, but I had a few questions. Is dairy considered a complete or incomplete protein? Your post contradicts which one dairy belongs to.

    And what about tuna and sardines in olive oil? That’s what I prefer most.

    1. MJ Avatar

      I recently read that it’s best to buy canned fish/sardines, etc., packed in water rather than olive oil because so many “olive oils” are processed with other oils and still called olive oil. That, and the likelihood that the oils could be rancid. That was just one source, but it makes sense to me.

  4. Leanne Cheung Avatar
    Leanne Cheung

    Hi Katie,

    Thanks for this awesome article. I see that you have recommended good sources for beef and fish. Is there a good source for buy organic chicken?

    Thank you so much!

  5. Elizabeth Avatar

    Have you seen the What the Health documentary? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  6. Patricia Avatar

    This is my first experience with your blog.
    Why are beans and legumes bad?

  7. Julie Avatar

    Just a thought wild game is not always best. Around were I live deer and the like eat corn, wheat and other crops that are sprayed heavily which chemicals and pesticides. In a lot of ways eating wild game is like eating conventionally grown meat. I’m not trying to be difficult just trying to be helpful.

  8. Ashley Avatar

    I feel so over whelmed and about ready to cry most of the time when it comes to this whole foods thing. I live in Vt. but I also have bad anxieties when talking to people,, so it’s very hard for me to ask around to try and find meats for less. We live on a low income of one person who makes less than 15 an hour. We don’t have kids and don’t plan to have any but it’s still so frustrating (especially since the boyfriend doesn’t exactly agree with all this. making it that much MORE frustrating) I don’t know what to do. We just bought a house, and I have many plans (garden, berry bushes, chicken for eggs) I see the benefits of my own chickens for eggs and possibly meat but I just couldn’t see my self killing anything I’ve raised or even sending it off to have someone else do it. I just don’t know what to do. I’ve been gluten-free and dairy-free for about a month now. We barely have enough for enough vegetables to fill the plate (even conventional and or frozen) let alone expensive meats I’ve been trying and spending more on the all natural stuff but now come to find out it means nothing and I might as well buy the regular cheap meats instead. I honestly am near tears, because of how stressful and frustrating this all is. A half of a cow costs like 2,000 there is NO way we could ever save that much money and if we could there would be other things we’d need it for (car, house, etc.) I just don’t know what to do. I think maybe we eat too much meat at dinners as well exactly how much would you consider a serving? 4oz. right?

    1. Barbara Avatar

      I totally understand how you feel! We are a family of four with one income. My advice to you would be, “baby steps”. You don’t need to try to change everything at once. Pick one small change at a time to focus on. Check out a good blog ( is my favorite) to help you find what is on sale where each week. Plan simple meals using as many inexpensive, yet healthy ingredients as possible…and shop with a list. Couponing helps me save a lot. Do the best you can and don’t stress about the rest. Honestly, stress is far worse for your health than non – organic food!

    2. Magda Avatar

      Just get organic rice and beans from the bulk section at your local health food store! They’re are cheap and great nutrition. While you’re at it, get some lentils too. You can make a huge pot of those and have them with rice and carrots and onions for a very healthy and satisfying meal. Simplify this for yourself. Stop stressing about how to afford meat and just choose the good plant sources for protein. You’ll be better off, as well as the animals and the planet.

    3. Becky Avatar

      Hey hang in there! try making stir fry with bits of meat but heavy on the vegetables. skip the rice entirely or try cauliflower rice (katie has recipes on here). In a pinch, you can also just include rice which, while still a grain, is gluten free and very cheap. You don’t have to implement all of Katie’s advice at once. Do what you can. take baby steps. Don’t worry about buying organic grass fed stuff right now. If you can afford a membership to costco or sam’s club, you can buy huge packs of chicken breasts and thighs that are individually wrapped and ready to freeze. Keep nutrient density in the back of your mind when choosing what to eat. When I have the urge to reach for cereal (the hubs insists on buying), I convince myself to eat yogurt and fruit instead. It’s okay to eat vegetarian sometimes too! think vegetarian stuffed peppers, mushroom “pizza bagels” (mushrooms instead of bagels), and grain-free eggplant parmesan. You and your family have to eat. If that means “cheating” and eating bread, beans, or grains, sometimes, that’s okay. Start with a reasonable goal. Maybe plan 3 meals a week that follow the rules, and go from there. When you do “cheat” always choose the best options possible, like soaked grains. Do your best. it will still be much better than eating a bunch of processed garbage.

    4. Ashley Avatar

      Thanks you guys, for the advice, lately I’ve ended up buying regular meats here and there and still eat some grains mostly rice and corn, and ones that are in some gluten free products (which I barely ever eat). I miss cheese a lot, at least a lot more than I thought I would but I’m most likely sensitive to the casein so I can’t have it. Honestly I tried the vegetarian thing before and it really wasn’t working for me. I’m just overly paranoid about a lot of things so if I hear beans are bad I tend to stay away (yes even if i hear they’re also good somewhere else) I just get so overwhelmed so easily. I will check out some of the things you guys have suggested though. So thank you for the kind words and the advice it really means a lot 🙂 . I do see a nutritionist, who told me brown rice can be soaked in water and vinegar and the Phytic acid will be removed, i’m not sure I really trust that but I think I will try it, as rice is cheap. I want so badly to be able to try the whole Paleo thing but for now I think I’ll try and eat as little processed as possible and just eat whole foods at least.. Sorry this is all over the place lol

  9. Lindsay Avatar

    I know this article was written years ago, but I have a question that I hope you can answer. I struggle with figuring out which kind of salmon is healthier, mainly because of the radiation that was leaked into the ocean after the Fukoshima nuclear meltdown (or start of it at least) when the tsunami hit Japan. Any thoughts on this? I have read many articles stating that the fish have been impacted by this, especially salmon, given their migration patterns. That is my main hesitation with wild caught salmon.

    1. Magda Avatar

      you have more to worry about than just radiation. Fish are also loaded with PCB’d, dioxins and mercury. Get your omegas from the algae that the fish eat and choose plant based proteins like lentils, beans and hemp. Problem solved 🙂

  10. Millie Avatar

    Hi, Great article, but I am wondering why you label beans as “bad” proteins.

  11. Karen Olayo Avatar
    Karen Olayo

    Ok, I have read your blog now for a long time. I came here specifically wanting to see if you can direct me to any research done on the “longer life for vegetarians” stuff that people are touting. My question is this: could it be that people are eating conventional meat (full of drugs and fed incorrectly) and when they give those meats up they actually do get healthier but maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with meat at all? Does that make sense? I mean do these studies tell us what kinds of meat they were consuming before they went vegetarian? My personal belief is that vegetarianism is detrimental long-term, but I cannot understand all the stuff about studies showing longer life for vegetarians vs omnivors. Thanks for any help you can give!

  12. meeg Avatar

    hi. very good read. I am myself a vegetarian but would like to feed meat / protein to my kids. my daughter 3 at the moment doesn’t like chicken and fish…only likes hot dogs, sausages. honey roast ham slices and fish fingers – most of these contains nitrites and / or sulphites. what are the possible harmful effects of these preservatives?

  13. Lauren Avatar

    We have been switching over to grass fed beef, but there is one thing I am concerned about (not just with grass fed beef—with any meat) and that is the plastic packaging. I am pretty sure the meat is wrapped in PVC (even local farmers seem to mainly do this) and I am concerned about it leaching onto the meat, especially because I think I have read before that meat is one of those foods that causes plastic to leach more. I can get grassfed beef at a better price when I buy in bulk, but it will be in plastic. The only way I can avoid the plastic is getting it at the butcher department at a natural grocery store, but it’s pricier. Just wondering if anyone has any thoughts or ideas on the plastic packaging? Thanks!

  14. Gwen Avatar

    Hi. Thanks for the valuable knowledge.
    What do you think about getting about 60% of my protein intake from consumption of whole eggs and the other 40% from Chicken. I have mostly come across contradictory beliefs about ingesting the yolk. Do u think its safe to consume about 10 whole eggs a day. Can you please shed some light on the same.

  15. Hannah Avatar

    I, too have the same question as above. Wellness Mama, please help us find a great protein powder! I would be so happy to find a great paleo protein powder. Any suggestions?

  16. Charmaine Taylor Avatar
    Charmaine Taylor

    Do you have a reference on what I should be looking for on the label to ensure in getting the healthiest product? I was buying our shrimp from Trader Joes, only looking for Wild Caught. For a while I was getting the langoustine from Argentina… then I noticed on one of the other packages it was printed that it didn’t contain sodium tripolyphosphate. I know buying from the source is best, but Trader Joes is within our budget, so that’s where most of our food comes from. I suppose a guide to hidden additives and preservatives in meat is what I’m looking for. I turn to you since this website is the reason I’m no longer vegan/vegetarian.

  17. Zoe Jaymz Q Avatar
    Zoe Jaymz Q

    What are your thoughts on protein powders? I don’t get enough protein in my diet even with eating meat. Are there other alternatives that you would suggest?

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