Liz Robins is a wellness writer and content strategist with a B.S. in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. She's a contributor and former contributing editor for Organic Spa Magazine, and has covered health and spa stories for many outlets, including Deepak Chopra's JIYO.
Dr. Jaime Schehr is a nationally recognized expert in integrative medicine and nutrition and holds duel licenses as a Naturopathic Physician and Registered Dietitian. She works intimately with patients and their primary care physicians to help them understand identify and manage their health.
Which are you more likely to grab after a workout or during a midafternoon slump in order to refuel: a handful of almonds or a processed protein product featuring a long list of ingredients? It's important to consider because not all protein is created equal. There are clean protein sources (the almonds in this case), and then there's all the rest.
Clean protein is one aspect of clean eating, which emphasizes healthy, whole foods over processed, refined varieties. By choosing clean protein sources, you get all the nutritional benefits of foods in their freshest, most natural (or very close-to-natural) state. During the processing of more refined foods, on the other hand, nutrients can be lost, rendering the final products less healthful than the sum of their whole-food parts.
Committing to clean protein fosters awareness of where your food comes from and can help you avoid potentially unhealthy additives found in refined options: excess sugar, preservatives, nitrates, artificial colors and flavors, among others. "The fewer ingredients, the better" is a good rule of thumb. (One ingredient is ideal.)
There are so many tasty, affordable clean protein sources to choose from. Here's a look at some of the best, in no particular order.
- Wild or sustainably caught fish
- Cage-free organic eggs
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Pea protein powder
- Organic chicken
- Cultured yogurt (like Greek or Icelandic)
- Organic cottage cheese
- Organic grass-fed beef
These incredibly nutritious nuts are considered clean because they're a whole food eaten in their natural form. Beyond their impressive protein profile, almonds deliver essential vitamins and minerals: magnesium, manganese, riboflavin, copper, and vitamin E, for starters. They're also rich in healthy fats and fiber, helping to keep you sated and contributing to good digestive health.
Eating almonds has been shown to decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which contribute to the risk of developing chronic diseases ranging from cancer to heart disease. This clean protein source provides athletes with an endurance boost, too, according to research. Try them in these vegan, gluten-free spiced almond squares.
This protein-rich food is also known as blue-green algae (it's technically a bacteria, though). Once harvested, spirulina is freeze-dried and sold in powder form, so it's only minimally processed. It contains iron and other essential minerals as well as protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and gamma-linoleic acid, a beneficial fatty acid.
Spirulina is considered a complete protein (delivering all nine of the essential amino acids the body can't produce) and a good source of vitamin B12. The latter is especially important for vegans and vegetarians because it can be a challenge to get enough B12 without eating animal foods. In some studies, spirulina has lowered "bad" cholesterol and raised "good" cholesterol, which may decrease the risk of heart disease. Sip the benefits with this ultimate spirulina smoothie.
3. Wild fish
Fish and seafood are off the charts when it comes to protein, and they're typically high in omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) associated with protection against heart disease. Eating these foods is also linked to improved fetal and infant development, among other benefits.
Unlike a lot of farmed fish (which typically eat processed fish feed), wild fish thrive on a diet of smaller wild fish that are high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, making this clean protein source naturally more nutritious. (Both farmed and wild are generally high in omega-3s, though.)
Here's another reason to choose wild: Fish feed used in aquaculture (fish farming) often contains antibiotics designed to stave off infections in crowded conditions. Residues of these drugs could end up in our bodies when we eat farmed fish, potentially resulting in adverse drug reactions or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Choose wild fish to play it safe, and savor this clean-protein source in healthy fish tacos you can make at home.
This whole-food seed is nutrient-dense and can be used like whole grains. All you have to do is cook it. It's rich in protein and fiber, gluten-free, and higher in vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients than most grains.
Quinoa can reduce blood triglycerides and the prevalence of metabolic syndrome (associated with the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes) in overweight and obese people, according to research. Incorporate it into healthy bowls for a protein pick-me-up at lunch or dinner.
5. Cage-free eggs
Hens naturally need to move around, beyond the confines of tiny, claustrophobic cages that are commonplace in industrial farming. Cage-free hens have room to spread their wings and walk around and can lay their eggs in nests. (Cage-free doesn't guarantee cruelty-free, but it's a step in the right direction.) Fortunately, many major food retailers and restaurant chains have made the switch to cage-free eggs for animal-welfare reasons, so they're easy to find.
Eggs contain abundant protein that's easy to absorb, and their fatty acids can benefit heart health. They also contain vitamins and minerals the body needs to make energy, metabolize protein, repair tissue, and fend off inflammation and free radical damage. Eggs are rich in choline, too, which helps keep the brain healthy. Start your day with these healthy egg breakfast recipes.
6. Hemp seeds
Hulled hemp seeds, called hemp hearts, are a whole food you can easily use to bump up the protein in your smoothies, oatmeal, and savory dishes. They're high in minerals (iron, magnesium, zinc, and more), along with fiber, vitamin E, and potassium.
These potent seeds also offer a perfect balance of omega-6 and omega-3 EFAs, which we need for heart and brain health, immune system support, energy production, and other healthy functioning. Try making your own hemp milk with them to add to smoothies, oatmeal, coffee, and more.
7. Chia seeds
These versatile whole-food seeds may be tiny, but they're big on protein and high in fiber to help keep you regular and potentially keep you feeling full longer. Chia seeds are considered a complete protein, providing all the essential amino acids the body can't make on its own. And they deliver heart-healthy omega-3s, minerals (including calcium), vitamins, and other antioxidants that protect cells from oxidative damage associated with all kinds of diseases. Use them to make jam, energy bites, and more.
8. Pea protein powder
This protein-packed powder is made from yellow peas that have been dried, soaked, and ground to a powder. They aren't chemically processed or significantly altered in terms of nutrient content, so pea protein powder is generally considered a clean protein. Unlike a lot of other protein powders, it's free from dairy, nuts, and gluten, and it tends to be easier to digest than proteins derived from dairy.
Pea protein powder contains branched-chain amino acids, which have been shown to decrease muscle fatigue and soreness typically experienced for a few days following exercise. In a research study with men following a resistance training regimen for 12 weeks, pea protein led to an increase in muscle strength and thickness greater than that experienced by subjects taking whey protein. Get tips on choosing a protein powder and add it to your smoothie after a workout.
Lentils come in many varieties, and they're considered a clean protein because they're consumed as a whole food. These little legumes are high in protein and complex carbohydrates, which is great for balanced blood sugar and sustained energy. They also contain fiber that feeds good bacteria in the gut and may even lower total and LDL cholesterol (often called "bad" cholesterol). Lentils are rich in iron and folic acid, to boot. Try this nutritious lentil and vegetable soup to increase your intake.
10. Organic chicken
Chicken is incredibly high in protein, and choosing organic over conventionally raised birds reduces your exposure to potentially harmful hormones and antibiotics. Chickens fed an organic diet are allowed to grow naturally and aren't given any health-compromising substances. As a result, the people eating them aren't exposed either.
11. Cultured yogurt
High-quality yogurts are rich in protein and simply made and contain just a few familiar ingredients. Greek yogurt is a healthier choice than conventional varieties because the straining method used to make it results in a thicker texture and higher protein content than conventional yogurt.
Greek and Icelandic yogurt offer calcium to support bone health, along with probiotic bacteria that feed our "good" gut microbes to keep us healthy. Read labels to find products touting "live, active culture," and shy away from yogurt with lots of added sugar (none is best). Yogurt is great for refueling after a workout because protein can help heal and build muscle after exercise. Whip up this two-ingredient smoothie when you get home from the gym or yoga studio.
12. Organic cottage cheese
This dairy food with the curdy texture fell out of favor after its heyday as a diet food several decades back. But cottage cheese is making a comeback—and for good reason. It's an impressive source of clean protein as well as calcium for bone and teeth health. It's made with just a few wholesome ingredients and is low in sugar, unlike a lot of flavored yogurts. Seek out cultured varieties to get health-promoting probiotics with your protein, and start your day off right with these gluten-free protein pancakes.
Tempeh is made from minimally processed soybeans that have been fermented. It's a nutrient-dense food, providing complete protein (all nine essential acids the body needs), plus iron, calcium, and B vitamins.
This clean protein with the nutty flavor is a healthier choice than tofu because its nutrients are better absorbed as a result of fermentation. Tempeh also contains prebiotic fiber that feeds good gut bacteria, improving gut health and reducing inflammation in the body. Non-GMO, organic varieties are best. Serve up more clean protein with this sesame tempeh and broccoli dish.
14. Organic grass-fed beef
If you're going to eat meat, grass-fed beef is a decent clean-protein choice. (It's a good source of iron, too.) Grass-fed is better for cows because they can—you guessed it—graze on grass, which their stomachs are designed to digest, instead of the grain-heavy diet fed to conventionally raised cattle. The latter can lead to increased gas, discomfort, and infections in the animals, thereby increasing the need for antibiotics. (Who's hungry?)
Not surprisingly, what cows eat affects the diets of the people who eat them as well. Choosing grass-fed beef reduces the likelihood of inadvertently taking in antibiotics that could give rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the body and cause adverse reactions in some people.
On the nutrition front, research has shown that "grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content of beef." That's good news because the omega-3 fatty acid found in beef called Docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) has been found to resolve chronic inflammation, reduce platelet aggregation (helping to avoid blood clots), and improve fat metabolism in various studies. A grass diet also increases levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants and vitamin A and E precursors (which go on to form those vitamins) in beef. Try grass-fed beef in this bell pepper taco skillet recipe.
These clean proteins and others offer an easy, affordable way to ensure you're getting enough of this essential macronutrient in your diet—along with plenty of other beneficial nutrients that whole foods provide. Considering all of the health benefits, it just makes sense to choose them over more refined options.
So, go on, reach for that handful of nuts, organic chicken breast or pea protein smoothie to start your day, keep you going, or help you recover from a killer workout. Odds are you won't even miss that highly refined bar with all the ingredients you can't pronounce.
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