Choosing Protein Wisely
What makes protein good or bad? Find out — and learn to make smart protein choices.
By Connie Brichford
Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH

Our bodies need protein to build strong bones, muscles, skin, and cells. Because we can’t store protein in our bodies the way we can store carbohydrates, we need to make sure we eat enough protein every day. But is all protein created equal?
Alexa Schmitt, RD, a clinical nutritionist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that what makes a protein “good” or “bad” is its saturated fat content. Proteins that are high in saturated fats can raise your cholesterol level, which in turn puts you at higher risk for heart disease. Most adults need to eat 40 to 65 grams of protein each day. And though most Americans already eat more protein than they need, we don't necessarily eat enough of the "good" protein. So how can we make smart choices about which sources of protein to choose?
Good Sources of Protein
Here are a variety of protein choices you probably encounter every day:
• Meats. Schmitt says that salami, steak, and chicken with skin are meats that are high in protein but also high in saturated fat. A six-ounce steak, for instance, has almost all the protein you need for one day, but that same steak has nearly 75 percent of your daily saturated fat intake. Does this mean you have to give up your Italian sub sandwiches or Philly cheesesteaks? Not necessarily. Schmitt recommends moderation: “Try to eat these meats only once or twice a week," she says.
• Lean meats. Luckily, there are also leaner choices for die-hard meat eaters. Chicken, turkey, fish, and beef that is 95 percent lean are still high in protein but have less fat, especially the saturated fats that can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
• Soy. Schmitt says that soy proteins are rich in protein and low in saturated fats. She recommends edamame (baby soybeans) and vegetarian meat alternatives such as soy nuggets and veggie burgers. Look for these in the refrigerator case at your local supermarket. Edamame is usually served lightly boiled and salted, often as a part of Japanese and Chinese cuisine. If you don’t have an Asian specialty market near you, check the freezer section of conventional supermarkets, which sometimes carry edamame.
• Beans, legumes, and nuts. All varieties of beans are good sources of protein and low in saturated fats, Schmitt says. Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, taste delicious on salads or in hummus, a low-fat dip. Spicy vegetarian chili recipes can be a flavorful alternative to traditional chili. Legumes such as dried peas and lentils can also be used in chili and stews. And nuts, when eaten in moderation, are another good source of protein that is not high in fat.
• Dairy. Dairy products are often overlooked as sources of protein, but they are certainly worth mentioning, says Schmitt. Some dairy products are higher in saturated fat than others. She recommends the low-fat versions of cottage cheese, Greek-style yogurt, and ricotta cheese, not only because of their value as a protein source but because they also make an easy and convenient snack.
In addition to choosing good sources of protein, it can also be useful to plan your meals ahead of time. Advance planning can help you identify the foods that you tend to eat too much of, allowing you to make better substitutions beforehand.
Things to Remember
When choosing protein sources, remember that while you might get the same amount of protein from high- and low-fat options, you run the risk of increasing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels by choosing sources with a higher fat content. Consider leaner cuts of meats and getting more of your daily protein from plant sources to protect your heart