Many proponents of healthy living and weight loss recommend a high protein diet, which is a core principle of the Atkins and Paleo Diets. Chicken tends to be the go-to protein source for non-vegetarians and there’s more than a grain of truth in the stereotype of the huge bodybuilder type downing multiple steamed chicken breasts each day. However, thanks to the Paleo ‘caveman’ food movement of recent years, red meat has regained much of its former popularity. And fish, (oily fish like salmon and tuna, that is) while often lauded for its omega 3 benefits is also a legitimate source of protein.
So, which has more protein, beef, chicken or fish? And why should we care?
What is Protein?
We all need protein. Protein supports numerous functions in our body including the immune system, anti-oxidants, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and the maintenance and repair of organs and tissues. It is also responsible for building tissue, cells and muscle. We all need protein, but our needs increase with weight training and other sports.
Consuming around one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is recommended if you exercise consistently. And after exercise (within 30 minutes) it is recommended that we consume about 15-25g of protein for repair and growth of muscles.
While protein is found in a wide variety of foods, lean meats are perhaps the ‘easiest’ way to consume it, with some of the highest amounts of protein per gram.
Beef contains a high amount of protein – higher than fish at approximately 36 grams per 100gm of lean beef. Beef also contains significant amounts of creatine and carbohydrates: when used excessively these can make our bodies ‘beefed up’ and bulky, which can be helpful for people who struggle to build muscle. Creatine assists our body’s protein metabolism and red blood cell production, creating lean muscle tissue. On the downside, creatine also causes water retention, which can cause ‘puffiness’ and bloating.
Grass-fed rather than grain-fed beef tends to have a better nutritional profile, being higher in Carotenoids, Vitamin E and minerals like Potassium, Iron, Zinc, Phosphorus and Sodium. Grass-fed beef also contains a higher volume of omega 3 fatty acids (significantly higher than the grain-fed beef), which is nutritionally preferable.
Chicken – the ‘go-to’ source of meat protein in recent decades, is still preferred by those in the fitness industry, particularly athletes, although there is ‘only’ 18 grams of protein in a chicken breast, less than either fish or beef. Chicken is easily digested and it enhances energy efficiency. It also contains few carbohydrates.
Although chicken is relatively low in fat, the amount of fat in chicken can double, depending on its source. As with fish and beef, there are other pitfalls to be aware of – namely the toxins that can build up in factory farmed chicken, where chicken are fed unnatural diets, hormones, antibiotics and live in deplorable conditions. As with beef and fish, sourcing free-range chicken will go a long way towards maximising its nutritional benefit.
Fish is a very healthy protein choice. While it varies of course from fish to fish, on average there are 26 grams of protein per 100gm. Fish is also low in saturated fat and contains plenty of omega-3 fatty acids which are good for the brain and heart. As well as providing quality protein, fish gives us a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and D, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium, and iodine. However, it is worth noting that ‘wild’ fish have more favorable nutritional benefits than farm-raised fish, particularly salmon.
If you choose canned fish, canned salmon is the best option as it is high in protein, and low in fat and contaminants. While providing the highest protein content in fish, bluefin tuna, consumed in sushi dishes, is associated with high mercury levels. Light canned tuna, on the other hand, while providing only slightly less protein than bluefin, has relatively low levels of mercury, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Shrimp, salmon, cod and crab are also low in mercury, while swordfish and snapper tend to contain higher amounts. Other than these guidelines, the larger the fish, the more likely it is to contain mercury. What’s the problem with mercury? Mercury is a heavy metal found naturally in air, water and soil. It becomes dangerous to humans when it builds up in fish and other seafood that are then consumed. High doses of mercury cause mercury poisoning, the symptoms of which include brain damage, organ damage, muscle damage and pain in joints.
So while fish is an excellent source of protein and other nutrients, this needs to be weighed up against the threat of possible contaminants like mercury.
Buying Healthy Protein
Chickens may be bred with little movement or access to sunlight, and fed GMO grain loaded with chemicals. Fish may contain mercury or other contaminants that are dangerous to human health. Beef may come from cows fed with grain, not grass, and antibiotics to fight their unsanitary living conditions. Many factors may be involved with limiting the quality of our protein sources, and it is not always easy to assess the real quality of what we’re eating.
The best possible approach is to be informed. Source your meat. Find out where your beef and chicken come from. How are they kept? What did they eat? What access did they have to contaminants? Can they be labelled as ‘organic’? With fish, unfortunately, it can be moredifficult to get answers to these questions, although food labeling standards are improving and making this easier. Many suppliers go to a great deal of trouble to source fish from less contaminated waters. Seek these suppliers out.
To answer the question of which has more protein, beef, chicken or fish, the answer per 100grams is in this order: beef, fish, chicken. As noted above, other factors including fat content and other possible contaminants, will, quite rightly, factor into your decision of which is ultimately of the most nutritional benefit.