Protein is critically important to building muscle, and this certainly isn't a secret. But did you know that it might be even more important when you're trying to shed those extra pounds?
Indeed, studies have repeatedly shown that when dieting, a slightly increased intake of protein (1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight vs the traditionally recommended 1.0 grams) will allow you to lose less lean muscle mass when cutting than you would at the normally recommended protein intake. If you have any idea what a long and hard process building muscle mass can be, this is nothing to sniff at.
Related reading: How much protein should I eat?
While there are many different sources of protein available, they're not all created equal. A number of differentiating factors have been considered in the making of this list. Some sources of protein are much higher in protein density than others, meaning that they pack more protein per calorie than most other sources – a factor that can be important to you if you're currently eating in a calorie deficit.
Not only that, but some sources of protein are better absorbed and utilized by your body than others. In other words, the bioavailability of the protein source is an important thing to consider. Lastly, while this might not be important for everyone, the cost of the protein is also weighed in on in this list, as not all sources are economically viable options for the majority of people.
(The above graph is an excellent visual that compares the percent content of the protein as a function of its price. The highest protein sources by weight will be located on the right side of the graph. The best bang for your buck protein sources will be towards the top. The circle sizes represent how much of that food product you'd need to eat to reach 100 calories worth of it. For our purposes, the “best” protein sources tend to fall into the top right quadrant of the graph. Spend some time examining this for yourself – it's an extremely valuable resource!)
Without further ado, let's get to the list.
The Best Protein Sources for Fat Loss and Lean Muscle Gain:
1. Whey Protein
When it comes to protein sources, whey protein is the best bang for your buck. It's a complete and quality source of amino acids that delivers the protein equivalent of a chicken breast filet at a fraction of the cost. Factor in the convenience factor of whey protein shakes and you've got yourself a winning combination here. Make sure to pick your whey protein sources carefully though, as not all are made equal.
2. Poultry (Chicken & Turkey)
Skinless chicken breast is a staple in bodybuilding and fitness circles for it's high protein content and low (practically non-existent) fat and carb content. Turkey is another great alternative and something that I personally eat in my lunch sandwiches every day.
3. Greek Yogurt
Plain low-fat greek yogurt is the way to go here. It has a higher protein content than cottage cheese without the cottage cheesiness. The plain variety is essentially pure protein and lacks any flavour so I'd highly recommend adding your favorite whey protein to it as well as some some fruit or honey and stirring it up into a fruity sludge pudding. Delicious and healthy.
One of the most nutritious foods on the planet, eggs have roughly 6 grams of protein each. They've also been largely exonerated from their reputation of yesteryear for being high in cholesterol. Don't be afraid to eat 2 or 3 of these every day if you like them. Read more about eggs here.
5. Lean Red Meats
Leaner cuts of steak, lean ground beef, bison, veal and other red meats are muscle building superfoods that are packed with protein. Like eggs, red meat has been demonized in the past for its saturated fat content, but, as we've discussed in detail in other articles, don't be afraid to consume foods containing saturated fat in moderate amounts.
Related Reading: Is saturated fat actually bad for you?
Ideally, everyone should be consuming fish at least twice a week for it's ample Omega 3's. They're also a wonderful source of a protein that can be eaten far more often than this if you'd like.
7. Cottage Cheese
If you can get past the taste/texture, then this is another excellent source of protein akin to greek yogurt. Add some jam, yogurt, or flavoured whey protein powder to make it more palatable.
8. Lean Pork
Lean cuts like tenderloin are high in protein and fairly low in fat content, making it a delicious and welcome alternative to the usual protein sources. Although lesser used than chicken and red meats amongst fitness aficionados, it's a viable alternative and should be viewed as a powerful tool in your nutritional arsenal.
9. Seafood (Shrimp, Scallops, Crab, Lobster)
Prawns are my personal favourite on this list, and while any of the above can run a little expensive, they're chalk full of protein and an extremely healthy way help reach your daily protein requirements.
And there you have it – the best sources of protein around. If you're new to fitness and trying to get in shape for the first time, don't make the mistake of ignoring your protein intake.
Ensuring adequate protein consumption on a daily basis will expedite any fat loss or muscle building results by a surprisingly significant amount. To figure out your ideal protein intake, feel free to take a look at our article tackling that issue.
I like to include all of the above foods in my diet on a weekly basis. Some things I'll only have a couple times a week for variety, and some others (like greek yogurt) I'll consume on a daily basis. As usual, I like to promote a variety of things in moderation, but if you have a particular fondness for one or two of these things, don't be afraid to build the bulk of your diet around them.
In terms of body composition, your macronutrient composition matters far more than the source of those macronutrients.