If you follow nutrition information on Instagram, Facebook, and other media outlets, you’ve probably heard the recommendation that you should be eating high quality protein. It might make you question your own choices for protein in your diet — are they high quality?
The inevitable follow up: what is a high quality protein?
Depending on what’s important to the writer of that information, “high quality” can mean a lot of different things. Try to determine based on the context, before questioning your own protein choices, whether the source of the info may subscribe to any of the following values:
Environmental concerns. In the context of environmental concerns, a “high quality protein” might be one that has a minimal environmental impact on climate change and the environment. This would mean a plant-based protein such as lentils, beans, peas, tofu/tempeh, and whole grains would be considered high quality.
Food Industry concerns. For some, the processing of food is the highest indicator of quality. Here, this typically means how protein sources are raised or grown: are they organic or genetically modified (in the case of soy products), are animals raised with or without antibiotics, allowed to eat a “natural” diet or corn fed, and so on. Organic protein raised free range without antibiotic use would be considered highest quality in this case.
Ethical concerns. High quality protein can refer to ethical treatment of animals, and therefore plant-based proteins would most likely top the list. For ethical animal treatment, a certified humane certification or indication of free-range or pasture-raised would likely constitute a higher quality protein than those that are conventionally raised.
Maximum physical performance and medical diets. For those interested in muscle growth, performance, and optimal nutrition, bioavailability is often considered the main criteria for a “high quality” protein. Scientific research indicates that protein digested from animal products is more efficiently digested and utilized by the body compared to plant-based proteins. Within this context, a faster-digesting protein would be considered higher quality, and animal sources of protein would win out over plant-based.
Given the conflicting views and opinions, it’s impossible to have a definitive answer for what a high-quality protein is. This decision is up to each of us individually; it’s about deciding what’s important to you and making choices based on those values.
Not sure yet where to land on this issue? My general recommendation in nutrition counseling is to aim for a mix of both plant- and animal-based proteins on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis – whatever feels right to you!